Sunday, July 31, 2011

I discover I may be old, cynical, and surprisingly, not even a tiny bit romantic

Dear super attractive blond twenty-something couple in matching hip white outfits,

Congratulations on your trip to the Eiffel Tower on Sunday. We're sure it capped a very romantic holiday in Paris, based on the amount of time you spent making out with each other while we were all waiting in line to reach the Tower's top floor.

Although it was kind of you to provide us with such an entertaining show, we'd like to point out that there is nothing romantic about being herded like cattle in extremely close quarters. So save the smooching for the top floor, or -- maybe, just maybe -- some place a little less public.

Better yet, have an actual conversation with each other. In 15 years, you'll probably appreciate having something in common other than the space that your tongues once jointly occupied.


Elizabeth and Eliza

(who were too polite to take your picture, despite the ample opportunities you gave us during the 30 minutes we were behind you).

The Eiffel Tower. Apparently if Ryan were here,
along with a few thousand other tourists, it would be terribly romantic.

The view you'll see from the top (the Arc de Triomphe is in there somewhere). Provided you aren't too absorbed in someone else's face at that time.

Paris: Just one in several million

So our whirlwind Paris weekend left me with a few thoughts.

Me on the top level of the Eiffel Tower with the Seine behind me.

Paris seems like a much bigger city than London. Perhaps that is because the language barrier makes it more daunting, or maybe we are visiting such a small part of London that it doesn't seem as massive as it is. I felt much more like a tourist in Paris, and the crowded sites certainly reinforced that impression.

However, I did get to hit a few highlights during our three days there. Along with a bunch of other people. I was one of the 6 million visitors who tour the Louvre and see the Mona Lisa each year. My impression: like most other visitors, it's very small (especially from the back of an extremely pushy crowd).

Too many people (and too much glass) to get a good shot of the Mona Lisa.

On Saturday, I went to Versailles, where I was one of the 3 million visitors who annually tour this former royal palace and its extensive grounds. It felt like every single one of those 3 million people was in the house with me when we went through and that put a damper on the experience. For details of my day at Versailles, see the blog entry on the topic.

The Queen's Bedroom at Versailles. Marie Antoinette supposedly fled the revolting peasants through the door shown at left.

On Sunday, I went to the Eiffel Tower, where I was one of the 7 million visitors who tour this icon every year. The view from the top level offered a lovely view of buildings I wasn't all that familiar with, so I mostly took pictures of the landmark I knew best, the Seine. And so I can say I've been to the top of the Eiffel Tower now. But please respect my personal space for at least the next three days while I recover from the experiences.

Waiting in line for the elevator to the top floor of the Eiffel Tower.

View from the second floor of the Eiffel Tower.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

A trip to Versailles (the one with the palace, not the castle)

The main bit of knowledge I gained from our tour of the Palace of Versailles was that Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette kind of had it coming.
First view of the Palace of Versailles.

Waiting to get inside the gate. The gold accents are even more overwhelming in person.
The sheer luxury and expense of the palace, the Grand Trianon and Petite Trianon that served as “breaks” from court life (and were basically mini-palaces on their own) and the Queen’s Hamlet are astounding. It is astonishingly beautiful to see now, though sparsely decorated in spots because of the whole revolution thing.

A close up of the large fountain. There are many small ponds and fountains sprinkled throughout the grounds.

The gardens seem to be a little less structured and landscaped than the English gardens we've seen in London.

The Grand Trianon. It was converted into an official presidential residence in the mid-20th century by Charles de Gaulle.

The Grand Trianon is known for its pink marble.
The most fascinating room in the main palace was the Hall of Mirrors. Seventeen windows overlook the gardens, and directly opposite each window are a series of mirrors made to look like windows. There are 357 mirrors used to construct these "faux" windows, and mirrors were quite a luxury item at the time that this room was constructed for Louis XIV. This room is where the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, ending World War I.
The Hall of Mirrors.
I enjoyed the grounds more, mostly because the crowd in the house was oppressive. And unfortunately, the audio tour markers were on the ground and therefore hard to spot and sync up. So the grounds provided a much more pleasant experience on the whole. Plus, I absolutely loved seeing the hamlet that Marie Antoinette had built so she could escape court life. Her "peasant" house still managed to have a library, billiards room and a theatre. It was a working farm though, and she "supervised" the work there herself when she didn't have more pressing matters to attend to.

A cow in front of the peasant farm. There are also goats, pigs, rabbits, chickens and mules.

Me in front of the Queen's boudoir.

Yep, Marie Antoinette had a working mill among the nine buildings on her "estate".

Most surprisingly, I'm proud to say that I made it through an entire day in Versailles without pronouncing it the Kentucky way, which Wikipedia has helpfully recorded for you if you aren't sure what that is.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Why I suddenly love grocery shopping

If blackberries hadn't come into season before our departure date, I might have handcuffed myself to the Sainsbury’s produce counter to wait them out. That should give you an idea of how much I love British grocery stores. Or at least Sainsbury's

My very favorite Sainsbury's store, on Tottenham Court Road.
Rather than monstrous Wal-Mart type stores where you can shop in expansive warehouse-like buildings for groceries, pharmaceuticals, clothes, tires, garden tools, jewelry, toys (well, you get the idea), stores in London are focused strictly on food and are quite small. This is paradise for people who don't like to cook or even to spend much time in grocery stores feeling guilty about not being able to cook.

A modern Tesco out on the East End is much more like U.S. stores, spacious with a lot of options and departments.

Because so many people come into the city to work, Sainsbury's offers prepared lunches ready to go. Not the prepared sandwiches you may have had the misfortune to pick up at certain unnamed stores in the Midwest, but really good sandwiches -- like chicken fajita wraps or chicken and egg salad on whole wheat bread. Sainsbury's has a deal where you can pick up a sandwich or wrap, bottled beverage of up to 750 ml, and either chips or dried fruit for a mere £3. It is the grad student's best friend.

A variety of sandwiches and wraps in the £3 deal. Add chips or fruit and a drink and you're set.

The more upscale chain Marks & Spencer carries that over to dinner, where you came buy a prepared dinner for two -- with wine -- and take it away with you for £10. Many chains have small stores either in the subway stations or just outside them, making it very easy to do a small grocery run each day on your way home from work.

Marks & Spencer's Dinner for Two.

Wine for sale by the (plastic) glass at Marks & Spencer.

There is a definite emphasis on freshness here. In central London, eggs are not refrigerated and seem to be sold mostly in six packs. Almost all of them are labeled "free-range hen eggs," something we pay extra for in the States. Milk and bread are sold in smaller portions, too, requiring you to replenish more often.

Eggs. Not refrigerated.

The produce here is also phenomenal, as I alluded to above. I buy either strawberries or raspberries (or blackberries, now) almost daily. The strawberries are perfect -- all tiny and sweet. Most everything is British grown - or Scottish, as one particular lady noted to me in Sainsbury's one day. She was wearing a rain hat and carting a rolling suitcase for her grocery trip, and we were both practically salivating over the raspberries on display. 

My favorite snack, while the raspberries were in season.

A fellow fan of Scottish raspberries.

Besides freshness, Britons also are much more wary of preservatives than Americans are. Rarely do you find the unpronounceable lists that seem to accompany many of our foods. Dyes are extremely rare, so the color of certain things are different. This preservative fear means you are pretty much shopping organically without intending to do so.

Ryan drinking a soda from Pret, a local chain restaurant that promotes fresh foods and 'No nasties'.

There are more American-type stores the farther you get from central London. There are even a few in London itself. And I see the value in having them. But for my short time here, I very much enjoy my daily grocery trips in the tiny stores. Especially now that the blackberries are here.

Early train to Paris

We head to Paris on Friday for a day of epic sight-seeing: the Louvre, Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame Cathedral are all on our schedule. Then some of us are staying for an extra two days of touring before returning to London.

So I'm pretty much packed. This is all I'm taking with me for basically three days, not counting a toothbrush, my iPod or my camera (being used for the photo).

How will I survive for three days with so little stuff?

I will not have my computer with me, so I won't be blogging again until Monday. In the meantime, imagine me practicing my non-existent French. Parlez-vous anglais?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Regarding Harry

It's hard to believe that I have been in London for three weeks and have written or edited nearly 40 blog entries without mentioning Harry Potter once.

It's probably because I'm trying not to focus on Harry too much, seeing as I haven't watched the last movie yet. Mostly because I don't think Ryan has forgiven me yet for seeing Order of the Phoenix without him in 2007. So while my fellow classmates managed to sneak in a showing here in London, I've been holding out.

But there are lots of Harry Potter sites here to tide me over. While Ryan was here, we accidentally stumbled on the Deathly Hallows Part 2 premier in Trafalgar Square on July 7.  More accurately, I was seriously irritated by the line of people camped out for the 3,000 tickets to watch the stars and the premier.

The bulk of the crowd can't been seen in this shot, but I think they had already distributed the tickets by this point.

Not really sure why she was there then.

We saw the Great Hall at Christ Church in Oxford that served as the inspiration for Hogwarts' dining hall. The movie scenes weren't actually filmed in the hall because the logistics wouldn't work. So the filmmakers created a set to use instead. You can definitely see similarities though.

The Great Hall at Christ Church.
Hogwarts' Great Hall as seen in The Chamber of Secrets. Photo courtesy of All Movie 

The staircase at Christ Church also plays a role in the movies. Or more accurately, the landing you can't really see very well in my picture. Can anybody pinpoint the scene?

Staircase to the Great Hall at Christ Church in Oxford.

Also at Oxford, the Bodleian Library's Divinity School was a setting for two completely different scenes in HP movies. It was fitted as both the infirmary -- which made multiple appearances due to our brave trio's many brushes with death -- and as the location for Ron's dancing lesson in Goblet of Fire.

The Divinity School at the Bodleian Library at Oxford.

Ron and Professor McGonagall in The Goblet of Fire.
Photo by Murray Close, courtesy of All Movie

St. Paul's Cathedral doesn't allow pictures, but this geometric staircase was featured in The Prisoner of Azkaban. What purpose did it serve?

Photo of St. Paul's geometric staircase courtesy of the BBC.

Australia House serves as a stand-in for a very important place in the last film and a couple of others. Amusing anecdote alert: a group of us got lost one day and came across this building and, oddly, we all felt like we recognized it. A tour guide told us why a few days later -- we had all seen its digital duplicate. Do you know what it is?

Australia House. Photo courtesy of Paul in London via Flickr.

On the way to the Globe Theatre, we walked across the Millennium Bridge. You may remember it as the bridge that the Death Eaters snap at the opening of The Half-Blood Prince movie.

 Scene featuring the Millennium Bridge in the Half-Blood Prince. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
The Millennium Bridge looking much less ominous
after we safely crossed it.

On Thursday, we visited the King's Cross St. Pancras tube station. It houses the "entrance" to Platform 9 3/4,  ready and waiting for tourist photos. Like mine.

The platform was recently moved from its rightful spot between platforms 9 and 10 to outside the tube station. It might be because of construction, or it might be because of the sheer annoyance of dealing with people like me.

People waiting for their turn to take a photo at Platform 9 3/4.

So there's a quick tour of Harry Potter's Britain. The sites are so popular that there are several tours devoted to them exclusively. You can Google "Harry Potter tours" to find out more.

A night at the Globe

Honestly, I haven't attended this many cultural events since I don't know when. On Wednesday night, we were very fortunate to attend the play Anne Boleyn at Shakespeare's Globe.

I didn't get a good shot of the Globe Theatre myself. This one is from Flickr, posted by Kevin of Sydney.

The play was written by Howard Brenton and made its debut at the Globe last year. The description from the Globe's website:
Hunting through an old chest, the newly crowned James I discovers the controversial legacy of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s notorious second wife. Time jumps back 70 years, when the witty and flirtatious Anne was in love with Henry, but also with the most dangerous ideas of her day. Conspiring with the exiled William Tyndale, she plots to make England Protestant – forever.
A celebration of a great English heroine, Anne Boleyn leaps between generations to reveal the debt the outrageous but scholarly James owed to Anne when he shrewdly reconciled England’s religious factions by creating his common, ‘authorised’ Bible.
As for the theater, it is a 'best-guess' replica built in the 1990s, since no one is entirely sure what the original looked like. It sits a few hundred yards from the site of the original theater. The Globe Theatre website has a more detailed history of both the original and the new theater if you are interested.

The tiered crowd at the open-air Globe Theatre. We were very glad that we weren't in the standing-room only section.

The play was amusing and very well acted. Imagine my surprise when I even recognized the leading lady, who had appeared on the British television show MI-5. The theater was also interesting, particularly as our seats (or more accurately, our benches) were along the side of the stage. It made for an interesting perspective. And I was grateful I paid the £1 for a cushion.

The view of the stage from our benches.

For a more professional review, you can read what the Evening Standard had to say earlier this month.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Digital story: The city that reads

You see readers everywhere in London. My digital story looks at how prevalent books are in London culture.


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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Stonehenge revisited, with a side trip to Salisbury

Our class agenda took us to Stonehenge and Salisbury on Tuesday. The stones appear unchanged since my visit with Ryan a few weeks ago. This is good news if, like me, you believe alien invasion would probably be a bad thing for the human race.

The bad news is, I don't have much else to say about Stonehenge. However, there are a lot of tourists there, and since our photography focus from Tuesday was telling a story in five pictures,  I caught this family in the midst of a shot:

We then went into Salisbury for the afternoon, touring the Cathedral that was built in the 13th century and has the tallest spire in Britain at 404 feet (although the spire was added later several years later). The cathedral also contains one of the remaining copies of the Magna Carta (1215).

A side view of Salisbury Cathedral.
The town of Salisbury has a population of 51,000, so it was quite a change from London. It was market day, so all kinds of interesting things were on display.  There were stands selling underwear and stands selling freshly butchered meat. There were not next to each other, or I would have gotten a photo of that.

Olives for sale at Salisbury market.

These beautiful flowers were hanging all around Salisbury.