Wednesday, January 22, 2014

And Now A Word...

...No, not from Our Sponsors. This page has no sponsors and doesn't bring in so much as a nickel, which means that I can spend my proverbial two cents' worth however I please. Today I want to spend my two cents singing the praises of a company called Things From Another World.

There are a lot of companies out there that are purveyors of pop culture, everything from comics and action figures to high-end prop replicas (for those days when you just have to have Gandalf's sword or an alien blaster from Men In Black II.) TFAW is one of those. Their prices are usually better than most, and their website is extremely well organized. I like that I can go there and see what came out last week, what's coming out this week, and what's coming out next week, each neatly laid out in its own sub-page. Merchandise is always well-displayed, with large detailed photographs, not thumbnails. If I'm going to drop a hundred or so dollars on a statue, I want to be able to see the thing before I commit, preferably from several different angles and in detail. TFAW almost always obliges.

The reason for this plug, though, is their customer service. Recently I had an issue I needed to talk to them about. Their response was swift -- that same day -- and it was personal: I had an actual customer service rep assigned to my particular issue and she did not part ways with me until the issue was completely resolved. I didn't just get lucky this time; this has been the case whenever I've needed their help. The situation that immediately comes to mind:  a few years ago I was the victim of identity theft and had to cancel all my credit cards.  A few weeks previously, I had pre-ordered an item from TFAW with my card, and obviously, the card I used to place the pre-order was no longer valid. If you've ever ordered high-end specialty pop culture "stuff," you know that often these items arrive months later than they were supposed to arrive, and are sold out before they hit the shelves. This was the case with me. Other companies in the past have canceled the order, put me at the back of the line, and placed a new order with my replacement card -- sometimes bumping me to the back of the line or worse, shutting me out completely because of a sell-out. TFAW not only sympathized with my situation, but they reinstated the pre-order with the new card and kept my place in line. This was neither easy nor convenient for them, but they did it as a matter of course -- I didn't even need to ask them to do it, or to whine about losing my place in the order queue. And that's just one example.

So if you need anything comics- or movie-related, or a toy or action figure or statue for your favorite geek, you should strongly consider checking out Things From Another World. They bill themselves as the "Best Online Comic Book Store" and they're right.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

London Holiday, 6: Cardiff and "Doctor Who"

December 30th:  For our last day in the UK, we took an early morning train to Cardiff, the capital of Wales, in order to visit "Doctor Who: The Experience" at the BBC Cymru Studio Complex. I am a pretty huge fan of Doctor Who.  It's the longest-running science fiction show on television, having just celebrated its 50th anniversary last November. I fell in love with the show when various PBS stations started carrying it in the 1970's, and I was ecstatic when Russell T. Davies convinced the BBC to revive it 2005, with a better budget and a stellar cast. The show has been a ratings juggernaut ever since the revival. It's a great show. It's well done, beautifully written by luminaries such as Neil Gaiman and Steven Moffatt, and appeals to all ages. There's a definite nostalgia factor for older fans such as me, and the high quality of the programme brings in new viewers all the time.

A plug:  For those unfamiliar with the show, the basic premise is that a human-looking alien calling himself The Doctor, an alien from an advanced society, stole a time and space machine from his people and travels the universe and history righting wrongs and saving innocents. His time/space machine used to be able to automatically blend in wherever and whenever it landed, but that particular circuit is broken and it's stuck in the shape of a 1960's British Police Telephone Box. The ship is, famously, bigger on the inside and is called the TARDIS. If you are willing to invest two hours of your time in some really quality television, go and find these two episodes: "Blink" starring David Tennant (the Royal Shakespeare Company's "Hamlet." by the way) as the 10th Doctor, and "Vincent" starring Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor.  They are self-contained, and brilliant.

For those a bit more familiar with the show, let me share this quote from current show runner Steven Moffat:  "It's hard to talk about the importance of an imaginary hero [like the Doctor.] But heroes are important. Heroes tell us something about ourselves. History books tell us who we used to be, documentaries tell us who we are now, but heroes tell us who we want to be. And a lot of our heroes depress me. But you know, when they made this particular hero, they didn't give him a gun.  They gave him a screwdriver to fix things. They didn't give him a tank or a warship or an X-Wing fighter, they gave him a call box from which you can call for help. And they didn't give him a superpower or pointy ears or a heat ray. They gave him an extra heart. They gave him two hearts. And that's an extraordinary thing. There will never come a time when we don't need a hero like the Doctor."

That, in a nutshell, is why I love the show, and why I could not travel all the way to the UK without visiting Cardiff.

Outside the Experience sound stage in Cardiff.

The building is one of the soundstages at the BBC Cymru complex, and the show itself is filmed right next door. If filming is not actively occuring, one can tour the studio, but alas, the day we visited, the show was filming. The "Experience" itself is divided into two portions: first there is an interactive "ride" experience, where you walk through an adventure with the Doctor.  Matt Smith, the 11th Doctor, filmed about an hour's worth of original material as you walk through sets and props on your way to save him from the Pandorica. Again. It's loaded with costumes and props from the show, and was a fan's dream come true. The effects were well-done, even the 3-D movie portions, and if that alone had been the extent of the Experience, it would have been worth the trip, at least for me.

But it's not. At the conclusion of the Adventure, you are taken to what is a very, very extensive museum of fifty years' worth of costumes, props, and history of the show. Several incarnations of the Doctor's ship, the TARDIS, are there, as well as screen-used costumes from every single Doctor and most of his human "companions."

The quintessential Doctor Who villain, the pitiless Dalek.

The costume of Tom Baker, my favorite Doctor.  My beautiful wife knitted me a duplicate of his twelve-foot scarf for Christmas.  She researched where the original wool came from so as to make it as authentic as possible, and it is one of my most prized possessions!

Me with Ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston's TARDIS console. I am thinking seriously about pulling a Doctor and stealing a TARDIS myself in this picture.

The TARDIS console in action!

An Ood, one of many, many aliens at the exhibit.

The three TARDISes and costumes from all three Doctors from the 50th Anniversary Special.

A Cyberman, another emotionless villain.

And finally, the villain that creeps me out the most:  Weeping Angels.  They only move when nobody's looking, so... Don't Blink.

After several hours in the museum, we hit the gift shop, which as a fan from the States, was a bit hearbreaking:  they have every DVD of every available episode ... but they're all coded for Region 2, Britain and Europe, and will not play in most US players. Still, there were tons of books and other goodies and I managed to leave with quite a few souvenirs!

We had time before we had to catch our train back to London, so we explored Cardiff a little. The National Museum is there, but they had inexplicably closed (even though, yet again, the website assured us they were open.) It was a shame because they have a wonderful collection of Impressionist paintings. So we walked over to Cardiff Castle, a beautiful ruin with elements going back to Roman times.

Cardiff Castle, specifically, the Romanesque ruin.)

Then it was time for one last delicious pub meal -- there are at least five pubs near the train station, and all of them have excellent reputations. Certainly the two we at which we ate were superb, O'Neill's and The Prince of Wales. Then it was time to board the train, get back to the flat, and pack up for an early morning trip to Heathrow on New Year's Eve for the long, long trip home.

Overall, the London holiday was the trip of a lifetime. With Crohn's Disease, travel is often difficult for me. At best, it's problematic. I had to take massive doses of unpleasant medications in order to temporarily stabilize my condition enough for the trip. I am currently in the process of weaning myself off of the worst of them now that I'm home. So I almost certainly will never be able to make such a trip again, which is a pity, really, because there was so much I still didn't get to see or do.

But clearly, from this and all the previous entries, there was a lot that I DID get to do and see, things I never dreamed would be possible. I am grateful that I had the opportunity, and I dedicate these entries to my family for going along with my crazy scheme, and to my doctors, who helped make it possible for me to do it at all.

London Holiday, Interlude: The Theatre!

Did I mention that one thing that geek fans were ecstatic over was the West End theatre scene?

(Tenth Doctor Who David Tennant was performing in Shakespeare's Richard II.)

("Loki" from the Thor and Avengers movies, Tom Hiddleston, was in Shakespeare's "Coriolanus.")

A good time to be a fan in London.  Plus, Shakespeare!

Friday, January 10, 2014

London Holiday, 5: Boxing Day, Baker Street and Beyond

The day after Christmas, Boxing Day, my daughter was still feeling under the weather so she stayed at the flat and got caught up on social media while my wife and I went shopping. I had wanted a bow tie for Christmas, and so far we had not found anything that we liked so we thought we would check out the big shopping district, including places like Selfridge's and Harrod's. We did not realize that Boxing Day shopping is the unholy child of Black Friday and Times Square on New Year's Eve. I didn't so much see Selfridge's as I saw thousands of human beings in the approximate shape of Selfridge's. Harrod's was a bit better.  Not only found a tie, but had a great lunch on the foods floor, at the Harrod's Rotisserie. (Roast squab with chestnut dressing, winter vegetables and bread sauce. Delicious. And I now have the right to say, "I had squab for lunch at Harrod's," so there's that.

What we thought Harrod's was going to be like on Boxing Day.

What Harrod's was actually like on Boxing Day.

It was definitely an experience.

Having successfully scored a bow tie, we went back to the flat to find our daughter feeling much better and so we decided to hike over a couple of blocks to 221-b Baker Street, the mythical (and technically, non-existent; 221-b was "inserted" into the street much later) address of one Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson.

Mrs. Hudson's Pie Shoppe was right next door, as was a terrific pub called The Volunteer. We met the owner/chef and had a pretty fantastic meal. The Holmes Museum and gift shop was swarming with tourists and we had read poor reviews of the actual museum, so we did not join the line of hundreds waiting to get in. For me it was enough just to stand there outside one of the most famous addresses in fiction. My wife got Number 4 Privet Drive; I got 221-B Baker Street.

That evening, despite the best efforts of repairs and closures on the Underground, we made our way to Wimbledon to attend a panto. The panto is the holiday tradition that Brits love to hate:  a children's play with lots of audience participation, big stars, double-entendre jokes for the adults, a villain one is expected to actually boo and hiss, and so forth. Check Wikipedia for all the gory details about pantos, but briefly: the tales that have been adapted into pantos are pretty straightforward kid favorites: Jack and Beanstalk, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Dick Whittington and His Cat, And the one we went to see, Aladdin.

Our big star was one of our favorite British comedians, Jo Brand.  She played the Genie of the Ring.  There was a handsome lead, a pretty girl, a goofy sidekick, a famous Shakespearean actor in drag, a singer from a boy band, a famous hip-hop dance troupe, and a lot of happy kids. I had heard about the panto and wanted to experience one for myself, and we were not disappointed. I wish we had this tradition in this country. I think it could really catch on.

The poster advdertising our panto.

Jo Brand, on the right, about to say something snarky to the evil Abenazar.

On Dec. 27th, the city started coming back to life. Apart from some partial closings for repairs, mass transit was back. Unfortunately, it turned out that the one of the city's best pubs AND one of the best fish and chips shops in Marylebone closed down for the entire ten-day holiday period so we would not be able to check them out. So we decided to get out into the city and do some tourist stuff instead. On the 27th we went to Westminster Abbey. The Abbey was a very moving experience. Not only full of history, not only a grand example of a huge gothic cathedral, but emotionally overwhelming. Tombs of kings and queens; the most moving Tomb of the Unknown that I have ever experienced, and of course, Poets' Corner. I managed to hold it together until I got to the grave of Charles Dickens, probably my favorite author of all time. To be standing there, where he was interred, was a more intense emotional experience than I was prepared for.

(Photos are not allowed in the Abbey; this is a stock photo of Dickens' grave from the internet.)

The following day we spent visiting Buckingham Palace and then it was off to the Victoria and Albert Museum, along with a brief trip to the Museum of Natural History next door. 

The gates to the Palace

The Queen Victoria Monument which fronts Buckingham Palace.

The following evening we went to the Royal Opera House to see the National Ballet perform The Nutcracker." Beautiful piece in a beautiful setting.

Which takes us to to the next entry, a side trip to Cardiff in Wales for "Doctor Who: The Experience!"

Thursday, January 9, 2014

London Holiday, 4: Happy Christmas!

Christmas Eve on our London holiday started bright and early as we ran to Baker Street to catch the shuttle for Leavesden Studios and the Making of Harry Potter Studio Tour. Now, I like Harry Potter. My daughter likes Harry Potter; she grew up with us reading the books at bedtime and loved going to midnight release parties for the books as they came out. But my wife LO-O-OVES Harry Potter. She loves the books. She loves the films. She loves absolutely everything about the franchise. (We gave her Gryffindor earrings for Christmas, OK?) So doing this tour was an absolute necessity.

 (Christmas feast in the Great Hall of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.)

I have to admit it. It was a lot of fun. The shuttle ride gave us a nice glimpse of London. And the studio tour itself was great. We got there early for our tour so we had brunch at the studio canteen. The food was excellent, as it was pretty much everywhere on this trip. Then we hit the gift shop, where they had everything Potter imaginable. Books, prop replicas, clothing, edibles, magic wands--everything. We loaded up on some stuff and then entered the tour. It starts at the door to the Hogwarts Great Hall, and is the actual set from the films. One nice thing: since it was Christmas, the Great Hall was dressed for the Yuletide celebration. They only do this during the holiday season, and it was way cool. The only things missing were the magic ceiling and the floating candles. The level of detail in the sets and costumes displayed were really amazing. I mean, I've worked in film. I've seen how corners are cut and I know the little tricks used to, say, make styrofoam look like stone. There were no tricks and no cut corners here.

(The set for Hagrid's Hut, complete with full props and a screen-worn costume.)

From here we went into the first soundstage, which was full of props and sets and costumes from all eight films. My wife was in heaven. She got to see pretty much everything she'd ever wanted to, from the Gryffindor Common Room to Dumbledore's office to the Weasley's kitchen. Very cool. Outdoors on the way to the next soundstage we stopped off for some butterbeer and saw the Knight Bus, Sirius Black's motorcycle, the Hogwarts rickety bridge, and Harry's muggle home at 4 Privet Drive in Surrey, among other exterior sets. Soundstage Two was where the movie magic really happens-- creature construction, animatronics, costume shop, makeup effects, models, original concept art, and the set for Diagon Alley (the latest version, including the Weasley brothers' joke shop.)

(Waiting for the Knight Bus.)

(John Cleese's Nearly Headless Nick and Prof. Lupin's werewolf form in the workshop.)

(Diagon Alley in all its glory.)

Then we came to what was, for me, the highlight of the tour: the model of Hogwarts Castle. Like the Great Hall, it was dressed for winter and even at what I estimated to be around 1/12th scale, this thing was enormous. It is constructed so that there appears to be movement and activity behind the windows, and the level of detail is truly lovely. It is a masterpiece, and I am so glad that it has been preserved. My wife was in tears, and I found myself quite moved as well.

(A glimpse of the Hogwarts model.  No photo can truly do it justice.)

From Leavesden, we went to Hyde Park for the Winter Wonderland, a kind of state fair/carnival affair. I mentioned it in an earlier entry, the one with all the complaining. There was good food, though, and hot (alcoholic!) cider; nifty ice sculptures, and a terrific circus, the Cirque Berzerk. The star of the show was an extremely talented high wire artist who took insane risks without a safety harness or a net, but with supreme confidence in his abilities. It was a great shoe, but as I mentioned in an earlier entry, I think we were so worried about having nothing to do that we arranged to do far too much. We went home cold, crabby and exhausted.

Christmas Day we slept in, had a quiet brunch in the flat, and watched a little telly. Mid afternoon we walked to the Marylebone Hotel for a spectacular Christmas Dinner--venison, Norfolk turkey, chestnut stuffing and figgie pudding. We had a perfectly lovely time. Then we made our way home just in time to check one more thing off my bucket list: I got to watch the Doctor Who Christmas special on the BBC in London on Christmas Day. Heaven.

(Christmas dinner at a posh hotel!)

(Now back to the flat for Doctor Who!)

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

London Holiday, 3: The Tower

Okay, now that the bitching and moaning is all out of my system, back to the trip.  In Part 1, I mentioned that we landed, dropped off our luggage, took a brief nap, and powered through the rest of the day with a trip to Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery of Art.  The following day, Dec. 23rd, the worst gale to hit Britain in 127 years began. This storm would go on to flood several rivers and leave thousands homeless or without power by Christmas Day.  In London, the gale took the form of a cold, wet wind with gusts that immediately turned most umbrellas inside-out.  So of course, we decided to visit the Tower of London! (For those who don't know, the Tower is not an actual tower, but a castle complex consisting of walls, residences, multiple towers and a central keep called the White Tower.  A lot of it is outdoors.) The weather was horrible, but bearable, especially since there are plenty of opportunities to duck in someplace, dry off and warm up.

(One of the sceptres.  The Culinar Diamond is the size of your clenched fist.)

We immediately headed for the crown jewels where, after a bit of a line, we saw the biggest f-ing diamonds, rubies and sapphires I have ever seen.  Sadly, pictures were not allowed, but you can get an idea from the stock photos. I thought "jewels the size of an egg" was Monty Python hyperbole. It is not.

(One of the many crowns.  The ruby is indeed the size of a large egg.  The diamond beneath it is cut from the same giant stone as the one in the sceptre.)

From the crown jewels we went to the White Tower where the arms, armor, gifts to the crown, and other artifacts are kept.  There are three floors.  The first is the royal armor through the ages, including the Line of Kings exhibit.

(Henry VIII's armor.  Clearly the man had his priorities with regard to protection.)

The second floor focuses more on the history of the Tower, and the third on its role in history as a prison and as the seat of the Royal Mint. (Fun fact: the first director of the mint, charged with finding ways to foil counterfeiters, was none other than Sir Isaac Newton.) A quick lunch and then off to the Bloody Tower to look at implements of torture.

(The Tower of London chopping block.  Yeah, that one.)

In lulls during the wind and rain, we saw something I was not expecting to see, considering the weather conditions:  the famous Ravens of the Tower. There is a myth that says that if these birds ever leave the Tower, Britain will fall, so the birds are kept there forcibly, but they are well and humanely kept.

(My lovely daughter Olivia snapping a picture of a very friendly Tower raven. He clearly has done this before.)

After the Tower we went back to the flat for a quick change into dry clothes and then it was off to our first play in the West End, One Man, Two Guv'nors, which was one of the funniest (and most fun) evenings I've ever had at the theater. Based on a Renaissance Commedia dell'Arte play, it had great 1960's Buddy-Holly type music and in true Commedia form, the characters frequently broke the fourth wall and addressed the audience directly. I can't go into details without ruining the premise of the show for those who haven't seen it, but suffice it to say that we managed to be there on a truly remarkable night, when the audience participation portions took the actors quite by surprise and they managed to spin it into comedy gold.  The closest thing I can think of to describe it is when Tim Conway and Harvey Korman would go out of their way to crack each other up on the old Carol Burnett Show. 

(If you EVER have a chance to see this show, DO IT.  Seriously.)

After the show we went home to get ready for Christmas Eve, which promised to be a very, very big day.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

London Holiday, 2

Backtracking a little for some kvetching:  We flew to London out of Washington, DC's Dulles airport because the travel agent assured us that Virgin Atlantic had more comfortable seats than most other transatlantic flights -- a few more inches of seat and leg room in coach. Since I am 6'5" and 285 lbs., this was certainly a consideration. It was also untrue. While the staff were quite friendly and the food edible, this was by far the most uncomfortable flight I have ever experienced.  Seats were hard, small and cramped, and of course the person on the plane who felt the deep need to recline fully and immediately for the entire flight was the guy in front of me.

Nevertheless, some 7 hours later we arrived at Heathrow. London time, 7 AM. Body time, 1 AM. We made our way to the Heathrow Express train, took it to Paddington, bought our Oyster cards (the fare card that accommodates London's buses and Underground) and took the Bakerloo Tube to Edgware Road, where we called our hosts.  A brief word about our lodgings:  We decided that we wanted to pack light and rent an apartment with a washer and a dryer for our ten days in the UK. Our travel agent friend -- the same one who pointed us to Virgin Atlantic -- suggested a service that offers apartments and flats in London and we booked one in Marylebone, a neighborhood in the city that is part of the Westminster district. The flat was near three major Underground lines and in a beautiful, upper-class area. Or so we thought. The advert for the flat mentioned several "home truths" including an "unassuming exterior" that hid the modern apartment within. "Unassuming exterior" is rentalese for "dump." We thought that this might actually be to our advantage, since nobody would expect a luxury flat inside. One "home truth" that was NOT mentioned, however, was the fact that the building had no elevator and the flat itself was up four flights of stairs. Upon reaching the flat, we discovered that it was indeed quite lovely if exceedingly tiny. When unpacking we further discovered that there was no storage for our things apart from one narrow Ikea wardrobe. No drawers, no closets, no storage for the suitcases, nothing. The flat consisted of two rooms and a teeny bath. The washer/dryer was in the kitchen/sitting room under the sink. It was one machine that did both laundry and clothes drying, and as you might expect, did both poorly. If we go again, we will simply stay in a hotel with guest laundry facilities. As it was, we spent all of our time at the flat tripping over one another or over our luggage.

(The "unassuming exterior." And "Hampstead Lodge" sounded so cool.)

(Inside the flat.  I don't know what kind of lens they used, but this room was maybe 10' square.)

While we were there, the tiny refrigerator kept flopping open and one day we came home to find water pouring out of the ceiling light fixtures due to a drain leak in the apartment upstairs. At no time did the rental agency physically involve themselves in any of the troubles. We cleaned up the water ourselves, and reported it, and finagled a crude fix for the fridge. For the two grand we dropped on the place, I expected a little better. And fewer stairs. One good thing: the flat came with an iPhone with local maps, useful apps, and unlimited data which was extremely helpful to have, as long as we weren't trying to get the actual agency to come over and fix things.  Because they never did.  I'm still waiting to see if we get any of our £1,000.00 security deposit back, even though the ceiling leak was nothing to do with us.

By Christmas Eve my daughter was complaining of cough and running a low-grade fever.  She didn't shake it until the day before we left.  I figured as long as I'm using this entry to complain, I ought to mention everything.  Including listening to a lot of commentary about cost. I did not intend our visit to be about how much things cost, or how poor a value something was for the money paid, or anything like that, but a fair amount of time was spent doing just that. I'm usually the curmudgeon of our family group, but I turned out to be the one saying things like, "Oh, come on! When are we ever going to be able to eat squab for lunch at Harrod's again?" Another example: one of our group accidentally used one of their 3-day London Passes instead of their 2-day pass.  Meaning the third day would be wasted since it fell on Christmas when nothing was open. (The London Pass is a tourist pass that includes pre-paid admissions to big first-time tourist attractions like the London Eye, the Tower, Westminster Abbey, etc. It also usually lets you jump to the head of the line, and is, in my opinion, a decent deal, especially for go-getters who go out for full, action-packed days. The accident lay purely in the hands of the pass-holder, not with the Pass itself.)

The first half of Christmas Eve was wonderful, and will be covered in the next entry. The second half not so much. We were concerned that since so much was closed in London on Dec. 24-25-26 that we would find ourselves with nothing to do.  So we planned ahead as much as possible.  Our Christmas Eve evening was spent in Hyde Park at the Winter Wonderland -- kind of a British version of a US State Fair, with carnival rides, food stalls, craft booths, and a few other attractions.  The ice sculpture house was amazing. The VIP ride we reserved on the giant Ferris wheel was a complete ripoff.  It was cold, brief and generally left such a bad taste in our mouths that we could scarcely enjoy the rest of the evening. There was an amazing circus we had pre-ordered tickets for, the Cirque Berzerk -- think Cirque du Soleil with an Aztec slant -- that mostly made up for the wheel earlier, but I think we tried to fit in too much that day, and we were just too tired and cranky by then.

(Hyde Park Winter Wonderland.  You can keep it.  Especially the Giant Wheel.)

Christmas Day in London there is no public transportation, and a fifteen minute cab ride (assuming you can even find one to hire) costs triple, about £15.00 ($25.00 US).  We had made reservations at a swanky hotel in our district for Christmas Dinner and it was totally worth it, so I will cover it later. It was too fab to go into here in Complaint Central.

One last gripe: hours as advertised cannot be trusted, at least not during Christmas Week. We had to eat a couple of meals at the flat -- thank goodness for the mini-mart up the street -- because kitchen hours at the local eateries were simply not accurately advertised. We would look up a pub or a restaurant and find that they were closed, or that, if yesterday they were serving food from 7:00 PM to 10:00 PM, why, TODAY the kitchen closed at 6:30 PM. Or a museum or gallery that was supposed to be open until 8:00 PM and had a sign on the door saying so had inexplicably closed at 4:00 PM. We had more than one frustrating afternoon either looking for a place to eat, or finding that a gallery or exhibit that was supposed to be open...wasn't

Everything else was pretty good.  Yes, Boxing Day shopping was the unholy child of Black Friday and New Year's Eve in Times Square, but we knew that. The crowds were pretty impressive. And the flight home was just as painful and cramped as the flight over, plus an hour longer thanks to the headwinds. But I was expecting that as well. The rest of the trip was a whole lot more fun, and I'll tell y'all more about it next time!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

London Holiday, 1

December 25, London:

I haven't been posting much about this since I didn't want to come home to a looted shell, but it's now safe to say we're spending the Christmas holidays in London, England. Like most trips, it has already had its ups and downs. The plane was too small and had no fewer than five screaming infants. The flat we rented is much tinier than advertised, and is an unadvertised fourth floor walk-up. And there have been the usual invariable tensions between different members of our party at times. Family; whatcha gonna do...?

The weather certainly has not been cooperative. We did realize that England in late December was risky. We were not expecting the worst winter gale and flooding in 127 years. The umbrellas were all inside-out within seconds upon arrival at the Tower of London on December 23rd. Hundreds of thousands in Kent and Surrey are without power and thousands more are homeless this Christmas morning as the Rivers Mole and Medway have burst their banks. It's a national tragedy here as this nation experiences its most solemn Christmas in a long, long time.

There have also been moments of transcendent grace and beauty. The day before the gale, the weather was stunningly gorgeous. I was standing in front of the National Gallery on December 22nd as a shaft of sunlight appeared and struck Nelson's Column. It looked like a special effect in a film, honestly. I turned and looked down the long avenue of Whitehall and saw the same sunlight shining on the clock tower of Parliament. It was a sight I never thought I'd see for myself. I was moved to tears. (Fun Fact: Big Ben is the name of the bell, not the clock. Hence my description of "clock tower.")

(The painting that needs no introduction.)

A few minutes later I walked into the Van Gogh room in the National Gallery and had The Sunflowers all to myself. The tears came again. (If you have never seen the British show "Doctor Who," you could have no finer introduction than the episode "Vincent," in which the time-traveling Doctor takes Van Gogh to our present where he overhears actor Bill Nighy explain why Vincent is not only perhaps the greatest artist who ever lived, but also one of the greatest human beings who ever lived, because of his extraordinary ability to transform his inner torment into transcendent beauty. And if you have seen "Vincent" you will understand why tears were my only possible reaction.)

("Keeper," the guardian of the top floor of the White Tower at the Tower of London.)

The Tower of London, on December 23rd -- the beginning of the gale -- was cold, wet, windy and utterly wonderful.  The Yeoman Guards are all fantastic, both the men and the women.  They are all decorated military, and know absolutely everything you might care to ask. They were, to an individual, funny, wise and completely joyful about their work.  It was a real treat despite the weather.  An absolute do-not-miss place for anyone visiting London.

(A detail from the Hogwarts model dressed for winter.)

Yesterday, Christmas Eve, my wife wanted to tour the sets from the Harry Potter films. She has loved the books and films tremendously since she discovered them over 17 years ago. As the tour ends, you suddenly find yourself in a huge soundstage...with the model of Hogwarts Castle. It's about one-twelfth scale--one inch equals one foot. And it's still HUGE. It was "dressed" for winter, with lots of snow. And it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. I was not expecting a physical rendition of a fictional place to move me so strongly. Up until then, I was okay, although walking into the set for the Great Hall of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, all set up for Christmas, was pretty damned great all by itself.

(The Hogwarts Great Hall all decked out for the Christmas Feast.)

I think that's enough for this first entry. More as it gels in my mind and I'm able to make sense of it for all of you!