Monday, July 21, 2014

London - July 21, 2014

The sleep?  It did not happen so much last night.  I was up till 2AM with the jet lag and awake again at 4AM.  By the time 6AM rolled around, I had E.N.O.U.G.H. of the laying around trying to woo the sandman and decided to get the day started.

Had a continental breakfast at the hotel with some fancy cottage cheese that tastes nothing like what we have in the states.  It's a little thicker.  Less rubbery.  More... cheese-like.  So I had that and some sliced cheese.  And some cucumbers.  And cheese.  And a croissant with preserves.  And some more cheese.  Perhaps one of the reasons I like London so much is that all my memories are flavored either cheese or chocolate.  What's not to be deliriously happy about in the land of Cadbury and cheddar?

By 8AM, I was up and walking the streets of South Kensington.  It reminds me a bit of Brooklyn.  It is lovely, but there is a bit of... shabby lived-in-ness?... to it.  It's not that it's rundown.  It's just if the rest of London is like a tailored suit, South Kensington seems like the hostess an hour before the party, hair in a pony tail, frantically kicking the clothes under the bed while trying to remember not to burn the hors d'oeuvre.  Everyone was running to work.  Literally.  Running.  In high heels.  Texting as they rode their bicycles in suits and ties.  Scurry!  Scurry!  Scurry!

My destination was the Brompton Cemetery.  I had never heard of it before.  It was on my map, so I figured I should go see what it looked like.  The answer is "cool".  It looked like really, really cool.



All of the people rushing off to their jobs used Brompton Cemetery as a short cut, so I was dodging bikes and pedestrians the whole time.  There was something rather poetic about it.  Rushing past the dead as they rushed to get through their life.  I'm sure there is a more eloquent way of putting it, but I've been drinking instant coffee all day.

 


As I entered the cemetery, there was a raven kissing one of the tombstones.  He flew away before I could get a picture, but there he was, just preening the stone like it was his job to keep things tidy.

The cemetery was founded in 1836 and time had taken its toll.

 

(great place to hide a body!)

There was a beautiful decay to everything.

That's not to say that everything was left to nature!  In fact, the signs said that a major project was underway to return the cemetery to its former glory.  And how glorious that is!




The front of the cemetery has been used in countless movies.  It seemed very familiar...





And I have no idea who these folks are, but I'd like to shake the hand of whomever it was that told them to go this direction with their marketing.  Sign me up for their services!



This little squirrel amused me.  He just sat there with that nut in his mouth perfectly still, not making a move, not blinking, nothing.  It was like he wanted to try out for the role of fancy new gravemarker.  Got himself into a staring contest with one of the weeping angels or something.  And he was winning.  


Again, I was too slow with the camera, but imagine this lane filled with golden colored leaves falling from the trees.  That's what happened about two seconds before my shutter clicked.  It was like something out of a movie.

I reached the entrance, and looked to see if I could find my favorite raven, but suddenly there was a swoop of the flock as a good fifty of them swept in and landed by the fence.  Someone dropped some breadcrumbs for them, and they each sat there, happy as a clam, with little white pieces in their beaks.




I returned back to my hotel to pick up my Tube ticket and headed out to the Victoria & Albert Museum.  I gotta say, England's rail stations are so pretty...  This was just for their subway!


I arrived at the V&A and it was gorgeous.  Ever square inch was carved.  The galleries went on and on and on.  






I discovered this courtyard for some lunch.


And the sweetest little memorial hidden behind a column to some beloved pet dogs.


There was a bed built for six:


And some beautiful examples of the art nouveau movement, which I just love.



The signage said that the prevailing belief of this movement was that art need serve no other purpose other than to just be lovely.  Lovely, indeed!

I think my favorite thing, though, was something I didn't get a picture of.  They had original paintings by Beatrix Potter.  They are even more beautiful than you can imagine with such a delicate hand.  She painted so tiny and small with such and eye for detail.  That made it worth the trip.

It was time to leave the museum, however, and get back to my dorm room across town.  I had Plans for this evening... which were all foiled.  I've come to the conclusion that on these trips, there will be one night where nothing I do will be successful.  I dutifully walked over to the British Library to purchase a copy of the Complete Works of Shakespeare from their museum shop... and they didn't have a copy.  I hopped on the Tube to go across the Thames to grab rush seats for a show I really want to see... and it doesn't open until Wednesday.  My second choice for a show is dark on Mondays.  The shop I wanted to go to was not where I thought it was.  

Instead, it turned into a "get it done" night.  I went to the drugstore to buy a travel hairdryer and essentials.  I went to the market and picked up some water and coffee (see: essentials).  I bought a cup to drink my coffee out of.  I found a Complete Works in another bookshop.  You know. Stuff.  That needs to be done.  And, really, I needed to do tonight.  For tomorrow begins Day One of my class and from what I hear, they will be keeping me deliciously running for the next four weeks.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

London - 7/20/14


I boarded the Boeing 777 Dreamliner (how apropos) and headed out of dodge.  I thought I was just upgrading to the "don't stick my knees into my ears" leg room section (really, spend whatever you have to in order to get out of the cattle section on these long flights.  You think it is going to be okay.  It is not.  Any. Money. It. Takes.), but turns out I upgraded to the fancy not-quite-business class.  How precious is that moment when a flight attendant offers you a lukewarm cup of water before take-off.  Behold!  I am world class!

I was seated next to a large man who was taking full advantage of the complimentary wine and, evidently, from the amount of shifting he felt necessary, had shorts on that were binding in unpleasant places.  Around about hour four, he decided to move next to his girlfriend... wife... someone across the aisle who had an entire row to herself.  He made sure to apologize for moving, though, and reassure me that it wasn't me.

There was a moment at takeoff as we lifted off.  The entire gray city was swallowed by a cloud, then white nothingness, and then the sun burned through and we were above.  As we flew, the sun was a the right place to create circular rainbows that followed us.

I have done this enough to be prepared, but British Airway gave me a free goodie bag of flight awesomeness.  Soon, I was swaddled in my complimentary flight blanket, complimentary ear plugs, complimentary socks, my neoprene sleep mask, the perfect neck pillow, and inflatable footrest.  I wondered that an airline seat could actually recline 45 degrees (I wondered especially as the guy in front of me reclined to 45 degrees).  I watched some TV.  I ate some real food on real dishes that actually can break.  I slept.  I slept through breakfast.  The cheery attendant did a stellar job pretending that she was only too happy to bring me some coffee as I finally emerged from my cocoon.

Heathrow was a dream getting out of, the lines short, the customs agent surprisingly chatty and welcoming... I think it was because everyone was so grateful to be indoors in a place with air conditioning.  Good lord!  I arrived in the middle of "muggy" season.  Never have I sweated so much!  The sweat and the sleep deprivation led me to make poor choices on the Tube.  The walking.  So much unnecessary walking.  With a big bag for my five week trip.

Finally, I arrived at the student housing.  A very dear girl at the front desk who was probably born when I was graduating collage had to explain to me twice how to figure out where my room was.  Hi!  I'm old and get confused easily!  The room itself was darling, but the one window opens about three inches (I'm sure so that anyone bigger than three inches around can't leap to their death while in the midst of heat exhaustion jet-lagged madness).  I tried to lie down, but, now this is going to sound crazy, but there are people in a city and they like to talk and drive cars.  I dutifully put on my shower shoes to rinse off the travel crud, but forgot my shampoo and suddenly it was TOO MUCH!

I had reserved a hotel room ages ago (non-refundable, of course) in case there was some problem with the housing, and I decided why not go use a real shower.  So, it was off to South Kennsington!

I spotted a pigeon that looked like he could have been carved from marble.


I wandered around lost for a bit, but finally made it to my little hotel.  It had been described as having "character".  Character means "no air conditioning".  But at least this window opens a whole 24 inches.



And the view was lovely.


I brewed myself a little packet of instant coffee, and all started to be right in the world.



The shower and all its water pressure was glorious.  I napped a bit.  I watched new Top Gear episodes.  I walked down to grab some take away dinner, but everything closed at 6pm and it was 6:03 pm.  I ended up in this chain sandwich shop called Greggs with some of the most delicious looking pastries I've ever seen.

(the one with the dots was a shortbread cookie with maple-esque frosting and chocolate covered toffee balls.  The pink one was sugar cake iced with sugar.)

I sat in my little room watching British quiz shoes and trying to stay cool.  Watched some families play ping-pong in the park across the square.  Oh, the sleep thing really didn't happen, between the sweating and the trash collection.  But there was a moment around 2AM as a great wind came through and rustled the leaves on the giant trees outside the window.


Today, we start the adventure...

P.S.  There is an old saying, "Pennies from heaven."  A friend told me that when someone you love has passed away, sometimes they will reach out by leaving pennies for you.  I know... I know... but for whatever reason, after my grandma passed, we started finding pennies in the strangest spots, at moments when we were thinking of her.  As I was in the airport getting ready to depart for this trip, I heard a "cling!" and felt something under my foot.  Mind you, there was no one around me.  I had cleared out all my change from my purse before I left.  But I lifted my foot and there was a penny.  I guess Grandma decided to come along for the ride.




Monday, July 14, 2014

April 3, 2013

In April 2013, I visited London for the first time.  This is my travelogue, long overdue, of my three trips to London over the course of a year.  

Previous London Posts
London. April. 2013
April 1, 2013


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"Today was a trip to the Dickens House Museum, the only home of Charles Dickens still in existence.  Got to see his writing table and silverware and letters and such.  Totally fun!  Then I headed up to see Tamsin Greig (Caroline from Green Wing) and Iain Glen (Downton Abbey) in Chekhov's "Longing".  It was mindblowingly gorgeous.  Then on the way home on the tube, I saw a poster that Mr. Bean was doing a show which is closing in six days.  So I got on my computer and grabbed a ticket.  It was an endearing tragi-comedy and he was amazing.  I guess this is the first time in 25 years he's done just a regular old play, so this all worked out well.  Got some snow (it is SO COLD) and of course I booked my tour of Highgate Cemetery for tomorrow (MORE SNOW!).  So that's about it on this end!"
   

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I woke up the morning of April 3rd to the cold.  Now, mind you, I was living at Los Angeles at the time, so anything under 78 degrees is worthy of a scarf and wool socks.  But the temperature had dropped and the wind was biting.  It was legitimately cold.  I wrapped myself up in my woolen coat and headed off to the Dickens Museum.  

For the past two years, I was part of an absolutely wonderful production of A Christmas Carol at the GTC Theatre in Burbank.  I know what you're thinking... You've seen A Christmas Carol.  You know A Christmas Carol.  But have you ever read the actual book?  The text is absolutely gorgeous.  Kevin Cochrain took the original text and divided it up between three actors.  We had David Allen Jones as Scrooge (who should be the Yul Brynner of A Christmas Carol and playing the role on Broadway every winter), Frank Simons as all the men, and me as all the women.  The set was minimal.  The only props were these big scarves that became different costumes.  And it was gorgeous.  Every night, we'd hear sniffles in the audience as Dickens' text moved people to tears.  It was one of the most difficult shows I've ever done (I once timed my lines from end to end and I spoke for 45-minutes) and I loved it. 

So, it seemed like a pilgrimage of sorts to go to the Dickens House Museum.

It was off in a remote corner, smack dab in the middle of two distant Tube stops.  I walked down empty streets with uniform townhomes lined up smartly one right next to another.  Most smart souls were tucked away inside in the warmth of their homes.  My memory of that walk is colored gray and dusty blue.  


I arrived and stepped inside.


This was where Dickens lived.  These were the actual halls he walked everyday and walls which held his stories.  The museum is absolutely gorgeous and I recommend it to anyone visiting London.  It is so well curated with the most amazing collection of his things.



Here was the table where he sat!  Here is the podium he used when he read A Christmas Carol aloud!


Here is the actual book of A Christmas Carol!

 

One of the trickiest passages for my fellow actor Frank and I was this bit about the Cratchit family and how Mrs. Cratchit baked the family dessert in the copper wash house.  What  the heck did that mean?  Well.  Here is the copper (it's the tub used for boiling the clothes) in the washroom.



You put your Christmas pudding in that bowl and would cook it in the same vessel used just the day before for washing your underwear!  Mystery solved!  Also, note to self, if ever one finds one's self transported back to Victorian England, don't eat the Christmas pudding.

I paused for just a moment in the study and rested my hand just for a moment on Dicken's desk just to say thank you.
  

I left the museum and was shocked to find snow coming down.  I exited right next to a bus stop, and it turned out the bus was going exactly where I needed to go!  So, I hopped aboard and climbed to the second story.  I watched the neighborhoods whiz by, from rich to poor to rich again.

I finally hopped off at Swiss Cottage, which was home to Ye Olde Swiss Cottage Pub.

(Picture ganked from the internet.  Imagine this with snow.)

I had not yet been in a pub and had not had the obligatory fish n' chips, so, I walked in.  About half-way through my meal, though, I realized I had misjudged my time and it was an hour later than I expected.  I leaped up and ran to the theatre as quick as my cold little legs could carry me.

What theatre, you ask?


I had heard that one of my favorite actors, Tamsin Greig, was starring in this new Chekhov adaptation called Longing at the Hampstead Theatre alongside Iain Glen, whom most Americans would know from Game of Thrones.  Tamsin is a household name in the U.K., but here in the U.S., you might know her best for her work in Episodes.  I was first introduced to her through a show called Green Wing.  If you have not seen this series, track it down.  I think you can watch it free on Hulu.  It is one of my favorite shows in the history of mankind and whenever I need to feel good about life, I pull out the DVD.  It will make you laugh and cry and fall in love and just... oh, it is so brilliant.  So the plans for my original trip got its roots in my mind when I found out that there was the possibility of seeing Tamsin in this show and another one of my favorite actors from Green Wing, Julian Rhind-Tutt, on a radio taping.  I bought tickets and got everything arranged... but then that trip fell through,.  And then, on a whim, decided to take this trip.  Long story short, due to my brilliant scheduling, by the time I figured everything out, Longing was sold out.  They said they would start releasing return tickets an hour before the show, and if a person were to line up, there was the possibility they might be able to buy a ticket.

So I walked around the corner to this contemporary little theatre and found myself in line about an hour later than I originally planned and hoping that I had not completely screwed everything up because I stopped for some fish and chips.  It is funny, though, how life conspires sometimes to bring you the most wonderful experiences.  I happened to be behind two Indian women.  One of the things I love so much about London is that people just talk to one another.  In America?  We would all have been scrolling through our Twitter feeds.  Instead, we struck up a conversation.  It turns out these two women were both professors of literature.  We sat there talking Brecht and Chekhov and Shakespeare.  We talked about the educational system in India vs. America vs. the U.K.  It was rich and beautiful.  And then suddenly the man at the counter said he had a ticket available.  And the one woman looked at me and said, "You go ahead of us.  You came all the way from America.  I want to make sure you get in to see this show."

Who does that?  

This moment was and is my time, my lessons from England in a nutshell.  There is a gentle kindness that infuses everything.  In America, we are so terrified of one another.  We are living with this low level of fear in everything we do.  And it makes us mean.  You don't know it until you step out of our borders to somewhere else and feel that weight being lifted from your shoulders.  There is a better way to live, one where strangers are just a few words away from being friends and kindness is not an invitation for people to use you as their stepping stool.  One where a person you just meet finds more joy in giving away an experience than having the experience themselves.  I thank those women for teaching me the power of keeping my heart just a little softer.

They happy ending was we all got in to see the show.  We celebrated as each ticket was released.  We waved at one another from our seats.  And oh... that theatre... there was not a bad seat in the entire house.  I walked in and was blown away.  

The stage was covered in grass and trees.  A small cottage sat hidden in this indoor wood.  The light had the shadows of a forest.  And then the play began.  Exquisite does not even come close.  The actors connected with each other and the material in a way we rarely see in America.  There was not a single weak link.  It felt like you were peeking in, eavesdropping from a neighboring tree.  Everything was so natural, so real, so... Chekhov.  It was Stanislavsky (the guy who invented the acting processes American theater has convoluted into The Method, who worked with Chekov) done as he meant acting to be done.  There is something so profound to see actors at the height of craft wielding words worthy of their gifts.  Tamsin and Iaian were so heart-breakingly good.  There was electricity and energy and it was like falling into life.  It was so real.  By the end, I was on my feet.  I was sobbing snot bubbles for a half hour on the Tube ride home.  I could not let go of that world.  I did not want to let go.  The whole message of the play Longing is to leap when those instincts say take a chance.  If you do, happiness awaits.  But if you don't, only tragedy.  And wasn't that my entire trip?  This trip I took on a whim?  This moment in time I decided to heck with everything, I'm going to do this thing that makes no sense?  It suddenly made sense.  Profound sense.

The thought of going back to my hotel just didn't seem right.  I need more theatre like an addict needs crack.  My heart and head were too big for the walls.  I needed to go sit in a darkened room with 1000 more perfect strangers.  To have one more moment.  To have one more taste.  And then, starting at me on a poster at one of the stops, was an ad for Quartermaine's Terms.  Mr. Bean, a.k.a. Rowan Atkinson, was doing his first "straight" play (meaning non-musical, actual play) in twenty-five years.  It was closing in six days.  And there was a 1/2 price ticket available.  I grabbed my stuff and ran.


The theater was the Wynham, one of the most gorgeous old theatres on the West End.  Think gold gilt and velvet.





I was way up there in the balcony, seated next to a lovely mother and daughter pair visiting from Wales.  The show, again, was fantastic.  Rowan Atkinson is who he is because he is so brilliant.  It seems like such a dumb sounding statement, but in Los Angeles, so many "stars" are made because of connections, the right look, luck...  You see them on stage, though, and it is about as exciting as dropping a match into water.  Don't get me wrong.  Acting on film is HARD.  It is a different beast than stage.  But here were all of these actors who were just as good on stage as on screen.  It was like finding this whole world where the norm is Jackie Joyner-Kersee.  What do you do with that?  How do you go back to a town filled with mediocrity once you see the possibilities of what can be?  The answer is, you can't.  But I didn't know that yet.

In the meantime, I was being transported by Rowan's performance and the message of this play: that we have meaning, even if we do no realize it.  We touch lives.  We have succeeded in ways we do not even realize, because all we can see are our own failures.  

And so I floated home along the busy streets of London, surrounded by teems of people whose hearts and souls had just been sated by a rich and hearty banquet of ideas.