Friday, August 31, 2012

On the Fringe in Edinburgh

As we emerged from the train station in Edinburgh, we could hear the sound of a lone bagpiper playing a familiar tune.  Amazing Grace?  Loch Lomond?  Nope.  The theme music from Star Wars.  The final weekend of the Fringe Festival was in full swing!

Earlier that Saturday morning, we headed to King's Cross Station to catch the train.
Inside King's Cross
We couldn't find Platform 9 3/4, so we stuck with our original plan and boarded the train to Edinburgh.
What about 9 3/4?
After dropping our bags off at the hotel, we stopped at the Greyfriars Bobby pub for a late lunch.  The statue of the little dog in front of the pub is Bobby, a terrier who, according to legend, guarded the grave of his master for 14 years after he died and was buried in the Greyfriars churchyard behind the pub.   Or, he might have just been a stray dog that lived in the churchyard.  But that's not a very good story, is it?
Greyfriars Bobby
There is a rose bush planted next to his owner's grave in Bobby's memory.
Josh at Greyfriars (Bobby's memorial is to his right)
After lunch, we headed to one of the Fringe Festival venues, where we saw a familiar face -- the upside-down inflatable purple cow from the Udderbelly festival.
As we were making our way to the venue for our first show, this flyer caught our eye.
Sounds... unique?
Intriguing, but for now we had a date with The Vocal Orchestra, who sang, beat-boxed, and created interesting sound effects with their microphones.

Our next show was "Piff the Magic Dragon," who turned out to be a guy in a dragon costume who did impressive magic tricks with the assistance of a poker-faced girl with a bit of an attitude problem and an adorable chihuahua named Mr. Piffles.  Hilarious and amazing!
Piff the Magic Dragon with Mr. Piffles
As we headed to our final show of the evening, we had another Star Wars moment...
After a quick dinner, we made our way to our next venue: Edinburgh Castle.  This was no Fringe performance, but the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.  We had purchased our tickets months in advance through a travel company and had no idea where our seats were until we got there.  We were flabbergasted to discover we were right in the middle of the front row -- probably the best seats in the house!  (except we were outdoors in front of a castle)
In the front row at the Tattoo!
Our view of the castle from our seats.
The event started with a ceremony honoring Captain Heather Stanning of the Royal Artillery, a native of Scotland who won the first gold medal for Great Britain in the 2012 Olympics (in rowing).
Heather Stanning (in the skirt)
Next up, a Braveheart-inspired performance with children in animal skins
And then, the bagpipers!
Lots of bagpipers!
Bagpipers in impressive formations!
A tribute to Pixar's Brave, which we'd just seen the week before
The U.S. Navy Band, Europe
Cruachan III, Shetland Pony Mascot of The Royal Regiment of Scotland
The Union Jack
Dramatic lighting
And for the grand finale, fireworks!
The next day, we had a good view of the stands from below the castle.  The parade ground in front of the castle is quite narrow compared to the stands for the Tattoo, which hang over the edge on both sides.  I'd be a little nervous if I were sitting way at the top!
Edinburgh Castle and Tattoo seating
On tap for the afternoon, the Oxford a capella group Out of the Blue.  They sang, beatboxed, and made interesting sound effects.
Next, a group from New York performing The Complete Gilbert & Sullivan in Briefs.  They were all very talented singer and actors, but trying to cram the entire works of G&S into a one-hour show made for a frantic pace that was a bit hard to follow, even though we were familiar with several of the operettas.

These performances were held in a variety of venues all over the city.  Some were actual theaters, but most were other types of spaces (churches, gymnasiums, lecture halls, tents) that had been converted for the festival.  Most were within walking distance of one another, but we had to make sure we left enough time in between shows to get from one to another.  Our next show was in the Pleasance Courtyard, which housed what seemed like a dozen different venues, as well as at least two pop-up bars (there was one at nearly every venue) and a children's play area.  We wondered what normally goes on in this area.
Lots of venues here!
We were there to see Rhys Darby, who you might recognize as Murray Hewitt from the HBO series Flight of the Conchords
Yes, that's Murray from Flight of the Conchords
We got there a little early, so we queued up outside waiting for the previous show to end.  It turned out to be "An Evening with David Hasselhoff," and The Hoff himself came outside to pose for photos with fans just as they let us in to the theater/gymnasium.  I have no idea what he actually did in his show -- Josh and I were certainly curious, but not enough to pay £20 each to find out.
Rhys Darby's stand-up show was hilarious, although we were starting to notice a theme when he spent about 10 minutes doing sound effects into his microphone.  He does a pretty good telephone and helicopter...

For dinner, we decided to head up the hill to a pub that had a free nightly performance of "Footstomping Scottish Music."  That sounded great to us, and we managed to snag a table with a great view of the makeshift stage.  It was shaping up to be the perfect evening -- until the band started setting up.  They taped up a flyer with the name of their band: Lucky from Kentucky.  Now, we know that bluegrass and Scottish folk music have much in common, but we were still a bit disappointed.  Nevertheless, we had a decent dinner and a nice chat with the British couple who shared our table with us.

The next day was cool and rainy, but we took advantage of the free morning to explore a little of the city on foot.
Nobody came to see "Guy Smoking a Cigarette in the Rain"
We visited Scotland, too.  Where's our statue?
The cafe where J.K. Rowling wrote the Harry Potter series
We ended up at the Mansfield Traquair Centre, a former Catholic church painted with gorgeous murals by artist Phoebe Anna Traquair in the 1890's.  It was open to the public as part of the festival, and we took advantage of the free guided tour.
Mansfield Traquair Centre
Above the entrance
The altar
Even the floor tile was gorgeous!

She didn't sign her work, but the woman in pink is believed to be a self-
portrait of the artist, Phoebe Anna Traquair
Our afternoon was another marathon of Fringe shows.  First up, Rhythmic Circus, with four talented tap dancers accompanied by a live band.  Great show, although we rolled our eyes a bit when one of the musicians did some beatbox and sound effects.

Next up, in a painfully small venue, Scientist Turned Comedian Tim Lee, from California.  He had some good material, but probably should not have quit his day job.

After that, we ran across town to catch a Panto version of Back to the Future.  It was by far the worst show we saw at the Fringe Festival.  My15-year-old niece's high school drama class could have put on a better show. 

Fortunately, we still had one more show to go, and it was the best of them all: the One-Man Star Wars Trilogy!  Yes, all three of the original Star Wars movies re-enacted by one man in the course of an hour.
As we approached the venue, we were greeted by several people dressed as characters from the movies -- Darth Vader, stormtroopers, bounty hunters, etc.  Boba Fett and his pal graciously did the Usain Bolt pose with me.  (This was right after the Olympics, when everyone was practically REQUIRED to pose for photos like this.)
Boba celebrates making the Kessel Run in less than
eleven parsecs
We had seen the same performer do his One-Man Lord of the Rings Trilogy in Washington, DC for Josh's birthday a few years ago, which we thoroughly enjoyed.  We liked the Star Wars version, too, but we both agreed that the LOTR version was much better.  It probably helped that we saw that in a proper theater, whereas we couldn't see very well in the Fringe venue as the seating was all on one level.  It's harder to appreciate a mime-based performance when you can't see what the performer is doing.  Still, it was a great way to end our Fringe Festival marathon -- and oddly appropriate, since there seemed to be an overarching Star Wars theme to our visit.

The next day we only had a few hours to explore the city before we had to catch our train back to London, so we visited Edinburgh Castle.
Edinburgh Castle
Barracks for prisoners
Nice view!
Cemetery for Soldiers' Dogs
The One O'Clock Gun is fired every day at 1:00 pm
BIG Fireplace!
The Great Hall
Nice carved wood

View of the stands for the Tattoo.  We were seated just to the right of the
opening in the back, in the front row!
All too soon, it was time to collect our luggage from the hotel and head to the train station.  We had a great time in Edinburgh, but vowed to go back so we can take time to explore more of the city and the surrounding area.  It was fantastic to be there for the Fringe Festival and Tattoo, but it's just so crowded and frenetic in August that we'd like to go back at a quieter time of year.
View from the train
We did get a lovely view of the Scottish countryside and coastline on the train home.  We are looking forward to planning another trip to Scotland.  Not sure if it will have a Star Wars theme next time...

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Bronze Medal Match

Olympic tickets initially went on sale in the UK just a couple weeks after we arrived in the country.  We were still living out of our suitcases in a temporary furnished apartment, but we were so excited at the prospect of living in the host city that we applied for tickets to eight different events.  We got nothing.  Boy, was that disappointing!

When the second round of tickets went on sale a few months later, we were only allowed to apply for three events.  By this time we were thinking a little more practically, so tried to limit ourselves to weekends so Josh wouldn't have to take time off from work.  Most of the events we had initially applied for were not available, but there were plenty of tickets for football (soccer) and beach volleyball, so that's what we ended up with.

Now it's easy to understand why beach volleyball might not be popular in a country with cool, rainy summers and rocky beaches (ouch!), but football?  Well, they may be devoted fans of their own local teams, but apparently there wasn't much interest in Olympic competition.  So that's how we ended up with tickets to two different football matches and beach volleyball.  (The rest of the events I attended were thanks to my sister, who had much more success buying Olympic tickets in the US.)

Our final event was the men's bronze medal football match between Japan and South Korea at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.  Yes, the one in Wales.  Why?  Well, we'd never been there before, so we figured we could make an overnight trip of it and explore the city.  It's only a 2-hour train ride from Paddington station, and everything was within easy walking distance of the train station...
All the signage in Wales is in English and Elvish... I mean Welsh
...Even our hotel, which we could actually see from the platform!
The conveniently-located  Maldron Hotel
I lucked out with the hotel.  Not only was it in a great location, but I was able to get a "family" room with a double bed and a twin bed for the three of us, and they put us on the top floor, which had a nice view.
We could see the Bristol Channel
And the Brains brewery...  Brains!
From the stairwell, we could see the stadium
We had some time to kill before the game, so we wandered down the high street to check out the city, which was bustling with activity.
Nice flower baskets
Shopping arcades
Cardiff Market
Cardiff Market interior - vendors sold produce, books, clothes, souvenirs, etc.
We saw lots of vendors selling flags and other accessories
for the football match
The police were out in full force, with some extra-tall officers on the high street
This trio was performing a Britney Spears song on accordion and double bass.
Another group of performers was setting up a couple blocks away
As we got closer to the stadium, the kookiness factor remained the same, but was more sports-fan-oriented.
A Japan fan poses for photos with a British family in their flag capes
Funny how the guy with the Japanese flag seems to be the
more oddly dressed of the two...
Plenty of Korean fans as well
After an early dinner, we hung out in front of the stadium to see if we could find a taker for our extra ticket.  We weren't the only ones with spare tickets on our hands, so we ended up giving it to a student from Shanghai for about half the face value.  He had come to Cardiff to study English and International Transport (I think) and he told us his mother was half Japanese, so he was rooting for Japan.  Nice kid.  I'd rather give the ticket to someone like him for half price than sell it to someone sketchy for face value.
Millennium Stadium
As with many other Olympic venues, they had one of the relay torches on hand outside the stadium so people could get their photo taken with it.  Of course, the lady in charge of the torch wouldn't actually let go of it, so she got to be in all the photos, too.
An Olympic torch
We had pretty decent seats, not far from the center of the field.  Although they sold beer in the concession stands, you weren't allowed to bring it to your seat, so most people hung out 'backstage' with their drinks until right before kickoff.
Josh and Sonia are ready for the game to begin
We had a very well-organized South Korean rooting section directly above us, complete with signs, flags, costumes, and drummers!
Those Koreans know how to cheer on their compatriots!
The teams gather for the national anthems...
And the game begins!
I had heard that Olympic football/soccer tickets didn't sell as well as many other events, especially outside of London, so I wasn't surprised to see empty seats at this game.  But I wasn't expecting them to be in huge blocks.  At one end of the stadium, entire sections were completely empty, while adjacent areas were completely full.  Huh?
Oddly clustered crowd
At halftime, we saw video clips of some of the entertainment from other venues, including Bananarama singing "Cruel Summer" at Horse Guards Parade before the beach volleyball bronze medal match.  No fair!  All we got were a bunch of guys in black walking around with yellow buckets.
Avant-garde halftime show, or just the clean-up crew?
We did get a kick out of the Japan fan sitting a few rows in front of us, wearing what appeared to be a Beanie Baby helmet.  Not sure what this has to do with Japan, but she gets points for originality!
Cute, but probably a bit warm for August, even in the UK
We chose to remain neutral and cheer for both sides, but South Korea appeared to be the stronger team.
South Korea scores a goooooooooal!
Final score: Korea 2, Japan 0
South Korea celebrates their Bronze medal victory
Japan wallows in defeat
The Korean rooting section goes wild!
All in all, it was a fun international experience for us.  Americans watching a football match in Wales between Japan and South Korea with a student from China.  Just to add a little more flavor to the mix, we stopped at a Mexican restaurant on the way back to our hotel for nachos and mojitos.  A prefect way to cap off the day!