Saturday, July 18, 2009

High Culture in London-town

The photo album featuring lovely London. The explanation of the final images will be up tomorrow!

Thursday night we had to make a difficult decision. What time were we getting up to wait for tickets for Waiting for Godot (the redundancy was not lost on us)? Some of the calculus: The guy at the ticket window told us to get there between 7 and 7:30. It would only take five people taking that advice to edge us out of our seats. It was also going to be a Friday. More people were in town. More people would want to see this. Reluctantly I plugged 5:15 into my alarm so we would get to the theater by 6. Oh boy.

Roughly four hours after going to bed, my alarm went off. I dragged myself up. Tim was opting to pass on a shower. For me, a morning shower is my morning coffee. I don’t feel like the day can get rolling without it. I used the women’s showers instead of the men’s since I didn’t feel like going down a floor and across the building. I reasoned there wouldn’t be many people up at 5:20 anyway. This was a well-founded hunch which became even more well-founded imminently. I got cleaned off and felt ready to find a line.

As I popped in my contacts, Tim continued to snooze. I started making some unnecessary noise to rouse him a bit. It was getting close to 5:45, we needed to move. As I pondered what to do he rolled over. “You know it’s 4:45, right?” I did not.

Apparently my phone doesn’t update itself when you hop time zones. My phone was still functioning on Central European Time. I had another half hour to snooze. I didn't even think about how much sleep I had actually logged. Nothing like starting an early day even earlier. Around 5:50 GMT we blearily wandered into the Tube and followed our bread crumb trail back to the theater.

There was the giant poster of McKellen and Stewart. Would there be a line? A lone figure moved near the box office door. We had made it. We would see Godot. We power walked up and were greeted by a tired by cheerful thirty-something Asian woman. Her: “You’re here for Godot?” Me: “Yup.” “Well, we’ll be here a while.” “How many are you picking up?” “Four. And you?” “Three.” “Oh, there’s a third person who didn’t need to get up with the sun?” “Yeah, but Mike’s doing our laundry for us instead.” “That’s what he says. He’s probably going to sleep until you meet up.” “No, not Mike. He’s on top of this kind of stuff.”

Her boyfriend, Ollie, showed up and the next four hours were spent happily chatting with these English creative writers while playing Hearts and teaching them Euchre. An Irish woman and her adult daughter appeared around 7:30. Six of us in line, and all the tickets were claimed. People tacked onto our short line right up until 10, hoping for cancellations. The last 15 minutes dragged for hours compounded by an awkward conversation with a guy in line behind the Irish women who wanted an American opinion on Michael Jackson’s death. He then leapt to a Princess Diana comparison and finally just grinned and stared. We were also pestered by an American tourist who was trying to pay someone to repeat the exercise the next morning to get him and his wife seats. Ubiquitous relief when the box office finally opened its doors.
My view for four hours of the London Street. We got to watch the traffic become denser as the morning advanced.

I've fought pretty hard for some pretty difficult seats (see here and here for examples), but this was one of the most satisfying ticket-line experiences. The seats were cheap but very good making the effort completely justifiable. In New York they sell rush tickets by raffle, making it difficult to plan your evening if the raffle is at 4 and you may or may not actually see the show. Here we had taken all the necessary steps to make sure we had seats, and we had all day to explore the city without worrying about returning for vouchers or getting into the line two hours before showtime.
Mike was supposed to meet us at 10, our laundry freshly folded. At 10:15 he showed up, winded and apologetic. “My alarm didn’t actually wake me up.” Sophia nailed it. Yoonhee had relieved Mike of his duties while he frantically scrambled to meet us. We were pretty punchy at this point and really didn’t care all that much. We had three tickets for the front row of a once-in-a-lifetime performance. All for ten pounds.

Flush with our victory, we did exactly what I expect every London theater patron does after purchasing fantastic seats. We went to the Natural History Museum.

Okay, we did this via Buckingham Palace. We followed the stream of tourists from the Tube stop and found ourselves watching goose-stepping red-coats in fuzzy hats entering the palace gate. We were probably the only tourists in town who just stumbled into the changing of the guard instead of making it a high priority.
Keeping close tabs on our wallets, we extracted ourselves from the hoards and continued to Sir Richard Owen’s brainchild.
I think half of London’s school children went to the museum that day. The line snaked from the imposing, columned entrance, over a bridge and onto the sidewalk. This was especially disconcerting because there is no entry fee and no real explanation for the line. It did give us plenty of time to scrutinize the exterior which is detailed with pterodactyls and saber-toothed cat gargoyles. It reminds me of Orton Hall writ large.

When we finally got inside we dove to the left and into the Hall of Dinosaurs. This is my third visit to the exhibit and it felt like seeing an old friend again. The audio-animatronic dinosaurs have been shuffled, and the descriptions of the extinction event updated, but it still has the mysterious allure of the past as bones and reconstructions loom around myriad corners, a maze of paleontolgy.

The first dinosaur fossil ever recognized as the remains of an giant, extinct reptile. Thank you Gideon Mantel.

From the dinosaurs, into the mammals where a life-sized blue whale model reminds you how punny our species, or any species, is when compared to the ocean’s giants. We power walked past pachyderms and peccaries and finally dove into the Earth History section where they theoretically discussed energy (Tim’s specialty).
The entrance hall was cavernous, but didn't have much educational value. A model of the solar system painted across the wall made no attempt to show the scale of the planets or the distances between them. We rode an elevator into a copper-sheeted globe. I thought the globe might illustrate plate tectonics or the layers of the Earth, but no. It was an enormous modern art installation.

We were getting hungry and I had seen enough fossils and dead animals to sustain me for the rest of the trip. On to fish (technically a dead animal, but it's hard to eat a stuffed red panda) and chips. A couple of blocks from the museum we found a dark pub with all the staples: Fish and chips, bangers and mash, and savory pie of the day. We decided this would do for our English ethnic experience. Unfortunately we walked into yet another corporate business social. Everyone wore pressed dress shirts and conducted their social exchanges with a hesitency that belies spending time with people you see every day, but don’t really know that well.

We people-watched and eventually our beer and comfort food arrived. Mike and I went in for local, hand-pulled ales. We forgot the British aren’t ones for chilling their kegs until we took our first warm sip. Cheers.

British food gets knocked around a lot for lacking small things like flavor or character. I disagree with this assessment. British food is hearty stuff and the muscular food doesn’t need spices to make an impact and sate your hunger. The fish is meatier, the mashed potatoes are denser, and the sausage requires small bites or you won’t get it down. With a strong ale, there are few cuisines that leave me so exhausted or so full.
The exterior of the Plunder Museum.

With good British grub in our systems, it was time for a good British Museum. In 1753, the British Empire opened the door to what I affectionately term the Plunder Museum. The British Museum has artifacts from every civilization and time period that the Empire ever conquered or explored. You can spend a lot of time in there, so I lead a highlight tour to the Rosetta Stone, then into the Assyrian and Babylonian collections and finally to the Greeks. We spent some precious time with the Elgin Marbles, a significant portion of friezes taken off the Parthenon by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century.
Over lunch I tried to explain the significance of the marbles and the controversy surrounding the British lord’s extraction of the sculptures from Athens:

Tim: Did someone lose their marbles?
Me: Yeah, the Greeks.
Mike: What are they made out of?
Me: Marbles of marble.

I thought the joking was a sign I should stop the archeology lecture. After the marbles we visited the Asian artifacts where Mike was able to bust out his Chinese linguistic and historic skills to the delight of two Chinese women who we guided through the vast museum.

We glanced at a mummy on the way out and my head spun from our blazing trail through history. As we left, Tim smacked himself over the head:

Tim: Oh man, we forgot to see the marbles!
Me: No we saw them, you guys thought they were really pretty.
Mike: When?
Me: Um, the big room with all the Greek friezes?
Tim: Wait, what? We thought we were going to see marbles.

Hmm. Turns out I need to remember that most of this planet doesn’t have a working knowledge of the English-Greek tension over these 2500 year old sculptures.

We scurried back to Goodenough to snag a quick nap, then meet Yoonhee for dinner. After e-mail was checked and conversation subsided, Tim and I only ended up with about a half-hour of extra snoozing under our belts before grabbing Japanese food and setting off to see if our exhausting morning waiting for Waiting for Godot was really worth it.

As we filed into the theater, a sharply dressed Londoner called out, “Hey, Tim!” I wondered if this was a friend of Tim’s from school who just happened to be in London and seeing our show. Before I could reflect on the statistics involved in such a meeting, I realized this was Ollie, the guy we had played Hearts with that morning, only now he was showered, wearing contacts, and dressed for a Friday night out in London. His girlfriend, Sophia, was also dressed to the nines, her eyes carefully lined and her heels giving her an extra four inches.

Usually only your best friends know what you look like when you’re at your most scrubby and can really appreciate the difference a shower and new wardrobe can make. I felt even closer to my fellow Waiters. Of course, this feeling probably wasn’t reciprocated since Tim and I were wearing the same stuff we were modeling at 6AM. Plus we were rocking mussed, late-afternoon-nap hair.

It was time to take our seats. I could count the hairs in Ian McKellen’s beard. I could see every twitch of Stewart’s fingers. I could see every bead of sweat on Simon Callow’s brow. They were in our laps, and they were fantastic. When McKellen walked downstage to set his boots on the edge of the set, he could have fallen into Michael’s lap. During intermission we watched people reverentially approach the boots to poke them, then scramble away. Anyone who says the human connection to relics is bogus should watch how people deal with props touched by the famous and talented.

Most people hold this opinion of Waiting for Godot:

It’s just weird and confusing. But these performers were able to draw out the real drama Beckett built into his play. He didn’t see theater as a string of things happening. Instead he saw it as an exploration of relationships. Waiting for Godot is about Vladimir and Estragon, two guys who have spent a lot of time together, doing exactly what the title says. They don’t know why they’re waiting, but they’re pretty sure they should. They care for each other and tick each other off. Two travelers on the road stop by for some banter and existential musing, then the first act is over. The second act is more waiting. But again, with these performers, it was about how these couples function. How they make it through the day. How essential it is to have a companion.

After the show Mike and Tim were gracious enough to follow me to the stage door for autographs. My brother collects programs and I wanted one from this show to be part of his birthday present. The stage door was around the back of the theater and faced a quiet alley that was filled with flower boxes and the Filipino embassy.

Stewart was out first. He generously signed everything the small crowd presented him, thanking us for our adoring comments. Simon Callow and Ronald Pickup quickly followed. It would be another 45 minutes before Gandalf finally appeared. He tested everyone’s patience and stamina. Tim and I were working on a deficit to begin with, but we knew he had to leave at some point and we had already dumped this much time into the effort.

He didn’t disappoint. After he emerged he chatted amicably with everyone. One girl told him, “I can’t wait for The Hobbit to come out!” “Me neither.” Class act. Really they all were, carrying themselves with thespian dignity while also appearing entirely approachable. No wonder they get to play old men with power, charisma, and wisdom. They don’t really have to try.

With all four autographs in hand, it was time to find one more pub before the night was over. This was Michael and Tim’s last day in Europe and it wouldn’t do to just wander home from the theater and collapse into bed for a few hours before rising with the dawn to catch flights to parts East (Thailand for Mike) and West (Pittsburgh for Tim). We were exhausted, but needed one more toast. We found it near Goodenough College.

The place was all low wooden benches, tarnished mirrors, and ancient photographs. Just what we needed. We raised our glasses to an exhausting trail through Western Europe. Ten days. Four countries. A Dozen cities. Four battered feet. We earned our Euro-tripping stripes and it would be my pleasure to wander with them again. But first I need a nap.

The London album again.


Michael said...

First, sorry again for the debacle with the laundry! That hour I was scrambling around Goodenough trying to figure out how to get it done without being able to contact you two was the most stressful part of the trip! Hopefully, lunch made up for it :)

Second, the Sesame Street writers are ingenious. Although I hardly remember any of it, and definitely not Waiting for Elmo, I'm glad I watched it for 8+ years of my life.

I have really enjoyed reading your account of our trip--I hope that we'll have more adventures in the future!

Best wishes from Thailand (ahem :P), enjoy your last month!!

Miya said...

Sounds lovely! What a dedicated line-waiter you are. And I also share your opinion of satisfying British food. Have fun in the final weeks/days!

Matt said...

Lunch certainly made up for the laundry delay. I just thought it was hilarious that our line buddies called you out on it four hours before it happened!

And yes, I trace the roots of a slightly sarcastic but optimistic sense of humor to formative years spent with the Muppets. I ran across this clip in searching for performances on Youtube and wanted to makes sure you and Tim in particular saw it.

And yeah, I knew you were in Thailand. I don't know how many Pad Thai references were made that I would screw that up in the typing. Blame it on the schools. The change has been made.

And Miya, I pride myself on my line-waiting skillz. Some people can play "Freebird," others can cook Duck a l'Orange, and still others can burp the ABC's. I can wait in lines for tickets and use my talents whenever the opportunity presents itself.

I hope you enjoy these final days as a Fulbright Scholar, too!

Tim said...

Waiting for Elmo... so dang brilliant. And now I will forever know to go around back of the theatre to meet the actors.

I kind of wanted to stand in front of Ian McKellen's car door and yell "You.... Shall Not.... Pass!"

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