Sunday, July 31, 2011

sur le pont d"Avignon

Another early up and at ‘em – we had to check out by 6:00 am. This group is a dream. Everyone was ready to go at 5:55, well most of them (HEATHER) and we bid a fine farewell to our friends at the Ajiel, possibly stealing some bread rolls and Nutella surreptitiously to eat on the train. Catching the train was a little crunch – the metros don’t run really frequently until about 8, but we all made it aboard the TGV to Avignon.
I’ve never brought any of the groups to Avignon, a city in Southern France just miles from the Mediterranean. We went this year for the Avignon Festival, which I’m hoping to book a UVU performance into next year. This was a research trip, though nobody complained about spending a couple of days in the south of France. The Avignon festival is one of the largest theatre performing festivals in the world, second only to Edinburgh, where we’re headed in a month.

Avignon is incredible. The old city is surrounded by a Roman Wall, and inside feels like Italy and Greece and, as Robbie put it, “the French Quarter of Disneyland.” The streets are narrow and feel aimless, but you don’t mind wandering aimlessly because every corner reveals a little bistro, a yogurt shop, or a band of wandering circus performers on horses (more on them later.)

We had lunch first because everyone was starving from the long train ride. So after eating at a place that starts with an M and rhymes with HackDonalds we felt in the mood to explore. Within minutes we were at the top of the Palace of the Popes, where several popes lived from the 1300's to the mid-15th century. There is a beautiful garden there that looks out over the Rhone River and has a spectacular view of the famous Pont D’Avignon bridge. The sun was out but there was a wonderful breeze and it was kind of heaven. Everyone crashed under a tree, but only fell asleep after Greg suggested the ladies play the “imagination game” (everyone imagines something and nobody talks.) I explored the town a little on my own, eventually winding down old staircases until I got to the bridge, and remembered the ‘Sur l’pont d’Avignon” song and my beautiful daughter Phoebe who sings it.

For dinner we found a place called Art & Gourmet in the middle of a beautiful series of winding back alleys. We were attracted to it at first because someone was sitting at a table outside dressed like a ninja turtle. Why would you not want to eat there? We approached the staff and a young man told us to go away – they didn’t feel like making any more food. Was he kidding? He was not. I showed him that we were a party of fifteen and asked if he would like our money. I was really nice about it. He said he did not. But then a young lady stepped in and sat us. So then this really surly new guy comes over and takes our order, and it was like Eeyore’s birthday. Until I made it my goal to make friends with the guy who had refused us. And it only took a few minutes before I had a new buddy. He came and talked with us and joked and helped me translate something and was, in the end, a really cool guy. The entire staff seemed to lighten up. This is because we are so magical and charismatic; mostly me.

I think I mentioned a Pony Circus show? Yes. We got tickets to that. It’s a no brainer. On our way to it we ran into some missionaries, who we surprised by singing “Called to Serve” while they were crossing a street. They were a bit shocked to see a gaggle of Mormons, but relieved to see friendly faces and hear the language of home. I remember that feeling. One was from Vegas, and another was from Orem. One of them, I can’t remember which, was named Meservy. If you know their families – tell them they are healthy and happy and have strange accents.

So this pony show was awesome. It was actually a circus where people rode horses in a circle and did crazy stunts. It was held in a large tent just off the banks of the river, and we had to cross on the free ferry to get there and walk a little into the woods. It was a little mind game: you felt like you were going back in time. Somehow a family of riding circus performers feels a little 1930’s or something. Anyway, we enjoyed the show. There were a lot of dangerous things they did, and a lady who spun way up high on a rope, and a live band, and cool lighting, and ponies, ponies, and more ponies! (And by that I mean horses. But there was one pony, who made a loop halfway through the show while a lady played a kazoo.)

We ended the night on a ferris wheel, which also seems a little depression-era, and I forgot that ferris wheels are kind of scary. They make rickety noises and they swing a lot when you get to the top. But they are also fun, and make for great photo ops unless your Android takes terrible pictures at night. But maybe it was better to put the camera down and just enjoy an ancient city, lit up for the evening. So that's what I did.

Saturday, July 30, 2011


Daniel was the first one to wish me Happy Birthday, though it was at 12:20 last night. My birthday actually started with a Happy Birthday rap that Zoe wrote and performed for me right in the middle of the hotel lobby:

I told the groups that for my birthday Daddy needs a “time out,” so after buying them museum passes we all split and went our separate ways. Some went to the Musee D’Orsay, some went to the Catacombs, and I went to Beauberg/Les Halles. This is the area just north of the river, probably most famous for the Centre Pompidou. I’ve been to the Pompidou plenty of times, but never really explored the area around it. So that’s what I did. It’s definitely old city: lots of thin alleys and winding streets. I hung out for a bit at the Stravinsky fountain, which I’ve seen in movies but never live. It’s really kooky! I liked the snake.

I ate lunch at the Cafe Beaubourg. It’s a really cool piece of art deco design, and was very quiet inside. I ate a meal alone, and I really enjoyed that. I’m sure my waiter thought I was really lonely. But I just ate my croque madame and read some Peeta and had a nice time. Outside was so busy and crazy, and this was the perfect little respite.

After that I made my way through streets of bookshops, streets of shoes shops, and lots of t-shirts claiming to be vintage. None of them were, unless you count Spongebob as vintage. The Les Halles shopping center is going through a major reconstruction, so I only went in there briefly to see what all the fuss was about. There’s no fuss. Just a lot of Gaps. Some great statues outside, though, including Pygmalian, by Julio Silva:
I rested for a few minutes at the Fontaine des Innocents. I listened to my ipod and did some people watching. I'm beyond the point now where I worry if people are laughing at my giant green skullcandy earphones. I love them!

And then I was sort of done with markets and people so I went inside St-Eustache church and sat down. I listened to some more music and took the church in. Nobody complained about me wearing giant green earphones in there, so I guess they are pretty allowing. The church is beautiful; very, very tall, and so quiet. The grounds outside were beautiful, and I took a nap under a tree. A nap you say? Happy Birthday! It was hard to sleep, though, with this thing staring at me:

Next up I went to the Forum des Images, a museum for French films, because I love French movies. I had to learn to love them as part of my initiation into the exclusive Club du Pretension. The museum is free to the public, and you are assigned a carrel with a beautiful big screen and a sound system and encouraged to watch any movie you want. The only stipulation is that they have to be French, or filmed in France. So I went with What’s New Pussycat, the Peter Sellars/Woody Allen/Peter O’Toole comedy which I have never seen. It’s wacky! Filmed entirely in Paris.
I met back up with the group for dinner at Crepes a Gogo. There was no birthday monkey business like there was last year. I was relieved, to be honest. We just had good crepes. And then we hustled back to the Eiffel Tower to catch the Fat Tire Evening Bike Tour.

We did the Fat Tire day tour last year and loved it. I daresay the night tour is even better. You stop less, and it’s more about seeing the city than learning about it. The fifteen of us had our own guide: Billy, from California. Billy was entertaining and funny and he encouraged us to boldly dominate the streets, which we quickly learned to do. I think the Fat Tire tours are the best thing a tourist in Paris can do. So fun. We rode to the Sacre Couer, and over to ice cream island (where the students pitched in to buy me a quadruple!) and then onto the grounds of the Louvre, where we had free reign to ride as much as we liked just as the sun was setting. This was surreal to me. This amazing sense of freedom to ride and ride around the pyramids, and the eternal joy I get from getting into people’s photographs who I don’t know.
The bike tour basically ends with a trip up the Seine on a boat. Billy serves wine, but I warned him that we were a giant pack of Mormons so he came prepared with Cokes and Oranginas. Somehow Greg, Billy, and Jaron coerced the entire back of the boat to sing Happy Birthday to me, and it was very awesome and sounded mostly asian.
One last thing: Billy encouraged us to stay for the 1:00 am Eiffel Tower twinkle. Something amazing happens, he said. So we did. And he was right. I won’t tell you what it is, but it’s worth staying up for.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Paris, je T'aime

We always seem to leave for Paris at the crack of dawn, but this year it was the crack of pre-dawn, and maybe earlier than that. Thankfully everyone was ready on time and the Green Tomato taxi company (sweet silver Priuses!) had four cars lined up outside to get us to St. Pancras. Many things after that are now a blur. We were very sleepy. I remember eating a breakfast something. I remember a security checkpoint. I remember singing “I’m gonna sit right down and bake myself a muffin” in a stupor. But somehow we got on that train. And the train went fast, and the fields were misty, and my eyes were heavy, and we went under the chunnel and boom! We were in Paris.

Paris was not very welcoming at first. It was cold, and I had promised the students it would be warm. It was cloudy and windy when we got to the hotel, but then everyone conked out in their rooms and when we woke up the sun was out. And we had great weather all day.

First order of business was food – I’m a big believer in that whole Maslow thing – so we went to the Carrefour grocery store and everybody got big sandwiches and chips and went into the Georges Brassens Square to eat them. We were surrounded by a murder of crows but we seemed to escape. Greg made up terrible and inaccurate histories of Paris. We debated our chips. And then we headed to the Eiffel Tower, which was a big hit. I never know; sometimes my students don’t like Paris. This group loved it. Loved just about everything about it. Emily was so excited to film the Eiffel Tower from the overground metro that she accidentally filmed everything except it. We walked from the Trocodero to the base of the tower, and the fountains turned on as we passed. I’ve never seen them in action. Impressive water pressure!

Next we went to the St. Michel fountain, where we talked about the Les Mis student uprisings and listened to the soothing saxophone of a gentleman with a mullet. Following this, we dropped in on Shakespeare & Co, which was a little more packed than usual. There was, as always, some piano hog upstairs who kept playing and singing in English – but we met him and his wife outside after and, sure enough, they were BYU Cougars. Then we crossed the river to Notre Dame. Which the students went in, but I did not. I’ve been there many times, and I needed to wait in a 15 minute restroom line monitored by a terrifying woman with a mop.

After this we walked across the bridge to Ile Saint-Louis, which we now call “ice cream island.” This came from last year, when some of the students were looking at a Paris map and saw a giant ice cream cone sign over Ile Saint-Louis. They called it ice cream island, and now we all do. And sure enough, we had ice cream! I had rhubarb, which I know sounds gross. While on ice cream island we also had dinner at a creperie, and were served by this insane but hilarious woman named Mina. She told me to “stop speak,” and she kissed Greg on his ear, and she told Josh he was fat because he asked for ketchup. Every time she brought in food she said “teet teet teet teet!” like some kind of robot. We loved her and feared her.

And then the sun started going down and we went climbed through Montmartre until we reached the steps of the Sacre Couer, solely because it’s the best place to play “your girlfriend/your boyfriend,” a game too complicated to explain here. Just never wear bright colored trousers or crazy hats to the Sacre Couer and you don’t need to worry about being pulled into this game. We also explored the art shops at the top of Montmartre, and nobody bought art but everybody bought gelato. Josh and I had an uncomfortable encounter in the public toilets, which makes two in one day for me. Despite this, I love Montmartre. My favorite part of Paris.

We ended the day as we usually do, watching the Eiffel Tower twinkle. I love hearing the students gasp the first time the twinkles start up. I always gasp a little bit myself. The Eiffel Tower is one of the few world landmarks that is actually larger and more impressive when you see it. You sort of have to remind yourself that you are actually there.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

man is a giddy thing

My students last year responded so well to Hampton Court that I decided to bring the group this year as well. Sometimes I feel like I’m “auditioning” certain places to see if they’ll go into the study abroad roation. So congrats, Hampton Court, you just got called back!

The train ride to Hampton was really fun. The students were in good spirits, which is not unusual for this particular group. I love that. Robbie and Greg kept us entertained on the train, and I appreciate the fact that I can always count on them to do so. I tried to teach Greg how to be a good husband, now that his wife Bonnie is here with us. He didn’t respond very well to my advice. He has a lot to learn. Bonnie is great. She is in remarkably good spirits for someone who just made a huge cross-Atlantic flight and arrived to find her luggage gone. She’s wearing outfits culled together by other girls in the program and is handling that with a lot of positive spirit and patience. I’m impressed. If I got stuck wearing, say, Daniel’s shorts for days and days I would not be so amiable.

Hampton Court has a special theme every day. It’s a piece of history from the day in the life of Henry VIII. Last year, for example, Henry was getting married to his sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr. Today things were not so rosy. Henry was suspecting the very same Catherine Parr of being a supporter of Catholicism. And since he has a history of killing wives, she, and we, were understandably nervous. So you follow these actors from room to room in the palace as they act out a little piece of history. These shows might actually be for kids, I’m not totally sure, but I love it. At one point the king took all the men into another room as his privy council, and he asked us for advice. Nobody really spoke up, so I suggested we “burn her at the stake” and Greg suggested she be drawn and quartered. The dangerous Earl of Wriothesley agreed with us. He liked our statements. In general, we participated so vocally and with such commitment that they started basically acting to us. Which just fanned the flame. Later, the queen was found innocent and we were acquitted for condemning her prematurely, even though we would have probably had our heads chopped off in 1546. The queen gave a lovely speech in which she assured us that she has “no opinions.”

Later I was walking through the royal bedchambers and the man next to me, looking at Henry's giant four-poster, said "I bet that could tell a story or two." And then he moved on.

The train coming home was mysteriously slow, and kept slowing and stopping randomly. The conductor tried to explain what was happening to us, but the intercom made him sound basically like Charlie Brown’s teacher. So we never figured out why it took so long. But we made the best of it. It made for a close shave getting to the show, but we all made it. I even had time to change into a spiffy shirt and re-apply some deoderant. I like being all fancy.

Tonight we saw Much Ado About Nothing with David Tennant and Catherine Tate. David Tennant is famous for being Doctor Who, and Catherine Tate has her own sketch comedy show in the UK, though Americans don’t really know her. She was on an episode of The Office, though. She was interviewing for Michael’s position and kept changing her strategy and opinions to get the job. This production of Much Ado, was, for no good reason, set in the 80’s, and everyone was coming back from the Faulklands War. So there was a lot of George Michael outfits and Footloose-type music. And I didn’t really like it. I wanted to like it, it was high on my hope list, but it just felt really slow and indulgent to me. There were funny bits, but most of it was really scattered and poorly directed. Easily the worst show this year. For me. A lot of the students really loved it. So I’m glad for that. Can’t love them all. But next time don’t change time periods just so people can wear hot pants, and don’t have Claudio run around the stage crying and putting a gun in his mouth. That was so nerdy.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

to war!

If you want to get to see a show at the Donmar Warehouse you have to be really lucky, really famous, or you have to line up at 7:00 am and hope to grab a ticket when they open the box office at 10:30. Since I am neither lucky or famous (Stalking Santa is not the phenomenon here that it is in the US) I took the 7 am option and was the first guy in line! Seats assured! Now just for the 3 ½ hour wait. Luckily, the next customer was Eri Manor, who showed up at 7:40. At first I was planning to just sit quietly and read Peeta, which is my name for The Hunger Games, because I can never remember that name. I was just planning to read m' Peeta and wait it out, but turns out Eri, an Israeli who runs the Tel Aviv film festival, was fascinating. We talked film and politics for a few hours and the time flew by. I was grateful he was there. Sometimes I need to be reminded that there are fascinating people all around me, and I can’t close myself off to them just because it’s easier to stay in my comfort zone. Besides, I’m on book two of Peeta and I don’t really love it. Some of the writing is so cheesy. Here’s an actual line:

“everything will just get more complicated and I really can’t think about kissing when I’ve got a rebellion to incite.”


We hit two war museums today: the Imperial War Museum and the Churchill War Rooms. I’ve been to the Imperial several times, and I always love it. They had a special exhibit on about children’s war literature, but I didn’t go. I saved that money and had some lunch in the cafĂ©. And then I had a nap outside under a huge tree. Are you sensing a theme in this trip? Bikes and naps?

The War Rooms I have never been to. I was inspired to make today a “war” theme, since the students are seeing War Horse tonight. But I was also encouraged to go to the War Rooms because my mom told me to. She’s on a Churchill kick, she tells me, and I need to check this thing out. So I did! It was really cool – fun to be in a museum that doesn’t just tell you about the war rooms, but actually was the war rooms. It was fun to wander the halls – it’s this large series of bunkers under Whitehall palace – and think about how many decisions were made down there that shaped the face of WWII. Some of the people who worked there had to live and breathe down there for weeks at a time. I thought it was so incredible, and I learned a lot about Wintston Churchill the man. What a guy.

Walked home through St. James’ Park today. It was full of people and the weather was balmy. Perfect day to be in the park. I wish I could be there with my family! Sometimes homesickness hits me when I’m not prepared for it.

I had a great dinner with Peter White, who is dating my good friend Jenny Latimer. Jenny is like a younger sister to me, so I needed to meet this lad and give him the once over. Which he passed with flying colors. Great guy. Jenny and Peter met while he was music directing the tour of Les Miserables, where she plays Cosette. Peter is English, and we had a great talk about the British/American relationship over dinner at Covent Garden. We also shared audition horror stories, which I especially liked. And we talked about Jenny and all the things we hate about her.

Thanks to my early morning efforts, I got great tickets tonight to see Luise Miller at the Donmar, starring a bunch of people but especially Alex Kingston from ER! I sat by Eri and his wife Ruth, and I loved the show. I love any show at the Donmar, because it’s so intimate. Another person who loved it was Ben Whishaw, who sat right behind me. I’ve never seen this play – it’s 230 years old but you would ever know it. Amazing how good actors can transform old pieces into new ones. I’m always inspired by new visions and new stories, but new visions of old stories are maybe even more exciting.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


Our first order of the day was to celebrate Emily Smith's birthday at Nando's Chicken Factory. The Brazilian music was pumpin for da party, as this video clearly shows:

Then we took off for a tour around the neighborhood. We spend so much time in the West End or South Bank that we sort of miss the fact that we live a block away from two major museums (the Natural History Museum and the V&A) an incredibly ornate and impressive catholic church (the Brompton oratory) and Harrods - which is like nothing else. So that's where we went today. To our own backyard.

Of course we all got separated in Harrods, but I was counting on that. As long as everyone finds something shiny to look at, we're good. I always like looking at the furniture. And I found a very special corduroy armchair. Comfort, with a touch of bemusement.

Jaron and Zoe and I, an hour or so later, fled the tourists (we pretend we aren't tourists) and hit the bikes. I learned today that these bikes are called Boris bikes, named after the mayor who promoted them (thanks, Kate.) We hired a few Boris' and sped through South Kensington. We dominate the streets. We fear nothing (except errant scooters.) Eventually we found Battersea Park, and had a really nice bike ride through it. Jaron and Zoe were impressed by the randomness of Battersea - what? a Buddhist temple? - and I like all the big trees lining the bike path. It was really great.

On our way back we stopped and took a picture of the Battersea Power Station, made famous for being on the cover of Pink Floyd's Animals album with a giant inflatable pig. I didn't know any of this, but Jaron did. So I took this picture completely out of peer pressure.

Tonight's show, Roadshow, was at the Menier Chocolate Factory. I love seeing musicals there. You are right up just feet away from the actors. And the actors are always so energetic and committed at the Menier. Fun to watch. Roadshow is a Steven Sondheim piece that has had countless revisions and has still never had a Broadway premiere. This production was actually the first in Europe. I'm not sure why. It's an interesting story and the music, while it borrows really heavily from Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George, was beautiful and really well sung. I enjoyed it a lot. Even though I sat on the front row and got hit with fake money about 12 times. That's show biz!

PS. Before the show started I had to use the bathroom, and there was a little bit of a wait at the urinals. Long story short, a really creepy middle aged man came in, took his shirt off and wet it in the sink, and proceeded to wipe his chest and hairy back with it. Then he pulled another shirt out of a sack and put it on. Then he watched the show. Why two shirts? Why the bath in the middle of this crowded restroom? So many questions.