Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Royal Tour: Windsor Castle

I know I complain a lot about the challenges of moving to another country and the quirks of British culture, cuisine, and customer service.  But one thing I really like about living in London is that you can get along just fine without a car.  There are times when I get misty-eyed over our Prius, which we sold the day we left, but the thought of trying to drive here is terrifying enough to make me grateful for the ease of getting around on public transport. In fact, most of the other AWC members I've spoken to don't have a car either, even the ones living in swanky flats with air conditioning and clothes dryers.  Thanks to the Tube, buses, trains, taxis, and grocery delivery, a car is more of a luxury than a necessity, and if you absolutely have to drive somewhere, there are several car-sharing companies (Zipcar, Streetcar, City Cars) that let members rent them by the hour.

So, despite our lack of wheels (OK, Josh has a bike, but you know what I mean), we've been able to explore many different parts of London and even venture out into surrounding areas.  Saturday afternoon we took an hour-long train ride out to Windsor & Eton.  Did you know they were right next to one another?  I didn't.  But I didn't even know Wimbledon was part of London until we planned to move here.  Windsor is 30 miles west of London, just across the Thames from Eton, and is home to Windsor Castle, the oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world.
Map of Windsor (south of the Thames) & Eton (north)
Despite being a rather small town, there are two train stations about 3 blocks from one another. We arrived at one, and stopped at the shopping arcade by the other for a quick lunch before visiting the castle.
Windsor Royal Shopping
A statue of Queen Victoria welcomes visitors to the castle.
Queen Victoria
It was a beautiful day, for a change, and we clearly weren't the only people who had decided to visit Windsor.
Outside the castle
We had to stand in line for nearly half an hour just to get tickets.  While we were waiting, I snapped a photo of this aerial view of the castle grounds, which gives you a better sense of how big the complex is.
aerial view of castle
The royals were all at the Royal Wedding, so we knew there was no chance of a sighting at Windsor.  What Royal Wedding?  The Queen's eldest granddaughter, Zara Phillips, married a rugby star yesterday in Scotland.  It was a tad more low-key than her cousin's wedding back in April, but a Google search will reward you with yet another photo gallery of ridiculous hats adorning royal heads. We were able to tour the castle grounds without fear of being restricted by the movements of the royal family.

great gargoyles!

St. George's Gate
tower and gardens
We visited St. George's Chapel, where a Who's Who of royals are buried, from Henry VIII (1547) to the Queen Mother (2002).
Detail of St. George's Chapel
We were not allowed to take photographs inside, but suffice it to say it was pretty darn impressive.  They just don't make 'em like they used to...
St. George's Chapel
Sadly, when they selected the site for this massive royal residence, they failed to take into account its proximity to Heathrow airport.  Sure, it's on a hill overlooking the Thames, but the constant roar of jet engines reminded me of the years I lived under the flight path of National Airport in Rosslyn.
Da plane!
The view
Loved the gargoyles!
central courtyard
Statue of Charles II
Lonely guard
We also toured the State Apartments, visiting about 2 dozen different rooms inside the castle that are still in use today for formal dinners and other events.  One room displayed samples of royal china services while another had cases full of gifts from other countries and the walls of a third were covered with swords, pistols, and armor.  Once again, no photography was allowed indoors.  If it was, I imagine the most photographed object in the entire castle would be Queen Mary's Doll House.  Built in the 1920's for the wife of King George V, it has electricity, working plumbing, and a library of miniature books written exclusively for the house by such authors as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, and J.M. Barrie.  Amazing!

We managed to finish our tour just as the castle closed at 5:15, and made our way to the High Street in search of some afternoon tea.  We ended up at a little tea house next to the Guildhall, which was designed by prolific English architect Christopher Wren (the Guildhall, not the tea house).  Legend has it that the local council insisted that Wren add more columns to his original design to support the weight of the building.  He eventually agreed, but had them built a few inches short to prove that they were not necessary.  Indeed, none of the interior columns actually touches the ceiling above.
Windsor Guildhall
We had tea and scones at the Crooked House, which looks like it inspired the nursery rhyme.
Tea at the Crooked House

The Long Walk, Windsor Great Park
Windsor Castle from Great Park
Instead, we headed back up the High Street and across a pedestrian bridge to Eton, home of the famous boys' school.
The Thames from Windsor/Eton Bridge (west)

The Thames from Windsor/Eton bridge (east)
In Eton, we passed a historic pub named the Cockpit.  Josh was excited until I explained that the name referred to the fact that they used to hold cock fights there.  It is now an Indian restaurant, but still has the old town stocks out front.
The Cock Pit (now Tiger Garden)
"Does that sign say what I think it says?"  Why yes!  Josh was tickled to learn that the Eton Porny School is an elementary school run by the Church of England.
Josh wants to attend The Porny School...
Despite the fact that we had just toured Windsor Castle, Josh declared this the highlight of his day.
...and live in Porny Cottage
By the time we reached Eton College, the campus was closed to the public, so we walked around outside and peeked through the gates.  It seemed very Hogwarts-like, with lots of old, fancy buildings, courtyards, and gardens.  It also sits right on the Thames.  Pretty sweet place to go to high school! 
Eton College Chapel
Eton College courtyard
ornate lamp post
Eton High Street
We walked back across the bridge to Windsor and, since the weather was so nice, there was no line, and we weren't ready for dinner yet, we decided to splurge for a ride on the Royal Windsor Wheel, a giant ferris wheel in a park a few blocks from the castle.  The wheel is about 200 feet high, so it's like being at the top of a 20-story building, which gave us a great view of the castle.
Royal Windsor Wheel
Windsor Castle from the Wheel

Eton (white dots in the Thames are swans)
After our ride, which lasted about 15 minutes -- we went around 4 times -- we walked along the Thames in hopes of finding a waterfront restaurant for dinner.  There were several, but some seemed too fancy, others were too casual.  The RiverHouse was just right.  We sat outside and enjoyed the view and the lovely weather as we sipped wine and dined on local steak and fish.  For dessert, Josh ordered something called the Eton Mess, which was a pile of crumbled meringue, berries, and whipped cream.  It disappeared shortly after I took this photo.
Eton Mess
We caught a 10:23 train from Windsor, and were back in Wimbledon by 11:30, just in time to Skype with our friends Lauren and Patrick (ages 5.5 and 3.5) while they were eating their dinner. Their mother, Elizabeth managed to get a few words in edgewise, but it was mainly a show & tell session where we got to see all their new toys.  They were interested to hear that we had been to a castle earlier that day, and I showed them a few photos from my camera.  The wonders of technology!  It was great fun to see all three of them.  We love being able to Skype with friends and family, so don't be shy about giving us a call.

Friday, July 29, 2011

A Day with Dominic West

Thursday was the AWC's monthly Theatre Day.  I met a group of ladies at the TKTS half-price ticket booth in Leicester Square and after a bit of discussion, negotiation, and last-minute mind-changing, managed to divide ourselves into three groups based on the matinees we wanted to see.  Once we had all acquired the appropriate tickets, we had lunch at a nearby restaurant.  Since it was a lovely day, we sat outside at a table for 12.
AWC Ladies at Lunch
I was happy to have another opportunity to chat with some of the other AWC members, several of whom I had met before.  We had plenty of time before any of the matinees began, so we lingered for a while after lunch and kept talking until it became clear that the restaurant would really like to put our table to more lucrative use.  We still had nearly an hour before the show I decided on started at 3, so the four of us walked around Covent Garden for a while and got some ice cream before heading to the Duchess Theatre to see Butley.
Butley at the Duchess Theatre
The play is a dark comedy about a misanthropic college professor, played by Dominic West (from the TV show The Wire), who is having a particularly bad day.  Many of the supporting cast members looked familiar --  I didn't recognize their names, but I had seen them in other British TV shows and movies.  The theater is very small and intimate, so even though we had just bought our tickets that day, we had great seats right in the middle of the 10th row.  We all enjoyed the play, even if we didn't get all the jokes.  I will definitely try to do this again next month -- it was a fun afternoon.

After Josh and I both got home and made dinner, we sat down to watch the first two episodes of a new BBC series called The Hour.  It's sort of like Mad Men meets The Mary Tyler Moore Show, with a little crime drama thrown in for good measure.  The show is set in a TV newsroom in the 1950's with an ambitious female producer and a handsome on-air personality played by... Dominic West!  It was odd to see the same actor play such completely different characters in the same day.  I think we were more intrigued by the murder mystery subplot than the dysfunctional lives of the main characters, but we still enjoyed it enough to look forward to watching the rest of the series.  It will be airing on BBC America starting August 17, if you want to check it out for yourself.

Italian Color at the National Gallery

Tuesday afternoon I met my friend Sarah at the National Gallery for a docent-lead tour of paintings from Venice, Rome, and Bologna.  I'm more fond of art from the 19th-20th centuries, but I thought this would be a good opportunity to broaden my horizons.

The docent reminded me a bit of Sir David Attenborough and was suitably eccentric and animated, although we sometimes had trouble hearing him as it was a large tour group and he tended to stroll around quite a bit as he spoke.  (Not to mention all the other museum visitors who were chatting amongst themselves in a variety of languages.)  He focused on three Italian paintings from the 14th and 15th centuries, depicting scenes from the Bible and ancient history.

The Raising of Lazarus
about 1517-19, Sebastiano del Piombo
Our guide pointed out the various clues that the artist gives us to determine who the main subject of this painting is: the color of his clothing, they way he is posed, his positioning within the scene (elevated on a platform, unobscured by other figures), and the fact that everyone else is looking at him.  He is helpfully pointing at the secondary subject (Lazarus).  This artist was a contemporary of Michelangelo.  If Lazarus had his hand outstretched and you flipped the scene, it might bring to mind his depiction of the Creation of Man on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

The Family of Darius before Alexander
1565-7, Paolo Veronese
This painting depicts a historical scene in which the mother, wife, and daughters of the slain Persian king Darius offer obeisance to his conqueror, Alexander the Great.  By mistake, they bow to his friend, who is better dressed, but Alexander forgives them.  The artist clearly took some creative license with this painting, as the architecture and royal ladies don't look Persian at all.  In reality, the event occurred in a tent, but that would not have lent itself to such a grand scene.

The Dead Christ Mourned ('The Three Maries')
about 1604, Annibale Carracc
Actually, this should be called "The Four Marys," as all four women lamenting the death of Jesus are named Mary (including his mother and Mary Magdalene).   Mary Magdalene is clearly overwrought over the body of Christ, which is nearly white to show is has been drained of life.  The other two women are trying to console Mary (or possibly cop a feel), who would also appear to be dead were it not for the contrast of her pink hand against her son's chest.  It is a mercifully bloodless representation, with only a hint at the nail holes in his hands and feet, and his crown of thorns set aside in the lower left corner.

Thus enlightened, we ventured out in search of a late/light lunch and ended up at an Italian cafe a few blocks away.  Sarah told me a little about her recent weekend in Prague and I suggested some easy day trips they could do by train on the weekends.  It's great getting travel tips from other expats -- I'm looking forward to putting them to use sometime soon.  I also told her about my trip to Partridges the previous day and asked if she'd been there or to the Whole Foods in Kensington.  She said they call it the "Museum of Food."  That seems appropriate, because everything is displayed so nicely, but you tend to look more than buy once you take a gander at the price tags. In that sense, London is full of museums!  The Museum of Clothes, the Museum of Shoes, the Museum of Consumer Electronics...

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Tea and Sympathy

"England and America are two nations separated by a common language," or words to that effect, is an insightful statement often attributed to George Bernard Shaw.  Indeed, the assumption that if we all speak English we must have plenty of other things in common can come back to bite you on the ass when you move from one country to the other.  Culture shock is even more shocking when you aren't expecting it. 

So, one of the functions of the American Women's Club (AWC) is to help newcomers adjust and adapt to life in London.  All of the club members have been through this themselves, so they are very sympathetic to the challenges Americans face when they first move here -- particularly for women who move here because of their husband's job (or to marry a Brit).  Monday morning I attended a "Cross-Cultural Coffee" at their offices in Kensington that served as a sort of orientation session for those of us who are still relatively fresh off the boat.  Over coffee (and tea) and digestive biscuits, the club president and one of the officers covered a broad range of topics, including the climate, health care, transportation, shopping, cooking, tipping, language differences, and socializing with the notoriously standoffish Brits.  Some of it I'd already figured out on my own, but I still got a lot out of the meeting.  One of the most useful things was this handout:
Kitchen Cheat Sheet
Converting measurements is doable with a computer, and our measuring cups have both imperial and metric markings, but if you bake, trying to divide a brick-shaped block of British butter into tablespoons or cups will leave you scratching your head.  So that yellow rectangle at the bottom of the page is a boon for anyone wanting to whip up a batch of cookies using their favorite recipe from home.

The AWC also has designated "area friends" in different parts of London that you can contact if you have questions or need recommendations for a local hairdresser, dentist, dry cleaner, or plumber.   I've mostly relied on my neighbors for local advice, but it might be nice to get a second opinion, especially when it comes to dentists.  I've heard it's so hard to find a good dentist here, that some expats just schedule an appointment with their old dentist whenever they go back to the U.S. 

I've also found their Facebook group to be helpful.  Before my sister came to visit, she asked if I wanted her to bring me anything that I couldn't find here.  Since I hadn't really been here long enough to know what I couldn't find easily, I polled the AWC Facebook group and ended up with an interesting list of things you could find in any drugstore or supermarket in the U.S.  Ironically, several people mentioned tea, but it was either herbal teas you can't find here -- like Sleepytime -- or for making iced tea.  Other coveted items included Ziploc bags, chocolate chips, peanut butter, goldfish crackers, Tylenol, Advil, and Band Aids.  When Sonia flew out from California a couple weeks ago, she brought me Triscuits, crunchy peanut butter, Ghirardelli chocolate chips, and a bottle of Lubriderm lotion.  Josh brought back 2 boxes of Trader Joe's pancake mix from his trip to DC right before that, so now we're pretty well stocked.  They are all things we could probably live without, or find substitutes for, but it's a nice treat to have them.

After the AWC coffee, I walked over to Sloane Square, which I had heard was another popular shopping area.  There is a big department store and many of the same high street shops we have in Wimbledon, along with an art gallery and a nice plaza that hosts a market on Saturdays.  I grabbed some lunch and browsed in a few of the shops, and discovered there is a Partridges there.  I had heard a couple people mention that they sell hard-to-find American grocery items there, so I went inside to take a look.

They did have a large American food section, but everything was OUTRAGEOUSLY EXPENSIVE!

Triscuits: $10
Cheerios: $13
Sugary kids' cereal: $13
A bag of Nestle chocolate chips was about $9!  I'm glad I had Sonia bring me Triscuits and chocolate chips, and that I'm perfectly happy eating Special K, which you can buy at any British grocery store and comes in great flavors like Strawberry & Chocolate and Peach & Apricot.   I haven't eaten Froot Loops since I was a kid, and I'm not about to start now, especially at $13/box!  It's hard to imagine someone being that desperate for Fruity Pebbles, but someone must be buying this stuff or they wouldn't be selling it.

If you plan to visit us in London -- and we hope you will! -- don't be surprised if we send you a shopping list.  What you can buy at CVS or Safeway for $20 could be worth its weight in gold here!

A Walk in Westminster

Since I enjoyed the Inns of Court walk so much, I thought it would be fun for Josh and I to sample some other London Walks on our own.  Sunday afternoon we braved the hordes of tourists in Westminster to meet Graham, our guide for the 2:45 tour of this historic London neighborhood.  As you can see, it was a lovely, sunny day, which we haven't seen in a while, so tourists and locals alike were out taking advantage of the nice weather.

The nice thing about these walks is you don't have to book in advance.  You just show up at the specified Tube station at the scheduled time and locate the guide (who is holding up a bunch of London Walks brochures) and pay him the £8 fee.  They have them 7 days/week at various times of day and cover a broad range of topics and neighborhoods.  Maybe next time we can do the Harry Potter film locations walk, or the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour walk...

Anyway, we started out across the street from Big Ben, where Graham explained (as we already knew) that "Big Ben" is the name of the bell, not the clock or the tower.  He managed to time his talk about the clock tower so that it struck three just after he finished telling us that the chimes are a variation on a piece by Handel.
Graham introduces us to Westminster
It should come as no surprise that the iconic Parliament building was once a royal palace.  It stands in marked contrast to the government buildings that we are accustomed to in the US.  Even the Capitol seems quite drab (albeit significantly less ostentatious) in comparison.  Westminster Palace has been on this site since the 11th century, but has burned down and been rebuilt several times, with only a few remnants of the original structure. It has over 1,000 rooms and 3 miles of hallways.
Oliver Cromwell statue
The tall tower at the end is called the Victoria Tower.  It houses the parliamentary archives and the Sovereign's Entrance, where the Queen enters the building to open Parliament or for other ceremonial function.

Across the street is the Jewel Tower, one of the surviving structures of the original palace.  It once housed royal treasures -- hence the name -- but is now a museum.
Jewel Tower
Around the corner is St. Margaret's Church, which sits in the shadow of Westminster Abbey.  It is where the common people went to worship, as only the royals were allowed in the Abbey.  They don't allow photography inside, and the exterior is being restored, so I didn't get many good photos.
St. Margaret's Church
Westminster Abbey (rear view)
Graham took us to a park just south of Parliament called Victoria Tower Gardens, where we hung out with Rodin's Burghers of Calais.
The Burghers of Calais
We also passed by the Buxton Memorial Fountain, which commemorates the emancipation of slaves in 1834.
Buxton Memorial Fountain
We ended up in a quiet residential area called Smith Square, with a deconsecrated church in the middle.  St John's is known as The Footstool, because it has four towers that make it look like an overturned footstool, and is now used as a concert hall.  One of the streets off the square, Lord North Street, was once lined with public bomb shelters, and there are still faded remnants of the signs directing people to them on each house. (Pavements = sidewalks)
At the end of the street was the headquarters of the Liberal Democrats.  I thought the bicycle was a nice touch.
Liberal Democrats HQ
To give you an idea of real estate prices in this neighborhood, the house at the end of this street recently sold for £20 million, which is nearly $33 million!
Only millionaires live here!
As expected, this area is dotted with historical markers.  T. E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia), lived just down the street at one time.
We walked through the central courtyard of Westminster School, which dates back to the 14th century and is one of the top schools in England.  Many famous entertainers attended this school, including John Gielgud, Peter Ustinov, Helena Bonham-Carter, Andrew Lloyd Weber, and Dido.
Medieval building at Westminster School
We as we came out the other end of the courtyard, we found ourselves right in front of Westminster Abbey (not a huge surprise).  I haven't been inside since I was a teenager, and my most recent attempt was thwarted by hordes of Royal Wedding tourists, so I'll have to go back sometime during visiting hours.
Westminster Abbey (front view)
Our tour ended there, so after thanking our guide and parting ways with the rest of the group, we walked over to St. James Park.  We stopped for tea at Inn the Park (which was out of scones again!), and Josh attempted (and thankfully failed) to consume a meringue the size of his head.  We were about to head home when we heard music and discovered a crowd of people soaking up the sun around a bandstand.  We found a couple vacant lawn chairs -- most parks provide them in the summer -- and listened to the concert for a while.
Bandstand in St. James Park
They played a few classical pieces, and theme music from Harry Potter and the James Bond movies, but it really got surreal when they launched into a rendition of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody.  The crowd really got into it, and you could hear people singing along: "Gallileo, Gallileo"
The Band
We thought our minds were sufficiently blown, but then we came across this statue of King George III that someone had embellished with a jaunty traffic-cone jester hat. 
King George III, champion of traffic safety?
As we passed through Trafalgar Square on our way back to Waterloo train station, we noticed that we had nearly reached the one-year mark for the 2012 Olympics countdown.  I may be back in that area on Thursday, in which case I'm sure I'll snap another photo.  I suspect London will be a bit of a mess for the next 12 months, as they scramble to upgrade the Tube and spruce the city up for the Olympics.  Hopefully the people of London will continue to benefit from all the improvements long after the Games have ended.
Only a year away...