Monday was the National Gallery. Here is one of the greatest collections of paintings in Europe (which means: the world). They were showing a collection of Renoir Landscapes, but at $24/pp we decided to skip it. And just as well, because the free exhibit, “Manet to Picasso: A Redisplay of Modern Masters”, was just great. In fact, it was incredible. Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ was so vibrant, although we both felt that his ‘Two Crabs’ was one of the best paintings ever created.

VanGogh Two Crabs

We had lunch here, and although the food was very good the waitress we had was awful. People seated next to us, about 15 minutes later, were served 15+ minutes before our meal arrived. And although we ordered drinks when we placed our order, they arrived long after our meal was served — and after I went to the counter to ask for them, again. We did not tip. (Suggestion: treat this meal as your ‘dinner’ and enjoy yourself. The menu was varied and everything looked and smelled delicious. Despite the service, we would go back.)

From here we wandered down and around and eventually found our way to the Tower of London. I really wanted to see the famous ravens. (There is a prophecy, dating from Charles II that if there are no longer ravens in the Tower of London, the British Commonwealth will fall.) Again, however, the cost of entrance defeated me ($32/pp!). So we just wandered around outside.  (There is a really neat virtual tour, here.)

By late afternoon, as usual, we were heading home. I started packing (we were to be up at 4:30am and in the taxi by 5am) and J. went to see the British Library. The BL was doing an exhibit on ‘Sacred Texts” that I would have enjoyed, but I was completely out of energy. Being back in the noisy, dirty city was eating away my energy faster than I could eat and sleep to replenish it. My brand new sneakers with the special ‘made for walking’ arches were flat. We were down to one pair of undies each.

It was time to return home.

We took the train at Marylebone Station to Stratford-Upon-Avon and could not take our eyes off of the countryside. It was so gorgeous, what with it being late spring. We saw lambs and calves and fields of some golden flower that we could not figure out the purpose of at all. So many of the towns we passed through had townhouses, each with a garden and a washing line. And so many older building — we saw castles flashing in the distance, and manor houses surrounded by estates that (clearly) had been working since the middle ages. Over the two+ hours of our journey, people got on and off the train at nearly every stop — this was clearly a popular route.

Being in the country was also striking for the lack of pollution. Dramatically cleaner.

For me, this was the day I realized I don’t get homesick. Instead, I get to a point where I am tired of traveling (hadn’t happened yet this trip) and want to stop having ‘adventures.’ But I don’t want my _home_ so much. I carry my home with me in my heart.

We’re here, in the Bard’s home town, to see Sir Ian McKellan as King Lear. We’re prepared to have our minds blown — and they were. We were in the very last row of the theatre. (Here’s a link to a tour, from the opening image you want to turn around and look up.  That last balcony has seats — we were in the back.) I was o.k. with not being able to see subtle detail, but I worried about hearing the words . . . no worries. We could hear every single word, clearly. Interesting, J and I didn’t have as much trouble with the language itself — a clear example of native speaking compared with learning it. OSF barely holds a candle to RSC, in so many ways.

This is perhaps a ‘chintzy’ recounting of the two days, but we were completely overwhelmed by McKellan’s  performance and power.

Today we went to the Tate Museums — the British and the Modern. We arrived deliberately early (before the TB opened) so that we could have a leisurely breakfast in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, there were only two cafes that we found, both side by side, and one was completely empty. A very bad sign. The one that was doing business, however, was pretty good. I’ve never had a latte lacking in foam, but their grilled cheese and ham was a tasty way to start the day.

The Tate British *blew* the Modern away, even without being able to see the Blake Watercolors. (They’d been put away for an upcoming exhibit — darn it!) TB has an entire area devoted to the works of J.M.W. Turner, England’s most famous romantic landscape painter. The paintings were definitely interesting, although my favorite (Burning of the Houses of Parliament) apparently isn’t in the collection. His Venice paintings were especially ethereal.

We then took the Tate Boat across and up the Thames to the Tate Modern. This is an impressively fortress-like building housing nothing but modern art. Frankly, I think the building was the best thing we saw. I’ll grant you, we were tired (our energy was flagging earlier and earlier each day) and I’m sure that colored my perception, but I am just not a fan of (what I see as) pointless art. It’s not beautiful, it tends to be a one note statement about something (usually the futility of modern life) and very rarely offers a way into a new insight. There was, for example, a collection of Rothko paintings that he had originally been commissioned to do for a famous NYC dining room (I can’t quite remember, but it may be the Four Seasons). He wanted to cover the seven walls with these huge works, saturating the light and providing a specific ambiance. Unfortunately, when he was finished with the ‘On Maroon’ paintings, he realized that no one would want to dine in such a claustrophobic atmosphere. So he refunded his commission. the story is fascinating. The works — tedious.

We walked across the Millennium  Bridge to St. Paul’s Catheral, but it was closed for cleaning and renovation. So we wandered in the gardens and took a look at our map. Ironically, we were very near (literally, blocks) from St. Martin’s and St Mary’s — we could have come here the first day!

Deciding we’d  done enough for the day, we went back to the hotel. Casa Mama for dinner again” grilled river trout for me (my first whole fish!, succulent to the last morsel and a nearly-perfect Carbonara for J. Tomorrow: the grand extravaganza!

After such a late night, we slept in until after 10am. Today was the day when we were to meet the woman who was selling her King Lear tickets to us, so we decided to have brunch near where we were to meet her. We had yummy ham and cheese croissants at a French cafe in Embankment — an odd little area with modern art stuck up on very modern glass/steel buildings, all along cobblestones streets. Serious juxtapositioning.

After the ticket/pound exchange, we made our way over to see Cleopatra’s Needle — a sandstone obelisk next to the Thames. It is rarely listed on tourist maps, and I’m not sure why. Maybe because it is _just_ an object? In any case, it was brought over from Egypt a long time ago, and survived the shelling of the city in WWII. (So says a placque on one of the sphinxes.)

This was a day of gardens. As we were walking towards our next stop, we came across a lovely little enclosed garden where we spent some time admiring drifts of tulips.

We took the tube to the nearest point to Kensington Gardens and, realizing we were running late, hurriedly walked to where out tour began. J. had found this — a free tour of Kensington Gardens celebrating spring. It was a very nice 90 minutes, even though it began to sprinkle, and then pour. We were stoic about the sprinkling, but when it started to rain, we were no longer so happy. Luckily, an huge old horse chestnut tree sheltered us long enough, so it wasn’t drenching, just dampening.

We ended up right next to the Prince Albert memorial. It’s an amazing construction of sculptures and allegory. Queen Victoria really missed him, I guess.

From there it was just a quick walk to the Victoria Albert Musuem. Another great collection of loot. By now, sadly, were we getting just a bit tired (we’d already been up and walking for 5 hours) so we decided to just see the highlights — all 50 of them. Stained glass, scupltures, paintings . . . more wow.

By now we were really tired. So we headed home and decided on an easy dinner at Casa Mamma again. This time I had wild mushroom ravioli and J. had one of the best lasagnas he’d every had.

This was our special treat day. My lovely sister, C. had recommended a visit to watch a session of Parliament as a particularly fun thing to do. So we went over to check it out. Its a bit of a odd moment when you realize that,yes, that nice young man at the gates is indeed holding an Uzi. Hordes of tourists were wandering around, but we managed to find our way into the Visitor’s entrance. A lovely young thing (the equivalent to an American Congressional aide) guided us into the building and told us to ‘queue up.’ She also warned us that since the PM would be taking questions, we were unlikely to be able to watch — everyone wants to see those sessions. We were very excited — to see Blair doing something that makes intelligent Americans WISH we had a similar setup in our government is a wonderful event. (We’d watched the PMs Questions on CSPAN on a couple of occasions at home.)

 It was a long wait — almost two hours. A rumour flew through the line that all the seats were taken, and at least one person ahead of us left. We hung on. And were rewarded! After a long climb up something like 6 flights of stairs (narrow and winding) and through another security search we were admitted into the Visitor’s Gallery. Yes, we got to see Mr. Blair taking any and all questions that came his way for 1/2 hour! The seats were medieval — barely enough room for me to fit my knees in, and I was defintiely getting to know the person next to me very well. J. just turned sideways and put his knees into the aisle. We laughed out loud. We wondered whether that question was as barbed as it sounded. It was great fun.

We emerged back into the city and began to walk away from the river. (I think it was north.) We passed Westminster Abbey, but didn’t actually realize what it was. or something. For whatever reason, we didn’t stop.

By that time we were feeling a bit peckish and started to look for a suitable place to eat lunch (it was already almost 2pm). A lovely menu at The Abbey called to us and we made our way down a broad flights of stairs into one of the loveliest bar/restaurants I’ve ever seen. Clearly this was a place for people to make important plans over a good (and probably a expensive) drinks. We were shown a small table in an upstairs area and given menus. Then we were ignored for 15 mins. Our foreign waitress (J. guessed Eastern Europe, I was betting on Cockney) took our orders and disappeared. And then we waited. And Waited. And waited some more. A couple seated after us was served. And still we waited.

Finally, (I mean, we were ready to leave) our food came. I’d ordered grilled salmon on a bed of greens, and J. had nachos. My salmon had apparently been poached (UGH) in tap water before placed quickly on a grgill to get some char marks. It was essentially flavorless — no salt, no lemon. Just the faintest essense of some kind of fish remained.  I couldn’t even taste the grill. J. nachos were worse. Let’s start with the fact that they were deep fried wonton skins, not tortilla chips. the ‘salsa’ was essentially ketchup with cayenne pepper in it to make it hot. Finally, all of the cheese had been mounded on the top, so the middle and lower layers were just chips, no topping. Absolutely the worst meal we had, the entire stay.

Hoping to chake the effects of that horrid time, we headed towards Westminster Cathedral. This is a glorious edifice with some of the most elaborate mosaic work I have ever seen. There were altars to the Saints of each of the British Isles: St. Patrick (Ireland) ;  St. David (Wales); St. Andrew (Scotland); and St. George (England). Lovely marble work as well.

By then we were feeling a bit tired, and had a late night ahead of us, so we went home for a quick rest. At about 5:30 we took the tube to Leicster Square — the theatre district. Here we had a simply superb meal at Bertorelli. Yes, another Italian restaurant. We shared an appetizer of baked squid stuffed with shrimp (yum) and I had grilled sea bass (so very good) while J. had one of the best lasagna’s ever. Replete, and with lunch firmly banished, we made our way to the Prince Edward theatre to see Mary Poppins. (What better to see in London than that?)

We had superb seats, about 8 rows from the stage and the production was nice. (I’m no fan of musicals, so I’ll go by J.’s enjoyment). I’m glad I splurged and we did this — it was a great memory to have. (Although, I keep hearing supercaligfragiliciousexpealidocius! as a song running through my head at odd times.)  

We got a good night’s sleep, barely managing to make it to the hotel breakfast before the 9am close. Breakfast was plain: three kinds of cereal, a variety of juice, toast (white bread), and coffee. We only ate there once, mostly because it was an incredibly noisy way to spend the day, and we preferred to sleep later. ==> note: I actually slept past 9am every day we were there, even with going to bed at 10pm or so. Clearly, I was exhausted each day. < === The day was overcast, but warm — 65 degrees or so.

We felt like this was our first real day in London, and headed out to find the British Musuem, largest repository of loot in the world. The Great Court was incredible — an exquisite merging of modern and old. We took a look at the map and decided to keep our tour focused. We’d see the Rosetta stone, the Assyrians, the Egyptians, and the Hellenes. Anything we saw that was just gravy. To my surprise, picture taking was allowed, and so we went nuts with the digital. It was hard to get good pictures in the uncertain musuem light, but we managed a few. (By the end of the trip we were comfortable with changing the settings to get the best effects.) The Rosetta Stone was neat. Hordes of school children were diligently taking notes and jabbing their pencils at the glass-enclosed stone. It was smaller than I imagined.

The Assyrians were amazing. The level of detail created from their carved stone walls was exquisite. (Gory, too, what with hounds being shot with arrows and lions vomiting blood, and people being crucified.) We spent a long time enjoying the various reconstructed palace walls.  J’s comment: “The Assyrians blow the Egyptians away.”

Then we went to see the Hellenes, with the god/dess sculptures, Temple of the Nerieds, and the pieces of the Parthenon. Wow. We were especially impressed with the variety of faces carved into stone that wasn’t even really visible from the ground, and also with how well sheer draped cloth was handled. (I tried to get a good shot of a lovely foot, but the picture just came out too blurry to really enjoy.)

The Egyptian stuff was neat. Particularly the painted (still visible after all these millenia) images of the various gods. The statues of falcons (Horus) in black basalt were incredible. There was a black stone, about 2 feet across, that had hieroglyphs on it. It was damaged by, of all things, being used as a mill stone — that’s taking practicality too far!

We had a bite to eat in the musuem cafe about half way through the day, and then continued our journey through the loot of the world. We wandered through the Romans for a bit — amazing pottery and metal work in cups and ornaments. One very dirty little cup was especially amusing — it depicted two couple (both men) engaged in amorous activities. Eventually, we headed out to wander the city a some more.  It was still noisy, but I was getting more accustomed to it, I think.

Everywhere we went we saw faces carved in the architecture, and old stone and slate buildings right next to modern glass and steel structures. It is an incredible juxtaposition of styles that shouldn’t work, but somehow does.  J. read somewhere that London is a coty of Architecture, and I think we saw that where ever we went.

We meandered back to our hotel room, and read in the garden for awhile. We decided to find a place to eat in our neighborhood and that is how we foudn Casa Mamma. This is a tiny little Italian restaurant that is an absolute gem! J. had an ‘Americano’ pizza (pepperoni), and I had spaghetti with white clam sauce. Delicious. We both felt like this was one of the best meals we’d had in a while. A little more reading in the garden, and we were back to sleep by 10pm.

With this post I’ll begin a series of day-by-day recollections of our trip to London. I’ve posted an album (actually, almost 20) at Yahoo and friends and family are invited to view the relevant pictures as I write. 🙂

We arrived at Heathrow at 8am on Monday morning. Flying United’s ‘economy access’ meant that we had extra space for our knees, and the seats seemed to be wider than usual as well. We really expected to sleep, but just didn’t manage it (even J. who can usually slepp anytime, anywhere), which was really tough. made worse, I expect, by the fact that everyone all around us DID sleep. Grrr.

Going through customs was no big deal, and our bags were waiting for us on the other side. (As an aside, I’d purchased new luggage for us — 30″ duffle bags with handles and wheels. They were FANTASTIC for manuevering on the streets. We never even had to unzip the built-in backpack straps.) We immediately made our way to the Underground Assistance center and bought 7-day Oyster Cards. These passes granted us unlimited access to the Underground, buses, and other forms of transport (for a discount) within the two main zones in London. They were not all that expensive (about 50 pounds — $103 — total, including a surcharge for travel from Heathrow itself) and we absolutely got our money’s worth. Plus it meant that we didn’t have to hassle about getting tickets all week. Correctly identifying our best route (the Piccadily line) we headed into town. It took about an hour, and then we were at our destination, Kings Cross/St. Pancras station.

Emerging onto the street we were assaulted by the noise and the stink of petrol. I am using that word literally, it staggered me. I’ll admit, in retrospect, that my total lack of sleep (it’d been about 19 hours by then) probably made it worse. But I’m not sure I ever got used to the noise of London — which is saying a lot for this city-raised girl.

Our hotel, however, was a mere 3/4 of a block from one of the entrances (not, unfortunately the one we chose). This was a bit of an adventure because we’d neglected to print a map of the location and no one we asked seemed to know where Crestfield Street was. We, luckily, found a policeman who pointed across the street and there it was.

Crossing the street is an adventure. Of course we intellectually knew that vehicles are on the opposite side, but during the whole trip we were like children at every crossing, muttering “look right” before stepping out, and then “look left” to finish. We never got used to it. It’s made worse by the absolute lack of fear on the part of the locals — clearly, jaywalking is not an offense in London.

The Crestfield Hotel is quite nice (you can see my review on TripAdvisor) and we’d stay there again if we went back. We were there about 10:30, and check in wasn’t until at least 2pm. So we dumped our bags and headed out to start seeing the sights.

J. was a very smart man, and he found a  free concert at St. Martin in the Fields — classical guitar selections from a locally famous young man, Ahmed Dickinson Cardenas. Although it was actually being held in St Mary Le Bow because St Martins was under renovation, the church provided a useful starting point for us. Unfortuantely, by that time I was hungry, sleepy, out-of-sorts (no coffee yet!) and chilly. The wait for the concert (at 1pm) was not so pleasant. Eventually we found a Pret-A-Manger (sort of an upscale Subway, but better) and got some sandwiches and coffee and made our way back to the church to eat.  I figured the coffee would keep me awake even if the sandwich made me sleepy. Sadly, this was not the case. Apparently food = safe to sleep or something and J and I both foudn ourselves barely able to keep awake. Which was a shame, because the young man’s guitar work was very good. He began with a Bach Prelude and Fugue, then moved through several modern pieces (Ponce’s Theme Viaret et Finale, Rodgrigo’s Invocation and Dance, etc.) and ended with a piece from his native Cuba (Pujol’s Guajira).  We barely managed to time our nodding heads to the beat.

By then it was after 2, so we headed back to check in. Our room was #7, just down a short flight of stairs and complete with a bath and shower (aka ‘ensuite’). We dumped our bags, hung up the things that needed hanging, and washed the grime of travel off our bodies. By then, of course, we were a bit wired, and hungry. There was an Indian place around the corner, and J. went out to get a couple of chicken biryani’s — the only thing on the menu without little chili peppers next to it. (We wanted food, not a struggle to eat overly-spicy food.) Sadly, it was nearly too spicy to eat — whether because that was how they make it, or some misunderstanding we were sure, but we were bummed. (And didn’t eat any more Indian the whole time we were there. Food was so expensive that ordering food we wouldn’t — couldn’t — enjoy would have been a double waste.)

We fell into bed around 8pm, barely holding on to consciousness in that last hour in an attempt to make the transition easier.

Ecumenicon was great! It is a small gathering (approx. 100 people) but a very active and close-knit community. Charles Butler is a dear, smart man; his sister Georgina is an absolute delight.

The Best Western was the setting, and the layout was excellent. (Much better than some places where classes are separated only by cloth ‘walls’.) Our opening ritual was elaborate, but mostly unscripted — an interesting balance to maintain. It worked VERY well. Good energy was created and spread out.

Both of my classes had great students. Excellent questions, good follow up.

I’ve been asked to return next year — and teach several more topics along the lines of Group Dynamics. I’m already noodling on what I will present. Maybe three 1 hour sessions on each of the “three C’s” of problems facing magickal groups (cohesion, conflict, and continuity). I’d like to make Magickal Connections a required text . . . maybe offer it to students at half price. (Note to self: ask New Page if we can make an arrangement.)

Ecumenicon is one of the best groups I’ve worked with over the years.

What an amazing trip. We got home yesterday afternoon (20+ hours of travel) and started doing the laundry. (I’m proud of us — we came home with one pair of unused socks and that’s it. :-))

I’m sorting through the 100s of photos, I’ll either upload them or burn CDs.

Highlights:
Watching the “PM’s questions” in the House of Commons, the British Musuem, Van Gogh’s work (in the National Gallery), having an authentic moment with a drunk Irishman in a pub (did you know Hoover was the who ordered Kennedy’s assassination?), and seeing Sir Ian McKellan as King Lear, with the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) _at_ Stratford-Upon-Avon.

Things I’d rather forget: the incredible NOISE of London, the phenomenal amount of DIRT in the air in London, and discovering that bacon is nothing like what we think of here in the US.

Things we missed: Blake’s works (they were not on display because the Tate was prepping them for a new enxhibition), the RSC doing Macbeth, the -interior- of Westminster Abbey, most of the ‘famous houses’ and such landmarks, and the rooks of the Tower of London.

We’ll just have to go back. (But not until we’ve done a few more of the Continent’s cities.)