All of us might wish at times that we lived in a more tranquil world, but we don't. And if our times are difficult and perplexing, so are they challenging and filled with opportunity.

Robert Kennedy

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Spring Vacation Part One - London


I have been planning this trip since last fall so to say that anticipation was at an all time high is an understatement. I was going to London, one of my favorite cities, I was going to Paris, to which I had never been, I was about to eat some delicious food, I was reuniting with my friends after a long year and going on the longest vacation I had ever been on. I did not sleep the night before. To be fair, there really was no point. I had to get up at 3:30am to get to the airport.
I was in Chisinau for the weekend for our mentor training. The 'new class' of trainees is arriving in June and I signed up to be a mentor. Before I arrived, I had been assigned a 'mentor' to help me with pre-departure jitters and ease into arrival. Needless to say, I never met him until the day I arrived so I had little help. I decided to sign up to be the antithesis of that. He's a nice guy and we're friends now, but mentor he was not. So we all went up to Chisinau for a meeting about the incoming group and what activities we will do with them to help ease the transition. I'm friends with all of the other mentors so it was really nice to get together. My main goal will be to not make them feel like we are talking down to them or making them feel like we are an exclusive group that they should strive to be which is how I felt when I arrived. It was an uncomfortable arrival and I really hope I can help the trainees. But I digress...
After the training, we all went to a bbq in a park for another volunteer's birthday. It was nice to relax and hang out with everyone before I got to go on vacation. I spent all day Sunday doing last minute shopping for the trip and having lunch with Lindsay, Lyndsey and Jessica. We got stuff to make food for Conrad's birthday but I SEVERELY messed up the gnocchi's and we had to settle for box pasta. Well, can't win 'em all. Everyone went to sleep but I just laid down and relaxed. I woke up in time to go to the airport, and loving friends that they are, Lindsay and Conrad got up too so they could walk me to get a cab safely. 
A few weeks prior, I had been contacted by another volunteer to see if I would consider escorting one of her students to Munich. He was 17 and wasn't allowed to travel internationally without a guardian. So I had filled out paperwork to become his legal guardian so he could get to Munich. From there he was going to the U.S. for the summer to live with the volunteer's parents. My cab stopped on the way to the airport to pick them up and we headed to the airport. When we got to the airport and finally got through passport control with all of our paperwork, we ran into another volunteer, Cristen, who was headed home for her brother's graduation. So Denis, Cristen and I boarded the plane to Munich. Although the flight was only an hour and a half, we all had a 5 hour layover in Munich. It could've been boring but we made up a game, "Spot the American" that was unusually entertaining. We had a lot of fun. I said goodbye Denis and wished him luck in America. He's a sweet kid and I know he'll do great.
Me, Denis and Cristen in Munich.
So I finally landed in London at noon. Customs was a REALLY long line but it was just nice being there. I took a train into the city to meet up with my dear friends, Kathryn and Seeson. I changed my flight to come a few days early to hang out with them. I met Kathryn at Too Faced a few years ago and we became friends when we bonded over our mutual love of High School Musical. We found out through the years that we had a lot in common and became great friends. But the best thing about them is that they are CRAZY foodies. Kathryn spent months researching the best places to eat that are off the radar, local joints and not tourist attractions. I was really excited to hang out with them as I knew I would eat well!
I arrived at the train stop I had been instructed to go to. I was waiting in line to exit and Kathryn walked right into me. It was like not a day had passed. Everything felt normal again. We went to the hotel so I could drop my backpack off. (Yes, I was vacationing for 2 weeks and I only had a backpack. The life of a volunteer). Kathryn and Seeson were letting me crash in the extra bed in their hotel room and I was TRULY grateful as London is not the cheapest city.
Seeson and Kathryn...they're not as dastardly as they seem...
I knew there wouldn't be time to rest as we hit the ground running. We planned out an itinerary filled with pop culture locations. So where do you go first in London? Abbey Road of course! We stopped and got a quick bite at an Asian fusion restaurant, (REAL FOOD!!!!) and then headed to Abbey Road. Local Londoners must hate when their daily route takes them down Abbey Road as it is an active road and although the crosswalk is one of those where the cars have to stop, it must get REALLY old for all these tourists to be taking photos walking across the road. Didn't stop us of course. We did it at least 20 times, even asking a stranger to stand in the middle of traffic to get the right angle. It was pretty cool, even if it was cliche. (Of course they're all on Seeson's camera so...) From there we continued our pop culture tour and headed to King's Crossing. I mean we had to see Platform 9 3/4 from the Harry Potter movies!
The Olympics are coming....

An homage to Harry Potter...

At the train station, I got to get a Starbucks coffee. Ah, it's the little things. It was so enjoyable to sip a Vanilla Latte. From there we decided to search for the restaurant that Kathryn had found for us for dinner, St. John's. It was traditional British cuisine. We were seated in the dining room that looked quite formal. However, once we sat down and looked at the menu, we couldn't find anything appetizing besides the homemade Madelines they offered for dessert. So in an upscale fancy restaurant, we ordered a dozen Madelines with our total bill of 8 pounds. The waitress did NOT care for us. We exited quickly after paying the bill. We headed over to the London Eye. We arrived just at twilight and started the ride when the sun was setting into dark. It was cool to see the city skyline in light and in dark. 

Since our original dinner plan fell through, we had to go with Plan B. And oh were we glad we did. We went to a Mexican restaurant called Wahaca. O...M...G... It was street food so we ordered a bunch of different dishes and the flavor of their homemade chipotle sauce was inexplicable!
Carnitas Tacos

Homemade guacamole!!!!

It was an amazing meal and incredibly satisfying! Full and tired, we headed back to the hotel. I got to take a nice warm bath before crashing out. It was 9:30pm and that was just day one!

Tuesday 5-1-12

We had scheduled an all day tour for the next day so there was no sleeping in for us. We were up at 7:30 and out the door to grab some breakfast before finding our bus. It was a luxury comfort bus so it was kind of nice to be able to sleep in between stops. First stop? Windsor Castle. The town of Windsor is a cute little town. I wish we had time to walk around there but on the tour everything is scheduled pretty tightly. We walked around Windsor Castle and saw the grave of Henry VIII among many other things. It's very beautiful. We didn't have a lot of time there unfortunately. We stopped on the way out to grab some lunch for the bus and I got my first Dr. Pepper. mmmmm, it had been way too long.
The sites weren't the only beautiful thing to look at...Sergio...mmm...more on him later...

Got to take another nap on the way to Stonehenge. Honestly, I wasn't expecting much of Stonehenge. Anyone who ever has talked about it has basically said "eh, it's just a pile of rocks." But when we drove up towards it, I was surprised at just how beautiful it was sitting in the English countryside. There was barely anybody there and it was so quiet and peaceful, I just fell in love. I walked to the far side and sat on a bench and just exhaled. 

We only had 45 minutes there so we were rushed back on the bus and headed to Oxford...and another nap. :)
I was excited to see Oxford mostly because it was where the Harry Potter movies filmed their outdoor scenes at Hogwarts. But Oxford, the town turned out to be a delightful little village and I wish, again, we could have spent more time there. These bus tours are great for transportation, but the lack of freedom to explore is a little sad. We took a quick walking tour, saw some filming locations, saw some of the colleges and then had to get back on the bus to head back to the city. 
We headed back into London. Kathryn took us to this restaurant called the Meat Liquor for gourmet hamburgers. I was in heaven. 
Buffalo wings and chili cheese fries.
We were in a meat coma but that didn't stop us on the way home from stopping for some street ice cream on homemade waffles. These two are incorrigible!

Wednesday 5-2-12

The next day we could sleep in a little bit. The plan was to go to Hampton Court, the home of Henry VIII, but we were doing it ourselves so we had a little more freedom. We tried out a bakery that were famous for their cinnamon rolls. They were good but none of us were overly impressed. From there we took the train outside the city to Hampton Court. It was so beautiful. There was barely anyone there and it was so nice to have the freedom to explore on our own time. We spent about 3 hours there just wandering around and it was very peaceful and fun.
The entrance to Hampton Court.

Kathryn had no problem ascending to the throne.
When we boarded the train back to London we learned that you had to get on the train quickly, it does not wait for anyone. The doors started to shut on Seeson and he held it, I had to slither in before they shut. We laughed for quite a while wondering what we would have done had one of us been left behind. From there we went to walk around Covent Garden which is an open air popular shopping center. We lost each other for a while and I realized that without phones we were quite vulnerable to losing each other. I mean yes, we could always meet up back at the hotel but we had dinner plans and it was a scary moment. I certainly didn't want to miss out on any meals. We grabbed a snack Crepe while we were there and searched for more Harry Potter locations. We found Gringotts bank but didn't find Diagon Alley. For non-Harry Potter fans, these words mean nothing, but for us, it was quite exciting.
Covent Garden Market

Gringott's Bank
We wound up relaxing at Starbucks for a while until we had to be at dinner. We were meeting up with couple #2 arriving from California, Juli and Jason Jones. We meet them at Hawksmoor, a steakhouse. Yum! Juli and Jason were early, of course, and the 5 of us had a VERY filling, delicious dinner. It was so nice to have a steak!
Yeah...I ordered it that bloody!!
After a meal that consisted of curried mussels, steak and corn flake ice cream (yes), we decided to head back to our respective hotels. I had a long day of theatre ahead of me.

Thursday 5-3-12

We again slept in as we were doing a LOT of walking. We headed to the Borough Market which is another open air market where you can buy a lot of street food. (Can you tell what this trip was centered around?) It was hard to decide between pulled pork, burgers, roast beef and many other selections, but I finally got a fresh roast beef sandwich with horseradish. 
Too good for words.
After lunch, for the first time since I arrived we were going our separate ways. I was going to the Globe and they were going to do some other London sight seeing and then we were reconvening for dinner with the Jones' as well as couple #3 Jules and Daniel (and 1 year old baby, Logan) for dinner. I had the directions and the time so we said our farewells. I asked directions from a street vendor and he sent me down to the Thames river to walk that way towards the Globe. Great decision! I got to the Globe early and enjoyed a cup of coffee and browsed in the shop for a while. I was going to watch Titus Andronicus at 2:30pm. It was in the middle of the Global Shakespeare Festival. Every day, a different Shakespeare play was performed by a different company from around the world in a different language. Titus Andronicus was being performed in Cantonese by a Taiwanese Shakespeare company. I had no idea what to expect but I was very excited as it is my favorite Shakespearean play. It was awesome! For a more detailed review, see below. If 'it was awesome' suffices, please skip ahead to the end of the review.
The Globe! The Globe!
****Theatre Nerd Alert****
(if you are not a theatre nerd, you may want to skip ahead...)
When I walked into the theatre it took my breath away. Overdramatic? Probably, but true. It's just everything I hoped it would be. There were 12 chairs upside down on the stage with folded clothes in front of them. The audience was slowly sauntering in. I noticed a couple of Asians migrating towards each other and didn't think too much of it. That was until they all formed a line and in a march formation walked onstage diagonally and walked backstage. They were all in street clothes. 5 minutes later, they all walked out on stage and sat in the chairs. 4 were in black, 6 were in gray and 2 were in white. You don't have to speak Cantonese to figure out who was who.

They sat there and did not move for a good 2 minutes. There was no sound in the audience. And they did not move until the person in the balcony sounded the gong. This person in the balcony would serve as the entire orchestra/sound effects for the entire production using a variety of Asian instruments and sound effects. Once the gong was sounded, the play began. They did the entire first/exposition scene sitting, standing, curling around, kneeling in front of these chairs but they never left 'their space.' At the end of the scene, they put on the costumes in front of their chairs on stage and then all exited with their chairs. 
The death scene of Bassianus was amazing and it was clear that these actors were all in their own league. The way they used the space on the stage, the stage pictures they created, their interaction with each other was unlike anything I had ever seen. It was like they had all known each other their entire lives. 
Titus is an incredibly bloody play. When Lavinia is 'mutilated and her hands cut off, the actress wears satin red gloves and keeps her hands in fists. It is an incredibly physical role and this girl holds nothing back. It looks exhausting! Titus' sons are tied to crosses and they walk through the audience right through the crowd knocking people out of the way. They have involved the audience completely in the story. Titus himself delivers an explosive monologue in the pit of the audience, literally at some points screaming in the face of patrons. These are true theatre goers though. No one moves a muscle, they just intently appreciate the performance of these actors. A light drizzle starts to fall and no one flinches. A few hoods go up, but no umbrellas. If it weren't for physically seeing the rain, I wouldn't believe it had even happened. 
In traditional Shakespearean form, in the second act, a man plays the nurse. The audience giggles slightly at first but is soon lost in the performance. Titus again goes right in the audience's faces with his anger. No one can help but get caught up in his frustrations. The director uses such subtle methods of showing the differences in the families. It is clearly very minimalist but I notice that the people in 'power' always have shoes and the people being taken advantage of are barefoot. The minute those roles change, the shoes come off. A small detail, but a powerful one. The entire play is in black and white. The only color is the red to signify the bloodiness of the story. 
At the climax of the show, basically everyone dies and there isn't one death scene that isn't amazing. And in that final scene with all the bodies, it is one of the most beautiful stage pictures i have ever seen. The audience doesn't even applaud until the actors get up. They walk into a formation to what we think will be a bow but instead it is a one minute Tai Chi choreography and the audience falls silent. Almost as if they are cleansing us of what we have seen. Finally they bow. Am I gushing? Trust me, I am not doing it justice. One of the most amazing theatrical experiences I have ever been a privilege to be witness to.

****End Theatre Nerd Alert****

Still on a high from the experience, I made my way to the train and found the restaurant with ease. Kathryn and Seeson hadn't arrived yet but I saw Jules from a mile away. Can't miss that blonde hair of hers. She was standing outside inline with Logan and Daniel. Juli was with them. The line was really long and it was pretty crowded so they were waiting for Kathryn and Seeson and we were all going to go to another restaurant that Jason was currently waiting at. Everyone arrived shortly thereafter and we headed to the next restaurant. I walked in and saw Jason and approached him. He was talking to another guy. When the guy turned around, it was my friend, Todd!!!!! He and his wife, Shannon, decided to join our trip and surprised me. Todd is one of my dearest friends and I KNOW the strength it took for all these people to keep a secret so I was very touched by the effort and so excited that he was there. So now there are 10 of us (including the baby) trying to find an open table in a crowded restaurant. Not the easiest task, but we did it. We ordered some traditional English dinners and enjoyed all being together. Juli, Jason and I couldn't stay long as we were headed to the theatre to see Ghost: The Musical. I had downloaded the soundtrack to this new musical months ago and really had based my desire to go to London again on the fact that I wanted to see it. Juli and Jason, both theatre nerds in their own right, decided to go as well. We left the gang at dinner and walked through Picadilly Circus to the theatre. When I was last in London in 1995, I mostly spent all my time in the theatre district so I felt most comfortable there. The theatre was not very crowded and although we had seats in the balcony, we were 'upgraded' immediately to the orchestra level and had fantastic seats. The show was really great. The special effects were really remarkable and as Jason commented, it just wasn't a show you could have done 10 years ago. We all enjoyed ourselves and as expected, wept at the end, but mostly enjoyed the culture and the experience of seeing this together. We started to walk to the train but decided to stop and get some donuts. I thought it was the least I could do would be to bring Kathryn and Seeson some donuts. I said goodnight to the Jones' and made plans to meet them at King's Cross Train Station the following day for our train to Paris. 
When I got to the hotel room Kathryn and Seeson were in bed but were more than happy to eat the donuts I brought. They too brought me a present, a Dr. Pepper. The three of us stayed up for a while talking and giggling about nothing. It was their last night of vacation so it was fun to just hang out. 

Friday 5-4-12

The next morning they woke up super early to leave but let me sleep in as they didn't have to checkout until noon. I said goodbye to them, sadly. I slept for a little while and then went back to Picadilly Circus. I had some time until the train to Paris so I decided to go see "The Avengers" which was opening that day. It was exciting to go and see a movie. It killed a lot of time and then I head right over to King's Cross to get to Paris where the adventure will continue...

1 comment:

  1. It's great being able to follow along on your trip - you have a good eye for detail! I also truly appreciate the spirit of your intent in becoming a mentor (to me, among others!) It's good to know that we are being anticipated and plans are in the works to make us feel welcome. Thank you so much.