Thursday, July 31, 2008


It's not everyday that a guy turns 36, and it's not everyday that it happens in London. Of course, it happened last year, but I was only turning 35 then, so this year is 365 days better. I had a banner birthday, mostly because of the wonderful group I'm with here, as you will see. But I also was a little homesick, because I know that no one loves birthdays more than my crew at home. And I was touched to see a photo my kids holding the happy birthday sign at home, where my birthday was celebrated with treats, prizes, and underpants in my absence.

Daniel and Liz Whiting went with me to lunch at the Kensington Orangery. It's always one of my favorite places, and you pay for it. Mostly in ambiance, but in this case, also with cold chicken and salad. And lemonade. And Eastern European waitresses who won't split the check. But I have good past memories of the Orangery, and one strange one. Today was another good one. Afterwards we looked at Diana's gardens, which are undergoing some kind of re-design.

I have to admit that I purposely scheduled the tickets for Brief Encounter on my birthday, because I knew it would be fantastic. And it was. If I could copy it entirely, I would. And I probably will. You can count on giant sheets with trains projected on them in all my future productions. This play used mixed media. Live actors interacting with a giant cinema screen. And they would jump into the screen and sing these old Noel Coward songs. There were pre-show credits, commercials, and an audience sing-along with an angry father wielding a shotgun. I don't even know how to describe how fun it was. Think Casablanca meets the Squirrel Nut Zippers. That's a close approximation. Afterwards, we met the director. I told her it was my birthday, and she looked at me like "awesome."

For dinner we went to the Stockpot. I like the Stockpot because you get giant servings of food, so it's basically non-English. It's also affordable. By London standards, anyway. While enjoying my bangers-n-mash the students presented me with an antique map of the London Underground, and it was very touching. I didn't know they had done anything, and I sort of teared up. That was embarrassing. And then! The waitress brings a little tray to me with a ticket on it to the Of Montreal concert next week at Victoria Park. And I love Of Montreal, and they knew it, and they all went in on a ticket for me. So I felt loved - I know how tight money is for them. And that made it even kinder.

They were rewarded for their kindness by getting to see David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson LIVE at the X-Files premiere in Leicester Square. Daniel and Anne cheated by getting up on Alex's shoulders (separately) but it didn't matter - because in the end the two actors got pretty close to us. And YES they are short. Surprise! Duchovny looked like a hobbit. I hope he doesn't google this! Gillian Anderson was very pregnant - she seems to have lost that affected English accent she was going for a few years ago. Check 'em out:

Is that a squid, or an ALIEN???

Once we rubbed the stardust out of our eyes we wandered Chinatown, and found a really great poster shop a few blocks away, where I bought a Vertigo poster. So it was like a present. You know, like a present for myself?

Finally, my one request was that we take a ghost tour. And that's just what we did! So let it be haunted, so let it be done. We met our guide at the Holborn Station, and he was very dramatic. He looked like Peter O'Toole, if he had a baby with Willem Defoe. He led us through Bloomsbury and showed us all kinds of haunts, and told all kinds of spooky tales. make it....creepy. Other times he would TALK REALLY LOUD MID-SENTENCE, even if it wasn't a scary part. We learned about the Charles & Mary lamb murders, which I had no idea about. I like the Lambs and often plagiarize them in my Shakespeare plays. Also we learned about a man who had a ghostly encounter with himself! This is not hard for me to imagine, since 50% of British men have shaved heads and plastic framed glasses. I'm always bumping into myself, and sometimes it's alarming.

We finished our tour at Covent Garden, but only after stopping at Nell Gwynn's pub house for a pint of Coke, and some hilarious antics at the Drury Lane Theatre. For my birthday I didn't see any ghosts, but I had several encounters. And it's good to be alive.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

all around the town

Today was a visit to the Victoria & Albert Museum, which contains one of the world's widest collections of art and design, ranging from early Christian devotional objects to cutting-edge furniture design. And if you think I stole that description straight out of my DK Eyewitness Travel London book, you are absolutely right! I like the V&A (if you are local, you can totally just call it the V&A) even though I wandered most of it alone. It was my own fault, I sent the group on and stopped for a sandwich, thinking I'd find them all eventually in the museum. Except for one thing! The museum has a 7 mile layout, spread out over six floors. (Thanks again, DK Eyewitness! wink!) So I wandered alone, but was OK with that. Incidentally, have you noticed how many of my stories lately hinge on me stopping and having a sandwich?

After you go to so many museums your eyes glaze over a little. You recognize that the millions of things you are seeing are in some way historical, and in many ways important, but your brain gives up. That doesn't mean that nothing pops, though. I have fond recollections of looking at:

The type-sets and lithographs of Thomas A. Clarke

The Miraculous Draft of Fishes, an enormous cartoon by Raphael. (Not a funny cartoon.)

White, a printed linen by Maromme

They were also having a Supremes exhibition, which I opted not to go to. It cost money, and from what I could see it was a lot of flip-wigs and sparkly outfits. And my budget's just too tight for sparkly outfits. I can feel your disappointment from here.

So a few days ago I had this great idea to try a London derby. I told Alex about it, and he got really excited, as I had hoped. A London derby, which is basically a dumb name I made up so as not to say "photo scavenger hunt," involves 3 groups, 4 locations, and a time limit. Everybody was really great about trying it and, as we had no play scheduled tonight and the weather was fantastic, tonight seemed the best night for it. We chose the group names out of a cup, and then each team leader chose four random London locations out of a cup as well. We were supposed to hit all four locations and be back in Trafalgar Square in 2 1/2 hours. It was very Amazing Race. Also, you had to take a picture of the whole group at each location as proof. And there were bonus points if you had a picture with a church, a pub, an art gallery, a theatre, a street performer, smashed into a red phone booth, and in a garden.

My team was Joe, Anna, and Alta, and needless to say we totally won. Like, 30 minutes ahead of everyone. Which is bragging, but if you don't like it you can go read another dumb blog. And just so you know, I had never been to any of the four places we picked. So I learned a lot. Here are some of our shots:

Extra point (pub) - The Zetland Arms, our local pub.

Extra point (church) -St. Stephen's in the East End.

Destination 1: The Royal Exchange.

Extra point (statue) - some guy on a horse.

Destination 2: The Temple of Mithras. It's 2000 years old! It's Roman. Basically just the foundation left - they found it when a bomb dropped on the site during WWII. We found it by looking behind a giant green construction wall.

Extra point (squished in a red phone booth)

We did this derby during rush hour. Anna and I couldn't get on the tube - it was so jammed with commuters. These are our sad faces as we saw Joe and Alta take off without us.

Extra point (buskers or street performers) I love this picture.

Destination 3 - The FDR Statue at Grosvenor Square.

Destination 4 - The Cabinet War Rooms and the Churchill Museum

Extra point (garden) St. James garden, which is fantastic.

Extra point: (theatre) - Trafalgar Studios.

Extra point (art gallery) - The National Gallery. You can't see it, but it's there.

Once all the teams arrived, we climbed the lions and took some potentially hazardous, but ultimately satisfying pictures.

We spent the rest of the evening listening to each others' travel stories in St. James park.

the idle rich

Monday morning came with some record breaking heat - even getting up to, wait for it, 86 degrees! I know, I know, humidity. But seriously you would think that the plague were upon us. It's all anybody can talk about over here - how unusual this is, how it's Global Warming, how they hate sweating. I actually like sweating - I don't sweat at home because it's too dry. But enough about me and my sweating. It was warm today. Made for some nice adventures.

After dealing with post-robbery fallout: buying a new Oyster Pass, ordering new credit cards, going to therapy, I met up with Alex and Kevin for a little exploration of our own neighborhood, Kensington and Knightsbridge. The first place we went to was Brompton's Oratory, which is this fantastic Catholic church just down the road from us. I've never been there, and can't believe that now. It's the most ornate building I've ever been in. It's almost too much to take in. We silently walked around it, and people were there actually worshipping. There were a bunch of confessional booths, but nobody in them. It's a shame, because I want to try the confessional sometime. Are non-Catholics allowed to do that? What if I just make a bunch of stuff up? Would they know?

We continued our walk, stopping at Patisserie Valerie for a little petit dejeuner. Or what we might call a "sandwich." With a bottle of "Orangina." The Patisserie was full of pastries and cakes which, if I had a sweeter tooth, may have tempted me. But I think the picture says it all. We tried to eat in this little park, but it was padlocked - for rich, snobby people ONLY. So we sat on the street in front of Stephane Mallarme's old house and a little of my sandwich dropped onto the cobblestones.

For my "proper" lunch I had a great meal at Nando's with Naomi Miles and her friend Emma. Naomi and James Miles were our great friends when we were at Exeter, and so it's always good to see them either individually or together. Naomi and Emma were in town to see a Brandi Carlisle concert. I have never heard of Brandi Carlisle, so I just referred to her as Belinda Carlisle. Anyway, the lunch was fun and I had about 5 refills on my Coke and enjoyed that a lot more than I should. (Pebble Ice? Refills? What are these strange concepts? Teach me.)

I always love the Imperial War Museum. I never miss it, even if, like last year, we don't have time to take the whole group. We brought the group this year, and they loved it. I know it sounds boring, but it is an absolutely beautiful museum with so much information and so many interactive activities that I could spend hours there. And usually do. I always love the Children's War exhibit, and Alex and I strolled through the "Secret Police" wing, which was very James Bond. But today I went through the Holocaust Exhibit for the first time, and it was pretty gutting. It took at least 90 minutes to get through, and it was not very pleasant, as you can guess. But touching and rousing, too. Everyone needs to see it.

I always love the WWII propaganda posters. Here are a few:

Also, here's a picture of me on the steps of the museum. On a scale from 1-10, how JC Penney is this picture?

Our play tonight was called A Slight Ache. It's by Harold Pinter, so you know it's going to be very obtuse and everyone is going to pause a lot. There is a character in it of an old man, but in this staging he was basically a leather version of Darth Maul. He doesn't speak the entire play, he just freaks out a wealthy middle-aged couple. Luckily we had studied this play in class, so we knew what all the metaphors and allusions were, but if we hadn't? There would have been a riot. If I had thrown a performance of A Slight Ache at my students unprepared they would have definitely smashed the conch, gone on a bloody rampage and murdered Piggy. It's a tough play. But very well done. And under an hour!

We just really like to stay informed on the tube.

After the play a few of us hung out on the lawn at Wellington Arch and talked. Then we strolled down the Mall to Buckingham Palace and took a few snappy snaps. The evening was fine, and there was a slight breeze, which turned into a lightning storm as we made our way down Old Brompton Road. It rained steadily through the night, and everything cooled off.

Monday, July 28, 2008

a crime in london town!

Well, it was all too perfect. The week, the group, the shows...something had to give. The Universe had to have balance. The bubble had to burst. The penny had to drop. And so the penny did drop tonight, when my wallet was stolen under a rainy canopy. But I'll get to that.

It was Sunday, and you bet I was going to the Hyde Park Ward for Sacrament Meeting. I saw my friend Sam Andrus there, and it was nice to talk to him. Also I saw Matt Holland, but didn't say hello to him, because he's like a Mormon celeb, and who am I? 24601? It's always interesting going to church in London. Last year the family ward met in the late afternoon, which is really bad timing on our schedule. I wound up going to the Singles Ward a lot, which is great if you like twelve girls to one guy, or if you like to wear awesome outfits when you pass the Sacrament, or if you are a crazy person who wandered in off of Exhibition Road. This year the family ward meets at 9, which is a reasonable time. I liked being there and listening to children run around in the cultural hall. In fact, it made me homesick. When I'm at home I'm always thinking that I'd give anything to have ONE SACRAMENT MEETING where kids weren't crawling over me or spilling the bread tray. But today, when I finally got to listen to the talks uninterrupted I realized something important: a lot of these talks are really boring. I missed my kids climbing on me. I know I was supposed to think about the topic at hand, but mostly I was thinking about:

After church I came back to my flat and had a nap on the couch. The bells of St. Augustine were playing across the street. I thought they would bother me, but they were nice.

I headed to Hyde Park next, because a London friend had invited me to join him and a group of Brazillians eating Cous-Cous and talking about the meaning of life next to the big pond. It was pretty fun. Food was fantastic, and the Hyde Park brass band was playing selections from Hello, Dolly and Mary Poppins on the bandstand. Not that I know any of those songs, you guys. I'm all man. Anyway, after enough time spent with Brazillians and their mango juice and really fast Portugese, I found Anna, Kevin, and Emily napping under a giant oak tree. They looked so happy.

We took in an Evensong service at St. Martins-in-the-Field, which is always a favorite thing to do. I have to be honest, I don't really get it all. Basically I mean all the standing and sitting. Because how do you know when you are supposed to stand, and then how do you know at what random point in what random hymn you suddenly sit down? Everyone else seemed to know, including this really bossy lady in the pew in front of us who kept pointing at me like "stand up! stand up!" or "sit down! sit down!" Later in the service she would sing along with the hymns and saw her arms like she's Maria Callas. But the music was spectacular - so much sound coming from a 20 person choir! Also, the new, refurbished St. Martins-in-the-Fields is absolutely beautiful. Everything looks white-washed. I loved it.

But I'm stalling. You probably skipped all that to get to the robbery. I don't blame you. It was all really churchy today. But basically here is a timeline:

7:50 p.m. - a sudden rain storm hits. I am just south of Oxford Street.

7:51 p.m. - I dash under the canopy of a pub, along with four billion other people, to wait it out.

7:52 p.m. - Mystery thief unhooks my shoulder bag, unzips, and takes my wallet.

7:54 p.m. - The rain stops, basically.

8:01 p.m. - Where's my wallet? Holy crap! Where's my wallet!

8:04 p.m. - I call police. They are nice, but not very helpful. There are too many people under the canopy for the CCTV to pick
anything up.

8:10 p.m. - I call my students back at the Kensington flats. I have someone get online and get me phone numbers for my Visa Cards - I had two of them in my wallet.

8:15 p.m. - I place a hold on one Visa. Nothing has been charged yet.

8:20 p.m. - My student sleuths find the number of my home ward online.

8:21 p.m. - I call my home ward, and the kind man who answers tells me he misses my piano playing. I'm like "Yeah, yeah, go get LISA!!!!"

8:21 p.m. - A special lady's voice tells me I am running out of minutes on my phone. Working against the clock!

8:25 p.m. - I finally get Lisa out of Sunday School, relaying the info in about 15 seconds so my phone doesn't run out.

8:30 p.m. - I head home from Trafalgar Square on foot. It takes me an hour, but my tube pass was stolen!

So that's the whole thing. It's frustraing, but what can you do? My wallet was in as secure a place as it was ever going to be. I guess I can be more vigilant and less cocky. That's what life wanted to teach me. Thanks, life! I'm less cocky now. And just so you know, LIFE, I enjoyed that walk home. I got to see these things:

Buckingham Palace at night.

Wellington Arch at night.

Harrods at night.

Harvey Nichols, with crazy windows, at night.