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Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

— 1 —

Traveling is so very weird. A week ago today, we were gearing up for the very tail end of the trip…and now…that was a week ago, and the trip is already in what seems like the distant past…

You can access all my posts from London, including a wrapup post, by clicking here. 

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— 2 —

Life rolled back to normal, mostly. I was Mean and made everyone go to school on Monday – although one of them awoke at 5am (as I did) and so was up anyway….

The drama of the week involved weather – as it often does in the South in the spring. Bad storms were predicted for Wednesday, and were due to hit in the early morning. So first, the schools announced a delayed opening (which made sense) and then everyone just threw up their hands and cancelled classes for the day – even the University of Alabama.

You can understand the skittishness. Several years ago, an April tornado did terrible damage in the area. But you can probably also predict what happened…

Yes, there was rain in the morning…and that was it for most of the area. In the late afternoon, one slice of town saw some hail, but really…it was an overreaction. Understandable, and yes, better safe than sorry, since these things are so unpredicatable, but still…

— 3 —

We took advantage of the break to stop by my younger son’s favorite lunch place downtown, a little deli he can’t normally enjoy because it’s only open on weekdays. After, we stopped by the Birmingham Museum of Art, where a mandala is in progress.

We talked about what it means – he had seen one a couple of years ago that was being made in advance of a visit  by the Dalai Lama.

I wondered if the museum would ever invite an Icon writer to set up shop in the lobby and end the experience with a choir chanting Orthodox vespers…..

 

— 4 —

 

I really liked this article:

Should a Christian want to know something of a Passover Seder, there is many a readily available Jewish host who would set a fine table for his or her Christian friends and neighbors. We have often welcomed non-Jewish visitors to our Shabbat dinner tables, our Passover meals, weddings, bar or bat mitzvah ceremonies, and the like. In these settings, it is clear that the ritual is a wholly authentic Jewish experience. There is a world of difference between being a guest in someone else’s home or house of worship, and the expropriation of another’s ritual for one’s own religious purposes.

Back in the 70’s, it was all the rage to celebrate Seder meals in Catholic parishes on Holy Thursday. Thankfully, that fad seems to have passed. If I’m invited by a Jewish family or group to participate in their Seder or other ritual, that’s one thing, but, well, appropriating it in this way just always gave me an uncomfortable feeling.

I think the article is also good to read because it addresses the issue of whether or not the Last Supper was a Passover meal. The author points out that whatever the case, the “Seder” as we understand it, in its specifics,  comes after the time of Jesus, so Christian Seders that try to mash-up the two are a mess for a lot of reasons.

A good exploration of the matter of Passover and the Last Supper is provided by B16 in Jesus of Nazareth. 

— 5 —.

Speaking of misappropriation of history, if you haven’t yet read it and if you are interested in such matters, this article on Pope Francis’ interpretations of history and the statements he makes based on those interpretations is very good and rather important. 

Pope Francis, however, in order to push along the cause of Catholic-Lutheran reunification, casts Luther as someone who had no wish to sow discord among Christians. For the hardening sectarian divisions of the early modern era, Francis blames, instead, others who “closed in on [themselves] out of fear or bias with regard to the faith which others profess with a different accent and language.”

With all due respect to His Holiness, this explanation of what unfolded during and after Luther’s time is not only condescending to the full-blooded, spirited, and hardly faultless reformer himself. It is insulting to the intelligence of numerous theologians, apologists, and preachers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including Robert Bellarmine and other Jesuits who devoted years of life, and heart, to clarifying and defending serious, important Catholic doctrines against serious, important Protestant challenges. And it is cavalier toward the memory not only of countless martyrs and war dead on all sides of that era’s terrible struggles, but also of numerous families, villages, even religious communities in Reformation Europe’s confessional borderlands, which were torn apart, agonizingly—while very much speaking the same language, with the same accents!—over very serious, important, real disagreements about doctrine and praxis.

— 6 –

From the Catholic Herald: A Thriving Church Amid the Tragedy of Nigeria:

Pope Francis has often spoken of the Church accompanying people. I have seen this in the many religious congregations in Africa whose core mission involves feeding the hungry, educating children, helping orphans, and providing hospice care, crisis pregnancy support and healthcare in the most dire situations. In the villages, towns and cities of Africa, the Church is often in the background accompanying and caring for the least of the Lord’s brethren.

I’m sure it will not come as a surprise when I say that most of our African priests and bishops are clear and unambiguous in explaining the loving (and sometimes difficult) position of the Church on important issues that concern the sanctity and dignity of human life and sexuality. It is rare to find people openly dissenting or opposing the Church in her teaching authority on issues such as abortion, contraception, cohabitation and divorce. No wonder that Cardinal Francis Arinze, the former prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship, has been recently quoted as saying: “By African standards, I’m not conservative, I’m normal.”

I believe that it is because of this unflinching fidelity to the teachings of Christ that the Catholic Church in Africa has flourished, even in the midst of the most difficult tragedies, the most extreme conditions and a growing cultural imperialism from Western nations.

 

— 7 —

Don’t forget….Easter is coming. I have books for sale that might make great gifts!

(For children, mom, sister, friend, new Catholic….)

"amy welborn"

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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"amy welborn"

 

First, here are the links to all my London 2017 posts.

A general link.

Preparation

Day 1 – arrival, wandering and learning the city

Day 2 – Tower of London and the British Museum

Day 3 – Churchill War Rooms and more British Museum

Day 4 – National Gallery, the Globe, Lego-ish things, Southwark Cathedral, Borough Market

Day 5 – Greenwich, St. Paul’s and Harrods

Day 6- Wandering the city and then the Warner Brothers/Harry Potter Studio Tour

Day 7 – Natural History Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, London Oratory, Tyburn Convent

Where we stayed and what we ate. 

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Now, some general observations about traveling to London, period, and specifically with kids – older kids, albeit, but still kids.

  • We can’t claim to be world travelers, at all, but we have done our share: Mexico (Yucatan Mayan sites as well as  a small town for mission work); Italy, both large cities and smaller towns, and Sicily; Barcelona and Madrid, Spain, France, both Paris and several small towns and some rural areas, and Germany – a small resort town in Bavaria.
  • I’d say that if you can deal with the size of it – if you are not intimidated by cities – London is one of the more comfortable experiences an American can have traveling overseas. The habits and expectations of living everyday life seem very close to what we know as regular life in the United States. There is, of course, the English language factor, but even aside from that, there just seem to be far fewer Secret Handshakes of Polite Living that the American tourist would be clueless about and be sniffed at for neglecting.
  • But London is ….big. Yes, it’s spread out, but it’s larger than New York City, and just as popular a tourist destination – if not more. There are areas of London that, in the last week of March, were chaotically crowded. I can’t imagine what it’s like in the summer.
  • London is a huge, metropolitan busy city, but really…the people I encountered here, both just in daily encounters and people working in shops, restaurants and attractions – were very, very nice. The level of politeness was extraordinary.
  • One of the reasons I had never put London on the top of my travel list is that I was under the impression that it was comically expensive. I didn’t experience that. Even doing the pound-to-dollar translations in my head, I didn’t feel I was paying even New York City prices for things. We stayed in an apartment, but I did look at a lot of hotels in my planning, and it seemed that there were very good values available, even for family groups. There is a lot of relatively inexpensive food available. Many of the big attractions are free admission, and there are deals (like 2-for 1) available for the others, and many have family admission rates, which helps.
  • Don’t be intimidated by the public transportation system – it’s easy to learn, and structured just like any other in any city – as long as you know the destination that’s at the end of the line you need to be on, you’re fine. Don’t be intimidated by the Oyster Card system either. It seems confusing, but once you get it – it makes a lot of sense, and is so much more convenient than all those stupid little slips of Paris Metro tickets. Just don’t forget to turn in your Oyster Card at the end for a refund of remaining funds and the card deposit. Like some people. Argh.
  • Also, as is the case in any city, the subways are best avoided during rush hour. Prices are higher, and crowds are insane. I for sure wouldn’t take a small child on the Tube at rush hour, if I could help it.
  • What should you do? It’s up to you and your family’s interests. My kids are experienced, patient and sometimes even interested museum-goers, so we do a lot of that, but London presents a good opportunity to do some relaxed museum touring, even if your kids aren’t keen on them– the major museums don’t charge admission and although they are not all right next to each other, as would be the case in Washington DC, it is easy to get around – so there’s no reason to declare a day British Museum Day! And spend five hours there…unless you want to. Do take advantage of the considerable online guides and offerings that all the museums have, decide what you want to see and don’t feel an obligation to meaningfully ponder every single object that is in front of you.
  • My blog posts outline what we saw – what do I regret that we didn’t see? We didn’t tour Parliament. We didn’t get to either the Tate London or the Tate Modern. We didn’t see any of the free concerts at St. Martin’s in the Fields. We didn’t see a play at the Globe, but that’s because I wasn’t thrilled with what I heard about the production of Othello then playing. Those are my major regrets, but I don’t regret anything we did do, so I don’t know how we could have fit all the rest of that in.
  • We enjoyed our time in London. We actually do prefer time in smaller cities – one of our best experiences was in Padova, Italy – but London is important, varied, interesting and is a great opportunity to experience a truly global, multicultural environment.
  • Just…..Mind the Gap!

"amy welborn"

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The last day of a trip like this is always bittersweet for me.

I am so ready to go home, but not.

I’m ready to return to ordinary life: driving my own car, sleeping in my own bed, not spending so much money, cooking in my own kitchen, getting back to work.  Enough experience. Time to process.

But after a week in a new place, another sort of life has become familiar, and you find pleasure in living it.  After a week, you know the neighborhood just a bit, and more importantly, you know what you don’t know, so you know what you’d like to know, and you see more and more interesting corners and crannies that invite exploration. It’s not just a confusing blur anymore. It occurs to you that the square around the corner could be more than just a lovely green space you rush through on your way out or wearily trudge through on your way back from the day. The people sitting on the benches with their books at the end of the day or their coffee in the morning? That could be you, living that way, with that in sight, with that around the corner.

There’s just a sense of – now I know the basics. Now I get the lay of the land, finally. Now I can start digging deeper….

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But then it’s time to go.

So with no real plan, and a lot of regrets about what hadn’t been seen yet, we set out Saturday morning.

The younger one and I went out first by ourselves. He had one more area of the British "amy welborn"Museum waiting for him, and the older one was more interested in sleep, so M and I set out to try to get to the museum as soon as it opened, do an hour there, and return for the other.

He grabbed a coffee at Caffe Nero (see my food post), we walked to the bus stop and in a couple of minutes, were at the museum.

(We could have easily walked the whole way, but it would have taken twice as long – twenty minutes instead of ten – and we needed those ten minutes.)

The destination was the two rooms dedicated to the Americas. So, not much meat, as Spencer Tracy once said, but what was there was cherce.

The Central and South America exhibit was his focus, because that’s his interest, and has been for several years now. He was very excited by the pieces, spent a lot of time here. These turquoise headdresses and masks were, even I could see, quite something.

 

We caught the bus back, found the brother up and ready to go, so we set out.

I’d decided that we might as well hit the one major tourist type area we’d not gone to yet – Kensington and Knightsbridge, where there’s a collection of museums – the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, the Victoria and Albert as well as the London Oratory.  What I had thought was that we could spend time there and then try to get across Hyde Park in time for the advertised 3:30 tour of the Martyr’s Shrine at Tyburn Convent. I was a little confused by how that tour worked, so I had emailed the convent the previous evening and the Mother Prioress responded, answering to yes, just show up and ring the bell, and they would give us a tour.

That was the plan – and no suspense – it worked out fine, with a bit of a rush at the end because of slow restaurant service – but the actual visits to the museums flipped a bit from what I’d expected.

When I thought about what we might do on this trip, neither the Natural History Museum or the Science Museum were on the list. We have been to so many and that’s not why I was going to London, although the former does have a historical component. Plus, the Natural History Museum advertises a “Spirits Tour,” which is not, as you might think, a survey of whiskey and gin, but rather preserved specimens. That would have been interesting. The trouble was, I could never get the online reservations thing to work, and by the time I really applied myself to the task of trying to reserve a spot, it was Friday evening, and no more phones would be answered until Monday.

So – essentially – since it was free admission, I thought that it might be worth an hour of our time and my nature-loving son was interested, so that became our first stop.

We took the subway down, and as we disembarked, I got my first intuition that this might not be a breezy time. There were mobs of people. Strollers wheel to wheel. We followed the signs and fell in behind a huge group of German adolescents – dozens and dozens, with no way to get around them, no escape. Fortunately, they started to peel off into waiting tour buses, so I knew we wouldn’t have them to contend with at least.

But we did have all the other families of London and probably surrounding areas. Of course. I should have expected no less. It’s free. It was a Saturday, and it was the first day of English schools’ spring holiday.

The other problem was that the Natural History museum is undergoing renovations, and honestly, I couldn’t make any sense of the layout, and the crowds didn’t help. After about twenty minutes, we agreed that this wasn’t a place we were interested in staying – with no regrets!

We did see a couple of interesting sights though – first the fossils were good, and the story of the discovery of the amazing marine fossils by Mary Anning was interesting.

Secondly – this.

 

My photo isn’t great, so go here to learn more about it. It’s a collection of dozens and dozens of stuffed hummingbirds, a display dating from the early 19th century. I have never seen anything like it.

Next to it were some vintage displays – natural history museum exhibits the way they used to be – and I liked them. Very straight forward, very matter-of-fact.

I looked at the one on the right, and all I could think of was Do the chickens have large talons?

Our experience in the Natural History museum led us all to agree, without hesitation, that we’d skip the Science museum, and head to the Victoria and Albert.

Well!

I wrote elsewhere, I think, that even though I had read about the V & A, I still didn’t really get it, and thought I would mostly see teacups, evening gowns and sideboards. Well, no.

First, I knew this was there, so I made it our first destination – and it’s certainly worth a look. So very strange.

Tipu's Tiger

Our search for this piece led us through the Asian rooms, which were substantive and well-done. We spent some time then in the European medieval rooms, which had some wonderful pieces including:

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It was used in Palm Sunday processions in Germany.

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And an amazing collection of sculpted altar pieces.

It was lovely to see them, but a little sad to see them in a museum.

Short version of our trip to the Victoria and Albert Museum: it was a mistake to save it for last, and as an afterthought…

People were getting hungry, so we started looking for a place to eat along….road. I noted the Oratory on the way, and reminded them that we’d pop in there after we ate. This area is very wealthy, so there weren’t a lot of inexpensive options – the one McDonald’s was out the door – so we backtracked to this pub. There I had a steak pie and boys had burgers – the kitchen was slow – probably overwhelmed – but the service was very good and the food was tasty.

But…by then it was three, and we needed to get across Hyde Park by 3:30. I’ll remind you that I wasn’t quite sure how this worked. The convent advertises daily tours at 10:30, 3:30 and 5:30, so I suppose I expected something formal and very scheduled for which we Must Be On Time. So we got on a bus  – after a quick look in the Oratory, which is gorgeous – and then around up to the Marble Arch stop, where we disembarked, ran, found the Convent, found the way in to the chapel…and sat.

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Ready for Passiontide veiling at the Brompton Oratory

There was, of course, a Sister in Adoration, and a few other people praying, including a person (I am presuming it was a woman) completely and rather mysteriously shrouded in black crouched in the back pew. We waited in prayerful silence for about ten minutes when I decided that this just wasn’t what we were supposed to be doing. I found a back door to the chapel, peaked through it, and saw an actual entryway to the convent itself, complete with a bell to ring. Oh. So I rang it, and after a minute, a sister peaked out, rosary in hand. I asked if we were too late for the tour, thinking that it had already started, but it was clear from her response that this was a per-your-request type thing, and the tour times merely meant was that this was when you were invited to show up and request a tour. She told us to go back into the chapel and wait, which we did, and after five minutes, she reappeared and took us down.

If you don’t know the history of the Tyburn Martyrs, go here. The convent dates from the early 20th century, and so the Martyrs’ shrine is not in any specific place of martyrdom (that is down the block) but collects relics and images and is a place to remember and pray.

The sister, who was from Africa, gave us an excellent tour. It was somewhat rushed because Vespers was to be prayed at 4:30 – so unfortunately, we didn’t have time to linger and really take a close look at the relics. But it was quite something for all of us to be told the stories of the Tyburn Martyrs, who were killed for their Faith by the State 400 years ago there close to the spot where it happened,  and to have this narrated by a Sister from Africa.

We never did get to Westminster Abbey, but who cares? This experience was a far better defining moment and far more relevant to who we are and who we are striving to be, ever so fitfully.

We stayed for Vespers, then moved on. We walked for a bit down Oxford Street – a big, busy shopping road, and, well…the strength of the Muslim presence in London became very evident at that point. Oxford Street was crowded with shoppers, and probably two-thirds of those surrounding us were of Muslim/Middle Eastern origin. It was an education, and thought-provoking.

We ended up down by Parliament, just for one last look at Big Ben and all that, which we got, but it was such a mob scene, that there was no reason to linger, so we hopped on a bus for the drive up towards our apartment.

Big Ben LOndon

Riding back, I had my strongest understanding of the size and busy-ness of London. The crowds from Parliament all the way up through the West End on Tottenham Court Road were reminiscent to me of Times Square crowds.  It didn’t inspire any desire to disembark and linger.

We did eventually get off at the Goodge Street stop, one stop before our regular point, Warren Street. There was a bookstore nearby, and one of mine was hankering for the second volume in a series he’s reading, so I thought for sure they’d have it – they didn’t, but it was, I admit, quite wonderful to be in the quiet of an enormous bookstore, to be amid people looking through books, to see a man carrying a stack of five books for purchase.

(I ended up buying it on Kindle…but when we returned, I got it from the library for him, and returned the Kindle book for a refund – which you can do up to a point after purchase, in case you didn’t know.)

Back to the apartment. They relaxed while I hopped back on the Tube and ran over to St. Pancras Station, to get a few souvenir food purchases from the Fortnum and Mason there. Quite posh, with fellows in morning coats to serve. I hope it’s worth it!

Then back, and time for our last dinner in London.  They were sort of lobbying for Nando’s again, but I drew the line. My choice tonight, I said, so I chose the little Italian restaurant on the corner across from the apartment – Trattoria Monte Bianco. It was lovely. The place is small, the menu is limited, but what we had was excellent. A generous platter of salumi and fromaggio. The boys split pappardelle and Bolognese, while I had some lovely ravioli stuffed with meat and a good wine. The staff was spectacular – all Italians, friendly and helpful.

Then back…to pack and go to sleep.

I’ll not do a separate entry for the very last day, but just knock it off here.

I had hoped to get to Fr. Jeffrey Steel’s church, Our Lady of St. John’s Wood…… In fact, I had told him we would be there, but in the end, I just couldn’t manage it. We needed to leave on the Heathrow Express from Paddington, and there was the whole luggage thing to deal with, so ultimately I decided that an early Mass near us would be the best.

We walked over to St. James for the 8:30 – it was a no-music Mass, quiet and reverent. Perhaps 50-60 in the congregation, somewhat multi-generational, even not including us, and with a generous sprinkling of South Asian congregants. The homily was excellent, and I would like to hear all homilies preached in serious, well-tuned British accents from now on, thanks.

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A Little Sister of the Poor spoke at the end of Mass, which was good for the boys to see – we have the Little Sisters of the Poor in Mobile, and they often come up here to make appeals. Once more, all the way in England, we experience our universal Church.

One of the things I liked was that the priest mentioned that Holy Week schedules were available in the back, and he encouraged – strongly encouraged those present to take a stack and share them and invite anyone and everyone to join them for the services.

Maybe an idea for your church? Get those schedules printed and encourage folks to spread the word?

Breakfast time because when it’s a travel day, you never know the next time you’ll be able to eat, and since it’s on a plane, even though it’s British Airways, you never know the quality of what will be put in front of you.

So a relatively full breakfast at Patisserie Valerie, which is a chain.  Then back to the apartment, where we did a final cleaning, crossed paths with the owner coming to do his cleaning, went round the corner, caught a cab, got to Paddington and hopped on the Heathrow Express.

The flight back went smoothly. I much prefer the flight back than the flight over. When I fly to Europe I feel such pressure to sleep and such anxiety that I won’t sleep and I’ll be exhausted on the first day so of course….I don’t sleep.  On the way back, none of that matters – I don’t have any concern about myself or others sleeping. I did a little writing, read the copy of the Spectator I had purchased in the airport, and then watched stuff. First, I binged on National Treasure, the Robbie Coltrane 4-episode series on a beloved British comedian accused of rape. It was very good, although flawed, and I need to think about it more. Some very arresting images. It just felt – a little shallow, I think. Then I re-watched several episodes of Veep. Although the last season had its problems, I think – the original producer left and it shows – the rapid-fire insults and banter was much more forced and artificial this last season – it’s still hysterical.

Landed, went through immigration – took about fifteen minutes, then to the car and a two-hour drive back home, which was fine. They immediately passed out, so it was a quiet drive, and I much preferred being in control of my own destiny rather than waiting at the Atlanta airport for a flight back to Birmingham that might or might not be delayed.

(And in case you are wondering, the burned/collapse interstate bridge is not on the way from the Atlanta airport to Birmingham, so it didn’t affect our travel)

Home by 10pm, and while exhausted, still amazed and grateful to live in a time in which I can breakfast in London in the morning and be in my own bed halfway around the world at night. I can’t quite grasp it, and am sure that I don’t appreciate it as much as I should.

One last post coming, with some closing thoughts, before we get back to Business as Usual around this place….

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Where was I, now?

Friday morning, I wanted to get serious about souvenir and gift shopping. We had a planned afternoon activity, so the morning provided a decent window to knock some shopping off and assuage my anxiety about that.  That’s what we did, in the process seeing a few new things: The Royal Court of Justice (from the outside); the Temple Church (exterior, since they charged to enter and we didn’t have much time, so it really wouldn’t have been worth it); and the Twining’s Tea Shop and “Museum” – the latter of which is three glass cases of photographs and old packaging, so maybe don’t go out of your way. On the way back, we hit the British Museum gift shop, and contemplated seeing a couple of as-yet-unseen rooms, but decided we didn’t have *quite* enough time to do so in a thorough manner. So we just said hello to the Rosetta Stone again,  bought some things, and went on our way.

Bacon sandwich being tried and enjoyed in that last photo. 

There’s a McDonald’s near our apartment, and it utilizes the kiosk system of ordering – that was tempting to the gadget-minded, and I always think it’s interesting to try American fast food in other countries. So the guys ordered what they wanted – you just jab the touch screen, pay with a card, if that’s your plan, and wait for the order to be ready. There’s a screen above the surface counter which tells which orders are being prepared and which are ready for pickup. The place was packed, but the process went very smoothly and was quick. I’m for it. #IntrovertLife

We went back to the apartment for just a bit before we headed to the Euston station, where we’d catch an overland train to Watford Junction. What’s in Watford Junction, you ask? This.

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If you’d asked me six months ago – “If you go to London, will you do the Harry Potter set tour?” I’d have probably sniffed and said, “Of course not! What the hours for the Tate Modern again?” But in reading reviews, I began to change my mind a bit, and when I asked the boys, they were very interested, so I went over to that almost-dark side. It was the only attraction for which I bought a ticket in advance – you have to, since they don’t sell tickets at the door, and word is that it’s best to plan ahead for this one.

I’ll have to say – I have no regrets on this one. If I were going to London for less than a week I wouldn’t do it unless I was a Harry Potter fanatic, but for more than a week – if you like Harry Potter or are even just generally interest in filmmaking – it’s worth it, and very much so.

It’s about a twenty minute train ride out of London – if you take the right train (which we did). If you ever go, make sure you ask which train is the shorter journey, or there is one train  whicIMG_20170331_134422h has “Watford Junction” as an end point, but has many stops before that and takes an hour. The one we went on had only two stops, and took, as I said, twenty minutes. The train going out wasn’t crowded, but coming back was packed, and we had to stand the entire time. You can use the Oyster Card for these fares, although I never could figure out exactly how much it was. All I knew is that I had enough to pay for it.

So, you arrive in Watford Junction, and go out to the bus stop. There’s a designated
shuttle for the studios – it is not free and you must pay cash – 2.50/person. It’s another ten minute ride on the bus until you actually get to the studio. Your ticket is for a specific time – ours was 2:30, which I’m glad for. I don’t think I would have wanted to be trying to get out there first thing in the morning. To jump ahead – we left the place at about 5:20, although someone who was very, very super interested, could probably spend longer.

This studio is where most of the filming happened, and all the props and sets they have on display are authentic. The craftsmanship and thought is astounding. There are some interactive components – riding a Quidditch broom against a green screen and so on.  (We didn’t do any of that) There are docents all over the place pointing out interesting facts and answering questions.  There are various videos playing giving additional information about specific sets or filming components (the animals, special effects, visual effects and so on).  There are blueprints and models, and lots of samples of graphic design.

 

How is it different from what’s at Universal? I’ll probably write an entire post comparing the two, but obviously, they have different intents – the studio tour is just that – so there are no rides or role-players. It’s far more interesting than Universal, I’d say – even though the Diagon Alley of Universal does have quite a bit to offer. There’s a Diagon Alley at the studio, of course, but it is small and it’s just an exterior set, not actual shops, as is the case at Universal.

 

harry potter studio tour

Everyone enjoyed the afternoon very much – even me.  Because what interests me are, P1010874first the whole aspect of contemplating a cultural phenomenon in all of its dimensions, and this is one I’ve watched for a long time, every since my now-25 year old daughter became entranced at the age of 7. There’s also the factor of  seeing creativity at work – hard at work. I don’t care what the subject matter is, or even if that subject matter engages me personally – if people are inspired and work hard to bring their vision to life, I’m interested in that process.

The train ride back wasn’t loads of fun because, as I said, we all ended up standing the entire way, but it was short.

As we walked back to the apartment from the station, we noticed activity. We had seen IMG_20170331_123421“Quiet please, Filming in Progress” signs in the square, and in the morning had seen a couple of vintage cars parked there. Well now, here was the filming, evidently. Big lights were set up, and people in yellow vests with walkie-talkies were milling about. What was it?

The three of us hung around for a few minutes, then one got restless and wanted to get back, so I accompanied him and let him into the apartment, and two of us returned. After a while, that one got tired of waiting, too, so I repeated the process, and then returned by myself. I mean…what else was I going to do? Blog? I hung out for about an hour and saw just a *tiny bit,” for most of the filming was taking place in space inside the block  – I think there were small crowd scenes happening in there, for as they finished, women in 1950’s period costume streamed out, but still the lights remained set up outside on the street near where I was watching, so I thought something would be happening out there.

Eventually it did – there was an alleyway right there, and the shot was being filmed from inside the block, looking out into the street. When filming began, two cars parked on the street drove by the alley, and then a red sports car raced out via the alley and fell behind them, and the red car stopped right in front of me. The shot, it was explained to me, was just establishing that the red car was driving out into a busy street, and the camera was in the alley.

And that was it. And it took forever. Which is what you always hear, but to see the painstakingly slow process is still illuminating. And what was so interesting to me was that right at the entrance to the alleyway was a pub, and as is usually the case with a pub, the sidewalk in front was crowded with drinkers. Probably thirty people standing around with their drinks, enjoying their Friday evening. They didn’t have to go away or even be quiet during the filming – the camera shot was such that they weren’t even a factor. People were stopped from walking across on  the sidewalk, of course, but everything to the sides wouldn’t be in the shot, and so life could just go on.

I had some interesting conversations standing there, including with an older fellow who wasn’t working on this film, but was just hanging around – I don’t know if he just tracked film productions in the area or if he just happened to be there, but there he was. He had worked as a driver on four of the Harry Potter films, driving the primary child actors to and from work. He’d recently finished driving Johnny Depp and others for the remake of Murder on the Orient Express and then Transformers Whatever.

So what was the movie?

This one – it’s out there on social and regular media now –  tentatively called The Phantom Threads, it’s Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, about the fashion scene in 1950’s London, starring Daniel Day-Lewis – and yes, he was driving the red car. I was talking to a couple of people working, and they had a disagreement about whether Lewis was driving. One said, “They wouldn’t have him do it – too much of a liability” – but the other insisted he’d seen Lewis being shown where to drive and so on. Then the car stopped in front of me, I peered inside, as did the person I was talking to, and I could see – and he confirmed, “Yup, that’s him.”

So….celebrity sighting…. Barely…for what it’s worth. Which is not much, but still. It was a fitting way to end a day of thinking about creativity, imagination and the tedium and hard work that goes into bringing it all to life….

So yes. If you see The Phantom Threads (or whatever it will be called) when it comes out (supposedly at Christmastime later this year), know that the London shots revolving around a home that’s on a square were shot on Fitzroy Square, and there’s a really sweet little vacation rental apartment just around the corner. And if and when you see a scene with Daniel Day-Lewis driving a  red car racing out into an street…I was there.

 

 

 

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A couple of observations:

First, my older son mentioned something today that I’d been thinking, but hadn’t voiced. He said, “Don’t you think the people here are…nicer than we’ve met in other places?” By which he meant on our travels in France, Italy, Spain, and yes even jovial Germany. As I said, I’d been thinking the same thing. The level of friendliness here reaches (dare I say) Southern American levels and even surpasses it. You might say sharing a language helps, although many, many of the clerks/servers that we’ve encountered are clearly not native English speakers. How can I explain it? Let’s just say…that attitude of mystifying frosty indifference we’ve become accustomed to in which store clerks dare you to touch their stuff, and in which you live in continual low-grade fear of not-exact-change induced-rage…is not a part of life here.

Secondly…I don’t know how long it would take us to be here to get us to not feel as if we are in the middle of a movie or television show. I suppose it is because when your only exposure to English life has been decades of seeing it on screens, and you’ve watched a lot of it…when you find yourself surrounded by people chortling about their mates and calling you “love” you start looking for David Tennant or Judi Dench.

Like this morning: we were eating breakfast in a small restaurant. There was a group of three older middle-aged men in business suits who were there before us. They got up to leave, chatting and waving goodbye to the server when they stopped and said, “Hold on? Did we pay?” And what followed were several minutes of high comedy with everyone playing just the part you’d expect: “50 quid each, you say? Har, har!”  And so on.

I suppose I’d get used to it at some point…but not yet.

Note: My phone didn’t charge properly last night, so I had to be stingy in its use during the day, and one of my sons has commandeered the camera…not that he doesn’t take good photos, but it doesn’t always match what I’d photograph, exactly…

Anyway:

Today, I went with my gut and we did not do Hampton Court Palace, and we set ourselves to wandering instead, and it turned out well.

We ate breakfast – not full English, because no one in this group wants blood pudding or baked beans for breakfast or really, at all. I had pegged a place called The Breakfast Club, but once we got down there, we discovered it is very popular, with about fifteen people in line on the sidewalk…so scratch that. We ended up down the block at this place, and it was fine. And we did pay. (Our server was Portuguese but had spent a lot of time on the west coast of the US and Canada working cruise ships, and now here he was in London – it’s good for my kids to encounter folks in this way and get a clue into the varied kinds of lives that people lead – and that includes them, if they choose.)

After a quick walk through of Piccadilly Circus – definitely underwhelming – I guess I expected it would be like Times Square, for some reason? Not that this is a good thing I was looking forward to, but more of a point of curiosity. All that put us close to Leicester Square, and even if Lego Land is no longer on our itinerary, it is still hard to pass up a Lego Store, especially  when it is billed as the “largest in the world.”  O…kay.  I find that claim hard to believe. Lego stores are never huge, but still. Yes, it was larger than the one in Birmingham, of course, but I’ve been in the Lego store in Chicago, and it strikes me they were pretty much the same size, even though London is spread out over two floors. But they do, of course, have Big Ben…in Lego.  (there’s a video on Instagram)

London Lego Store

This put us close to the National Gallery, so over we went, joining, once again, hoardes of French teens and British small children in matching yellow safety vests.  Mind you, there is no required admission to the National Gallery – or any of the major museums in London.  I didn’t’ want to spend hours and hours there, so we focused on periods we particularly like and renowned pieces, including Holdbein’s The Ambassadors, and were probably there about 90 minutes.  I have to say, that I particularly enjoyed this painting – it’s a depiction of a scientific demonstration of vacuum, with a pet bird in the glass vessel, being deprived of air. Every face is worth studying, every gesture, and the little girls’ reactions are wonderfully done.

experiment on a bird - National Gallery

The artist’s subject is not scientific invention, but a human drama in a night-time setting.

The bird will die if the demonstrator continues to deprive it of oxygen, and Wright leaves us in doubt as to whether or not the cockatoo will be reprieved. The painting reveals a wide range of individual reactions, from the frightened children, through the reflective philosopher, the excited interest of the youth on the left, to the indifferent young lovers concerned only with each other.

The National Gallery is free….don’t be surprised if I don’t run by again to contemplate this one some more.

Oh, I also liked these four huge paintings in one of the foyers – The Four Elements by Joachim Beuckelaer – they represent the elements via the food they produce (or, in the case of fire, how they are cooked) – and in the far background is a small Biblical scene as well. In “earth” – the Flight into Egypt – “water” – Jesus appearing to his disciples by the sea of Galilee – “air” – the Prodigal Son – and “fire” – Jesus with Martha and Mary.

At that point, we headed down and over the pedestrian bridge that ends near the London Eye to Southbank. I had heard about an “Art of the Brick” exhibition that had recently opened – we eventually found it, and the good thing about so much being free in London is that you’re willing to shell out probably too much for something like this.  As usual, the wow, that’s a lot of Legos factor dominates the experience, but I was surprised that there was actually a bit more to it – there were a couple of pieces that were mildly thought provoking. Anyway, it was thirty minutes, it was on the way, and there you have it.

We strolled along the Thames, got snacks, popped into a few shops, watched people….

Sand sculptor on the banks of the Thames.

…and proceeded to the Globe. I don’t think I had blogged yet about my Globe decision – they are currently doing Othello (inside – they don’t start performing outside for a few more weeks), and the production switches the gender of the soldier Desdemona is suspected of sleeping with…so..nope.  But I did want to see the place, even though it’s “fake news” as one of my sons kept saying…only on site since the 90’s. But the tour was educational, anyway, and worth the time and money. Next time we’ll see a production…and I hope there is a next time, we’ll see. The RSC is doing Julius Caesar up in Stratford right now, and I so wish we had time for that…but we don’t.

From there, a few more blocks over to the Borough Market – we got there just in time – a bit after 4 – to get some very good bites. (So just a note – if you see that the closing time of this market is listed as 5pm, don’t stroll up at 4:45 expecting to find any food. Every stall was busy packing up by 4:30). By this time, my phone was completely dead, and I didn’t want to be juggling the camera while we noshed, so too bad. Just know that we had boureka (filled phylo) from Baltic Bites, chicken and other things from Ethiopia, some South Indian bites, some sweets, various samples of cheeses and cured meats..and a discovery that what is called salt beef is not as good as it smells. One son thought he would really like a sandwich, but I had him get a sample first, and he immediately made a face. “It’s ….squishy.”  Disaster averted.

We stopped into Southwark Cathedral, where we saw the memorial to Shakespeare and a few other things, and heard a bit of a boy choir rehearsal. Evensong was scheduled for 5:30, which was not too far off, but Southwark is far off from our apartment, and everyone was ready to go. I could have pushed it, because I really would like to experience evensong before we go, but you have to know your audience, and that extra half hour would have probably pushed things.

Dinner? Quick, cheap pizza here. It’s right next to some World Muslim Center, so it was interesting to see a large group of Muslim women come in, dressed in a full variety of garb, from niqab to hijab.

There is no lack of seemingly great dining everywhere…London truly does seem like foodie heaven…but when you’ve been on your feet all day…and feel as if you met your Foodie Cred for the day with the street food market – a quick, decent pizza is just fine.

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Another full, good day, with a few twists and turns. I’m feeling bullet-pointish about this one today.

  • Still not up early enough to justify a sit-down breakfast. I got pastries from here, which were very good, they ate, and we set out.
  • I had been thinking St. Paul’s to begin today, but then I thought…we need something img_20170328_113957.jpggrabbier – so Churchill War Rooms it was – a very immersive experience in the underground bunker used by Churchill and his war cabinet, parts of which had been sealed up in August 1945 and left untouched for decades.
  • There was a bit of a wait – if I were coming during the summer, I would definitely purchase tickets ahead of time. They have to limit the entrance because the spaces are narrow and small.
  • An audio guide is provided with the ticket, and it is necessary to get a good sense of what you are seeing. In addition to the the offices, meeting rooms, bedrooms and dining area, there is a substantial Churchill Museum which is very accessible to those not deeply familiar with the Churchill story.  An excellent museum.
  • On the way, we’d seen the horse guards at…the Horse Guards Grounds…and the pelicans at St. James Park.
  • This area of London was teeming with schoolchildren today – scores and scores of mostly French teens and lots of younger British children…as well as American college students.
  • We spent a lot of time in the museum, and after decided to head up to the apartment for a little bit of a break. We picked up lunch on the way – shawarma at a short string of street food vendors not too far from our apartment. I also went in and grabbed a meat pie from the fast food purveyor Gregg’s and found it…really good. Disturbingly good.
  • After our break, it was requested that we return to the British Museum, to pick up where we left off yesterday. So we took a lot of times with Egyptians today – they are spread out on two floors, with the funerary material being on the second floor and statuary on the first. I was fascinated mostly with the huge scarab and the wall paintings from the tomb of Nebamun – I could not get over the detail and beauty of the birds in this.

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  • I had noticed that the British Library was open until 8, so I thought it would be a good moment to see that – so we rode the Tube up. I was surprised it was a newish building – it was not what I expected!
  • Anyway, the exhibit of treasures (which rotates from their massive holdings) was fascinating. From John Lennon’s scribbling of the lyrics of “It’s a Hard Days Night” on the back of a child’s birthday card for Sean to hand-written scores by Mozart and Tallis to gorgeous illuminated manuscripts to a manuscript of Tess of the D’Ubervilles…it was time very well spent.
  • (And free, of course…as is the British Museum, remember)
  • (No photography allowed in the exhibit)
  • We walked back to the apartment – it was about a mile – and had dinner at the fish and chips place downstairs. I am shocked that they are liking fish and chips, but in the end it is fried things, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. The thing is, the fish is so very fresh, it is not fishy at all – they are getting cod, so the flavor is quite mild.
  • After that, they chilled out, and I wandered a bit, going in the opposite direction from which we’ve been normally setting out, and discovering a whole other aspect to the neighborhood and a whole other set of shops and restaurants.
  • A very subtle difference between English and other European stores – in France and Italy, as I recall, all shops have prices for their goods in the window – usually on a card near the displayed clothing, purses, or what have you. The English shops don’t do that. Nice things in the windows,s but not a price tag in sight.
  • But they’re not selling knives to kids!

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  • British culture may be as whacked about some things as any other western nation, but at least they aren’t stupid enough (yet) to pretend that the Bible doesn’t matter culturally. Prominently and helpful displayed in the British Museum gift shop:

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  • We were going to do Hampton Court Palace tomorrow, but honestly…I’m not feeling it tonight. I’m thinking that we need to just stay in the city, and maybe make tomorrow a Day of Randomness. We’ll see.
  • (The weather has been great. I didn’t wear a coat today, and was very comfortable.)

 

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In not too long, we’ll be in London, and as per usual, I’m engaging in intense trip prep. I have been for a while, actually, but am kicking it up into high, undoubtedly tedious gear right now.

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  • When I first bought these tickets back in November (there was a sale and we’re flying from ATL to LHR for an average of under $400/ticket – they have a slightly lower fare than I do), I went crazy with the guidebooks, but got over that soon enough. The guidebooks satisfy that initial thrill of knowing we’re going to London! but soon enough, I get lost in them – I know from experience that actually arriving some place and getting the lay of the land changes your sense of what you can and even want to do.  And with London in March, there will be weather considerations – although at this point, it doesn’t look like there’s much rain in the forecast.  And you never know how everyone is going to feel upon arrival, especially since our arrival time is 6.55 am as in IN THE MORNING, and..what? 
  • (Update: I’ve been looking at arrival times for those flights and they are consistently arriving around 6:30 AM.  Thank goodness, the owner of our apartment is amazingly generous and has agreed to a mid-morning check-in. If we were in a hotel, it would be no problem, since we could just leave luggage with the front desk until check-in time, but not with an apartment)
  • Anyway, I quickly got bored and despairing with the guide books. I knew that there were must-sees – the British Museum, the British Library, the National Gallery, the Tower of London, various outdoor sites, the Imperial War Museum, the Churchill Rooms, the Globe, churches, Tyburn Convent, and (I decided amongst the palaces) Hampton Court. I toyed with a day trip – Canterbury? York? Then decided that a week in London had plenty to occupy us.
  • So what should I read next? I have loved Morton’s books on Rome and Italy, and for some reason had a copy of In Search of London, which I happily read until I read a review of a biography of Morton which maintained that he fabricated a great deal of what he wrote about. And I just couldn’t read any more. (Update: Since I wrote that 2 weeks ago, I relented, and finished it – I’m glad I did.)
  • I had a couple of other old England-centric travel books that I had inherited along the way.
  • About three weeks ago, with the trip closer, I restocked from the library, and began studying in earnest. I still have no intention of having anything but the barest sort of plan, but I do need to sort out things like public transportation  (I think I finally understand the Oyster Card) and get opening and closing hours straight in my head (as in…several museums are open in the evenings during the week, but none, as far as I can tell, on Wednesdays, so that would be a good theater night.)
  • I have been mostly immersing myself in discussion boards: TripAdvisor, Fodors, Rick Steves & Chowhound, for the most part. All have different uses.
  • In terms of the boys, we have been focusing on general British history, of which they have only the barest understanding, and most of that from Horrible Histories. 
  • With them, I have been taking mostly the video route. We started with Schama’s History of Britain – the first episode which dealt with “pre-history,” the Romans and the beginnings of Anglo-Saxon Britain. We then watched the episodes on the Conquest and the English Reformation. I had wanted to see something on the Tudors, the Fire and Britain in World War II, but we are running out of time….Then I thought…why didn’t we watch A Man for All Seasons???  Well, maybe after….
  • I have books scattered about, and they pick them up and glance through them. We’ve looked at maps, so we have a good sense of where the apartment is in relationship to Tube stops and the major sites.
  • In terms of tickets: I have not purchased any theater tickets – I have a short list of shows I want to see, but I’m going to wait until we get there, see how everyone copes and recovers (including me) and just get a sense of what it feels like to be in London and get around before I commit.
  • I did purchase a Historic Royal Palaces family membership, which gets us entry into several places, including Hampton Court and the Tower of London. It saves a bit of money and gets us out of the regular line, and makes me feel posh whilst slipping into my wallet.
  • I also went ahead and got tickets for the Warner Brothers/Harry Potter thing. It seemed advisable to get those ahead of time.
  • An advantage of not getting to London until this point in our family’s development is that there is absolutely no noise about going to LegoLand. Thank. Goodness.
  • Bought travel insurance, most importantly with health and medical evacuation portions.
  • Went overboard, as I always do, about informing my adult children about the exact when and where of everything, including where my estate documents are, where the car will be parked and so on. Honestly, after you have been through a sudden death for which no one was prepared (how could you be), you see the wisdom of trying to account for the unexpected. It’s an act of mercy and love to leave as little of a mess behind as possible, if it comes to that. It’s not morbid, it’s just realistic.
  • I also rented a camera. I have a pretty old DLSR of some sort, but about three years ago, someone dropped it and just a couple of the teeth that hold the lens in were broken, but that was enough to render it almost useless – you can take photos with it, but you have to hold the lens in place. (The photo in the header, taken in Death Valley, was taken with that camera…me holding the lens…) I have a point and shoot, but it’s also older, and phone photos are okay, but not as good as actual camera shots, especially for display (maybe, if you have an IPhone? I don’t know. I don’t have one).  My son who just moved to NYC left me with some monstrous pro-level Nikon that he had purchased last summer, but when I got it home last week after helping him clean out his Atlanta place….it refused to power on. Even after charging the battery. It’s fine – it was a lot larger than I had expected, and not great for travel.
  • So I rented a Panasonic Lumix LX100, got it yesterday, found it a bit more complicated than I was ready for, but spent a couple of hours last night studying, so I think I’m good.
  • My hope is to blog here daily, and I’ll be posting regularly on Instagram – both in Stories and via regular posts, especially since they added this great feature of being able to put ten photos or videos in a single post. So check me out there. I don’t think you can see Stories unless you view it on a phone or tablet.
  • And yes, we are in an apartment. I did look at several bed-and-breakfasts fairly seriously – I sort of wanted that experience for us – but eventually admitted that I know full well  that I will crave space and privacy at the end of the day. I did look into, say, renting two rooms at a B & B, and came close on a couple, but then found a good apartment and again, my instincts told me we would all be much more content at the end of the day in that situation.
  • I forgot to mention that I find Pinterest valuable for things like this…I have the app downloaded to my phone, and it’s like having my own …er…curated …guidebook.

 

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