Wednesday, July 31, 2013

lady mary, lord titus

Today started out like yesterday: drizzly and damp. We woke up to thunderclaps again, and the air felt thick with rain. I know it was only a week or so ago that I was complaining about the “heat wave,” but today I longed for it. When the drizzle clouds roll in you feel like they are there to stay. Of course, in all my years of doing this trip it’s rained every day we’ve travelled to Stratford except one. So I was prepared for it.

We all boarded the coach at 9:00 am. Our driver was an incredibly genial man named Alton. We’ve had colorful drivers in the past, but Alton was pretty drama-free. He knew where we were headed, was flexible about time frames, and didn’t snore through the walls of the Bed and Breakfast. We travelled in a 20 seat coach instead of a giant Redwing, and it seemed to fit us perfectly. I always feel a bit guilty when we’re tooling around in a 50 seater with 12 students on board.

Our first stop was Highclere Castle, but nobody has called it that for five years at least. It’s Downton Abbey. And it’s really beautiful. Smaller than it appears on TV, but impeccably groomed and surprisingly free of the masses of people we’d expected. The rain had stopped and it was the perfect time to go. And though we were told online that the tickets were sold out, we had no problem getting in. It was really fun to see the interior of Highclere since so many of the rooms are used in the show:
The Dining Room, where the countess says acerbic things

The gentlemen's room, where marriages are arranged and re-arranged

Lady Grantham's bedroom, where she sleeps and stuff
And what's this? Lady Mary descending the staircase in her bridal gown?

We spent some time walking around in the gardens, which seemed to stretch on forever. Yes, we walked up same path as Lord Grantham in the title sequence, and yes there’s a bench under that massive tree. We explored the field of wildflowers and the secret garden, and Josh and I had a nap in the white garden. Yes, that's two naps, two days in a row! But it was really peaceful and quiet. Hard not to.

Outside the castle several Model T's, Packards, and other period cars starting lining up and it quickly became apparent that they were filming that day. We tried to find Lady Mary or see the new baby but all anybody spotted was Lord Grantham’s yellow lab. No Maggie Smith. But still – season four is happening! I saw proof.

After lunch under the big tree we boarded the coach and headed another half hour or so to Blenheim Palace, which I sort of went loony for last year. We didn’t buy tickets to the palace, because it looks like all the other ones, but we did buy tickets to the gardens. We saw fountains and flowers and Japanese people and a giant lake. It really was beautiful- perfect weather, and even starting to warm up. We had great conversations and I heard some funny stories and it was so nice to breathe fresh country air for a few hours.

We checked into the Linhill Bed and Breakfast in Stratford-upon-Avon and then we all headed into the town center to eat dinner at the Dirty Duck. Devin fell in love with the boy at the counter and Tatijanna and I both ate bangers and mash with a side of mac and cheese. And giant pints of Diet Coke! With so much ice! Josh was in rare form and tried to kiss Aubrey, though I’m sure her boyfriend at home won’t mind. It’s not like we were at a quaint pub in downtown Stratford as the sun was setting.

It’s interesting to me that Titus Andronicus, which is generally considered to be one of the worst plays Shakespeare ever wrote, is still today the best experience I’ve had at the Globe in London. And now it’s the best experience I’ve had at the RSC in Stratford. A play about revenge, blood, hands cut off, throats slit, dudes baked into pies, people raped and tongues cut out, and general mayhem, it’s not for the faint of heart. Or even the bold of heart. This production didn’t shy away from anything. It was terrifically gory. It was also terrifically funny. It was stylish and loud and the direction was masterful. I can’t remember the last time I saw a Shakespeare piece this inventive or captivating. I wasn’t bored for a minute. Titus’ descent into madness became our descent; what started so formally and with such restraint devolved into an old man dressed as a maid, serving human flesh in a pie to a Gothic woman in heels with fur and a Mohawk. And that happened just before the entire cast stabbed each other to death, littering the stage with blood and knives and stacks of bodies in tuxedos. Wowza. I was kind of blown away.

We decompressed, per my tradition, at the Trinity Church, where Shakespeare was buried. We sat on the lawn near the chapel and Emily and I shared ghost stories with the group. At one point, Emily saw a dim light coming from a basement window of the church. The next day, upon further investigation, she found that there were no basement windows. The light was just hovering, for a few brief moments, at the foot of the church. Hello, William! Loved the show!

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

forty one

I was happy to be back in London for my birthday. I love Paris, but I always feel like London is home base. If I want to do something on a whim, London is far more manageable than Paris is.
I started the day off by saying goodbye to Jason Barker, who was just with us for a little over a week. We will miss him. He was a funny, happy and easy traveler, and he quickly became part of our group. I know he was excited to return to the world of cell reception and giant cups of ice, but I think he was sad to say goodbye to us as well. We already miss him.

I had a little breakfast at the Petit Delice near our flats. I usually don’t want to spend much money on breakfast because I never wake up that hungry. But today I did it, because I’m 41 and a growing boy. I had a nice apricot tart and a hot chocolate, and I caught up on some emails in quiet. The rain pattered steadily out in Kynance Place.

Massive thanks to Joshua Valdez who made my birthday special. He insisted that we buy a joint pass to Madame Tussaud's and The London Eye, two major tourist attractions that I shamefully have never done. Well, now I’ve done them. They are radically different, but both have much to recommend themselves.

Madame Tussaud's is exactly what you expect. The waxworks are pretty funny and it’s great to get up to celebrities and see how short they are and how ugly their noses are. I started taking pictures with the stars, but then I turned my focus onto the stars I really dislike. I felt like I was being given a license to show them how I really feel about them. Hence, these pictures in my celebrity Hall of Shame:
Tom Cruise, ugh.

Jim Carrey, not funny

Robin Williams, irritating

Madonna, irritating

There’s also a terrific little ride where you jump in a mini-taxi and take a journey through time! Mostly London time. You see all the little epochs of London history from the Great Fire of 1666 to Carnaby Street in the 60’s. Curiously, you finish at a giant merry-go-round with a bunch of waxwork children spinning around with evil, frozen grins all over their faces.

There is also a torture chamber that is pretty gruesome and unnerving, and a hallway where actors jump out at you and scream. It’s actually fairly scary but mostly funny and ridiculous. At one point I touched a padded wall and an actor screamed at me and accused me of being a “wall pervert.”

After we finished the wax museum I was starving and told Josh that I would kill for a little Pizza Express. The birthday fairy granted my request: there was a Pizza Express just around the corner on Baker Street! This story is not as miraculous as it seems, however, since there’s a Pizza Express around every corner in London. Who cares! La Reine on a flat crust.
Next up, the London Eye! This is that giant ferris wheel overlooking the Thames. I’ve literally never been in it. Not sure why, though the price probably scared me off and I would only be really interested in it if it spun faster or lit up with club lighting and strobes. Or if every compartment contained a ghost or a murderer. All the same, it was calm, beautiful, and much more impressive than I expected. The sun finally broke through the drizzle and not a moment too soon. Hungerford Bridge and the Parliament Building looked pretty amazing.

Josh and I spent a little time at the British Film Institute bookstore, and then did the same thing at the National Theatre Bookstore. I bought a copy of The Collaborators, a fantastic play I saw last year and hope to someday direct.
We only had a short time left before we needed to meet the group at Covent Garden, so we walked over the Blackfriars Bridge, picked up some pastries at Greggs, and then hijacked a little table at Somerset house. The fountains were on and off and we saw several people get unsuspectingly wet. We threw food at pigeons and debated the merits of Fanta. Then we both took a catnap right there in the square, which is exactly what a man my age should do. When I woke up a pigeon had bravely landed on our table and was snacking on my chicken pasty.

We had a terrific dinner with the whole group at Wagamama’s on Tavistock Street, and had a great visit with Joe and Suzy Fox, who we randomly ran into. I had the ginger chicken and tried Edamame for the first time. (SPOILER: it’s just peas with salt on them.)At one point at the meal Aubrey presented me with a gift from the students: just enough money to buy one of the super fancy shirts I spotted on Ice Cream Island in Paris! They had all pitched in. I was very touched. They made me promise to wear it at our first Company Call this Fall at UVU. And I will!

Tonight we saw The Cripple of Inishmaan starring our favorite little magical boy, Daniel Radcliffe. What a sweet, funny, and oddly dark play this is. Harry Potter plays Cripple Billy, an Irish lad with a physical disability so pronounced that he lurches around the stage and zig zags through his scenes. I was very impressed with his physical work in the play. I totally believed it. Cripple Billy gets discovered by a Hollywood director and the rest of the play explores how his little island village responds to it. It’s such a gem of a play. Funny, sad, and even a little cruel, it’s one of the best written plays I’ve seen at some time.

At intermission Josh and I made a hasty retreat to the men’s room and, in our haste, came face to face with Gerard Butler. Holy crap, he’s handsome. I instantly became a quivering lady.

After the show was over we headed to the Stage Door to catch a glimpse of Daniel Radcliffe, but there were 1400 pre-teen girls already there. I tried to distract them by shouting “Look, it’s Taylor Lautner!” but it only shut them up for a few minutes and nobody budged out of the line. When Harry finally came out he was swarmed with screams and cellphones, and unfortunately he’s so short that most of the girls never even saw him. Me, being a grown man, was able to get my camera up high enough to get a shot. That’s what it means to be forty one. You are tall enough to see magical midgets!

Monday, July 29, 2013

lifts and trains

Our last day in Paris and everyone scrambled to try and see or do that one last thing they didn't get to. We had a half day, but that time goes quickly. Especially if you spend half of it on the Metro.

Sidenote: why are the Metros in Paris so gross? You don't want to touch anything. And you're constantly being asked for money. And the doors make fart sounds. I love the Tube more and more each time I come back to London.

Jason wanted to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower, and it's been a few years since I've done that, so we headed there. Most of the group went to the film museum and ice cream island. The Bells and Nate went to visit some haunted cathedrals which house the bones of a couple of Louis'.

The line wasn't too bad for the Tower, mostly because it was a Monday morning. But the people watching was spectacular. Also I got busted by security for trying to get a Red Bull in.

Unfortunately, the top floor was closed, which meant we could only go to the second floor. But it's still a few hundred feet up and it's still pretty stunning up there. There was a huge wind happening and there were lots and lots of Germans. I think Paris looks even better by air.

We boarded the train and headed back to London. There were no incidents to report. Just a lot of pastry buying at the train station. And some strange mysterious odors. And a few random passengers trying to steal our seats on the Eurostar. I love the ride home, and it's beautiful just to look out the window.

Sunday, July 28, 2013


I was determined that today would be an epic day. Epically Parisian. I’m not sure exactly what that is, but I was prepared to do whatever it takes. This day would be rated E for Epic. I would not back down.
We left the hotel at 11, which is not epic. Most of us slept through breakfast; also not epic. Our first stop was the catacombs but the line was about 2 hours long (un-epic.)  But the rest of the day? Epic.

Everyone splintered into little groups today. Ames, Emily, and Nate went to the Pantheon, visited Montmartre, and did the boat tour. Tatijanna and Whitney revisited Versailles. Josh, Aubrey, Devin, Jason and I determined that we would not do anything that required us to wait in lines. And we didn’t! Mostly. Sometimes you just want to wander and see things in your own time and in your own way. That was kind of us.

We stopped first at Shakespeare and Company, where we leafed through some books and hung out upstairs in the music room. I played the piano and these ladies were very impressed.
Aubrey found a little cubby that fit her style.


I typed on a little typewriter and looked at Notre Dame out the window. It felt super Hemingway!


We headed to the Cathedral next and judged the entrance line to be “not too bad” and “worth it.” So we made it inside just for a mass. I finagled a way for us to get into the worship service, where we stood up a lot and sang “hallelujah.” At one point the priest quoted St. Paul and I felt particularly pleased by that. Of course it was some kind of circumcision quote, but that’s always been Paul’s thing. I loved sitting in the mass as the light shone down through the stained glass. When it came time to eat the wafers we snuck out and headed to Ice Cream Island!

Ice Cream Island is really the Ile de St. Louis, but we call it that because every other shop sells Ice Cream. The boys bought some baguettes, chips, and Red Bulls while the ladies bought some crepes with terrifying amounts of cheese in them. We sat by the Seine and yelled things at the boats going by.

We walked through Le Marais for a bit, stopping at a Starbucks to use the bathroom and steal the wifi. A creepy old gypsy lady muttered things at us in the corner and counted her money. We decided we wanted to go swimming at Piscine Josephine Baker, a large swimming pool built right on top of the river! But we couldn’t find swimsuits. That was a sad moment.

But then things looked up at the Louvre! We didn’t want to see the whole Louvre. That’s the great thing about a museum pass; you come and go and see what you want for as long as you want. You don’t feel panicked if you don’t hit every floor of the Denon wing. I did see the following treasures:


The Louvre McDonald’s was out of ice (which, to quote Ragtime: what is wrong with this country?) so we refreshed ourselves by taking a beautiful walk through the Luxembourg Gardens! We sat by the boat fountain and cheered on the little moor with the US flag. We took off our shoes and dangled them in the water, even if it was a little mossy. Jason regaled us with stories of how several different animals mate, and kept using the word “cloaca” even though none of us knew what it meant. We laid down on the grass and I fell asleep while everyone talked about cloacas. When I woke, I looked up and saw this:

We decided that we were epically hungry and I proposed that we eat at the Café Beaubourg, even though it was across the town and a little bit fancy. Everyone felt that you should have at least one fancy meal in Paris, and we decided to walk there. This was partially to avoid using the steamy metro one more time, and partially to just see more of the Left Bank. We also came across lots of little surprises, including a mysterious line of people looking for cupcakes and this fountain:
We made it to the café just before Josh was going to drop dead from starvation, and we had delicious croquet madames and omelettes. Also, dinner rolls with butter! And a beautiful view of the Pompidou. Just outside the restaurant, we were accosted by four Chinese masseuses who insisted that they rub us down for penny change. I was positive that it was all a scam, but they really didn’t charge anything beyond a few Euros. The quality of the massage, sadly, reflected that. Devin, particularly, was underwhelmed. I mostly laughed and laughed.

Now it was evening and the day had been epic. We wanted to end it in a big way. You know, like a road show. So we jumped on the metro and headed to the Arc de Triumphe. The sun was setting and it was pretty amazing up there. We played games and Josh did the sloppy swish for several tourists. When it was finally dark the rain hit again, and all the citizens of Paris, from Montmartre to Convention, huddled in doorways and churches and under bridges until it passed.