Monday, August 29, 2011

Day 12: The Day I Went to Church At Westminster Abbey with George Lucas

Yeah, that's right. George Lucas. But more on that later.
First let me tell you about my morning! As Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's Cathedral cost a pretty penny to get in to, what some tourists like to do is attend services there, which get you in for free. I don't particularly like this tactic, because these are serious houses of worship, and I don't like to feel like I'm "cheating." BUT because I also happen to be an historian, I do enjoy seeing things in situ, as they were meant to be used. And in the case of churches, without the blatant sacrileges that go on while the hoards meander, the majority of whom who don't truly understand what it is they are seeing. But enough ranting.

I got to Westminster Abbey for the 11:15 service and stood on line outside for about 30 minutes beforehand, where I chatted with some very concerned people about hurricane Irene, and the Blitz. I love Westminster Abbey. It's so fantastically old and important. In America the only thing we have that old is the dirt. The cool, smooth stone walls have seen some of the most important moments in history, including the coronation of every English monarch, dating back to King (later Saint) Edward the Confessor, who lays entombed in the Abbey. "If walls could talk" is rarely uttered more profoundly than in Westminster Abbey. My merry band of church goers were then led inside, where I trod upon the grave of Darwin and Newton before being ushered INTO THE CHOIR (the wooden part at the very front where the... ahem...choir sits) where I got to sit next to the chorale singers and in possibly the best seat in the house. In the Abbey, the choir (the wooden part, not the singers) acts as a screen from the rest of the church, making for a very intimate experience. In the past, only the most important people would have been able to sit in the choir. If I wanted, I could literally look at photos of past events in the Abbey, and see who sat in the same well worn, meticulously carved and painted wooden stall as yours truly. What famous bums might have graced my bit of the Abbey? What great posteriors will my seat cradle in the future? I shall keep an eye on choir stall number 19 at all future ceremonies, and fondly remember the time that I, as-of-yet relatively unfamous Alison Stauver, enthusiastically perched upon that piece of wizened wood. And perhaps, one day, people will take their seat in number 19, and think to themselves with quiet, refined excitement, "Alison Stauver once sat here!"

The service was wonderful. Everything was very carefully read and practiced, the choir was impeccable and sang pieces by Mozart, and the lessons good and true. Anyway, I was beside myself. And then, sitting across the way, I saw....could it be? Is it he? Really? Was that....

George Lucas?

I suppose I can't be 100% sure, and the likelihood is slim, but people were approaching him. And if I recognize him, with my limited knowledge, there must be some possibility, surely? :) I rudely took a picture as he exited the Abbey, so you can judge for yourself. No matter what you (or I) think, I'll always remember this as the day I sat in the choir of Westminster Abbey with George Lucas.

Here's a nice shot of the London Eye, put up for the new millennium as a temporary attraction, but so popular it has remained. I think it takes a 1/2 hour go round? And you're in these glass pods, not like a regular ferris wheel.

The famous statue of Churchill. I wonder if it really has an electrical current running through it, so pigeons won't toddle on his head.

A view of the Abbey. The space in from with the tents has a name, which I can't recall. It has statues of famous world leaders and figures, like the Churchill, and the most recent is Nelson Mandela. There is also one of Abraham Lincoln. Since this is where people congregate to protest and utilize their right of free speech, that's why you see all the tents. They gated off the field because, as one guide put it, "They are of course welcome to voice their opinions, they are just not allowed to destroy the park in doing so."

And some nice, white fluffy cloud photos of Big Ben and the New Palace of Westminster.

After service I went around window shopping, and unfortunately discovered an amazing store called Dorothy Perkins. Everyone raves about Topshop, but I just hated everything in there. Dorothy Perkins was much more my style. Being much poorer than when I first arrived, I couldn't get much, but did get a new pair of shoes, since I now have a suitcase to bring over all my treasures and have some space. My shoe size in the UK is a 7, and for some reason that made the experience all the better. I guess British women have big feet? Because almost every style went up to 9's, the equivalent of an American 12, I guess.

After meandering around I went to Saint Paul's Cathedral for an evening organ recital. It was very awesome, and I really enjoyed it. It would have been nice to visit during tourist hours, however because I'm pretty sure I would have loved to climb the 500 odd stairs of the dome. Another trip, another time, perhaps.

After the concert I returned to Leicester Square, which was humming with lively activity. Tomorrow is a bank holiday here, so there were lots of people out taking advantage of the 3 day weekend. After walking around for a couple of hours I saw two movies. I only saw a second because the first, Conan the Barbarian was sooooo bad, and needed to wash my eyeballs with something better, that being Super 8. Once that let out I barely caught the last train to the hostel before they closed down for the night. The closing of the underground makes me so nervous. In New York, it might take 30 or 40 minutes, but at least you know a train will eventually come and take you home. Here, I guess you're only recourse is a taxi.

But I made it! And now I'm pondering my early morning, and if I'll have enough time to make one last journey into the thick of it before I have to leave for the airport, around 1pm.

This is my last post from London! I hope you have enjoyed my tales as much as I've enjoyed reliving them. I am so happy to have a thorough record of my time in London, and my only hope is that in readings these adventures, you are encouraged to go out into the world in search of your own wild tales.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Day 11: The Day of Health, Harry, and Hurricanes

In the morning, after trying to sort out all this Hurricane Irene nonsense, I went to Borough Market, which was amazing! The following is just a bunch of pictures of the luscious things I saw...


I'd like a hard boiled ostrich egg. I wonder how hard that is to do?

Award winning pies! I wonder if they're as good as Mrs. Lovette's? :)

Open wide! I want to shovel ice inside your mouth!

Fancy butters

This makes me miss Rose and Anna.

These were everywhere, and kinda shocking to see for the first time. They shave off little slivers of smoked meat right off the leg and into your mouth.

Eggs! Even in the grocery stores, they do not refrigerate eggs. They're sold in the biscuit isle, near the cooking ingredients.

There were several gluten free bakeries reppin' at the market. This place was selling GF brownies. You know I bought one! It was very rich, and the leftovers have since crumbled in my purse.

I thought this was clever! Flower pot bread!

Everywhere were these massive pans with hot curries and paellas and such. They'd give you a sample or scoop some into a box for you to munch on.

Potatoes....with the earth from whence they grew...

I got two health drinks, this was a power smoothie, the other was a wheatgrass juice blend. I'm trying to green power away The Plague!

Two organic iced teas...they were two for one and you know how I like to have more than one bev at a time!

I also got called a variety of sweet names, like lovey, darlin', cherub, and sweetie.

As I sat down outside, it started pouring. And I sat there under my umbrella, until it REALLY started pouring, at which point the water hitting the table in front of me kept bouncing up at me under my umbrella. It was also incredibly crowded at the market by that time, so I decided to go back to the British Museum, because I had an audio walking tour.

So back I went, and got to spend a more proper amount of time exploring the remains of the greatest cultures the world has ever seen. There are also a lot of benches in that museum, which was nice because I'm having trouble breathing.

I thought about going to St Paul's for a visit inside, but since I was close and hadn't been, I decided to go to the British Library! And since getting there involves going to...

King's Cross/St. Pancras, I decided to have a little search for....



Platform 9 3/4! It has been moved outside while some construction is going on, and I have to say it was...kinda stupid! Look at that lame, unimaginative sign, and that hastily sawed off cart. They didn't try to make it look at all as though it was disappearing into the wall. Harry Potter fans require much better quality from the HP sites! I had a girl take my photo, none the less.

Nextly, the reason I had come! The British Library, which was incredible.

The building is rather modern and ugly, and the important rare books room is only a tiny part. The majority is a research library, that holds thousands and thousands and thousands of books, and requires permission to use.

The rare books room was spectacular, though. I saw original copies of Canterbury Tales, my second English-owned-copy of the 1611 King James Bible, and and earlier English Geneva Bible, another 1215 copy of the Magna Carta and the list of demands that led to the Magna Carta, Henry VIII's prayer scroll, first editions of Shakespeare, a handwritten copy of Handel's Messiah (which only took 24 days to write!), music written by Mozart, AND his marriage certificate to Constanze, which makes me miss my little Stanzi! And finally, the papers (and an envelope for Michelle) that Paul McCartney and John Lennon first scribbled lyrics on to some of their most famous songs. There were also very early maps, illuminated manuscripts, Da Vinci journals (did you know he wrote backwards and from right to left? You have a use a mirror to read his writing) and religious books from all over the world. It was an impressive compilation, and I was blown away. I even got some bookplates, which I promptly inserted into my new Harry Potters when I got back to the hostel.

As I was doing this I met a new roommate, Anya, from Germany, who is delightful! She went down to dinner while I spent some time looking into hurricane Irene some more. I hope everyone stays safe! And I hope it doesn't affect my flight!

I got even more medicine, and after looking at my credit card statement, I see the exchange rate is even WORSE! So now I've bought what comes out to $60 worth of medicine. And not that it's that much, but it's just so expensive, and the rate so poor. I don't really like nasal sprays but I gave in so I could sleep...

And thought it was weird that includes a warning about thyroid.

So here I sit, wondering where all my money went...but breathing happily through my nose.

Tomorrow is my last full day in London, and I will do my best to make it a chockerbock one. I plan on visiting Westminster Abbey for church service and a quick tour, and St. Paul's for a tour and organ concert in the evening, and perhaps one last London Walks tour squeezed in there somewhere. Hope all my NYC pals are hunkered down! I'm thinking about you!

Day 10: The Day of Half-Sneezes

Ugh, don't you hate that? When you feel a sneeze coming on, and you get all ready for it, and wait for the moment right after when it feels so good, and then it doesn't follow through? And you're left with that uncomfortable unresolvedness, and your eyes water and you just feel like your favorite team was about to make the point but at the last second botched it? That was the majority of my day fact....ah ah No dice.

I woke up at 6 this morning, thanks to The Plague, and had to twiddle my thumbs for a while because the museums I planned on visiting don't open until 10. On Fridays museums are open late, so I was hoping to get a thorough visit of two of them.

My first stop was the Victoria and Albert Museum. While I waited for the doors to open, I watched this cool sign. The V and A parts turn upside down, and the ampersand turns 180 sideways, so it reverses the sign. Clever and cool.

The V&A is an arts and design museum, and is supposed to have am amazing collection of textiles and period clothing. I arrived in great anticipation....

And found that whole section closed. Color me disappointed. I wandered around for a couple of hours, but was too tuckered to stay much longer. I did like this statue of Diana:

Not only is it Diana, but since she's missing her bow, it kind looks like she's "droppin' her shouldah" like the hip hop dance. Classic.

In the ladies room I overheard a British mother and her young daughter talking. The little girl asked, in her cute little accent, "Mummy, why are there two buttons for the loo?" The mother answered "Because, darling, the small one is for when you pee and the other is for when you poo. It conserves water." To which the little girl replied, "Oh! That's clever! (pronounced cley-vah!") Never has potty talk sounded so sweet.

I next went to The National Gallery, and while normally would have been there forever, could barely stay standing in each room. I forced myself to at least see the highlights, and actually unexpectedly saw some of the paintings that were very important to my big, 50 page group paper on the Reformation and Counter Reformation from my undergrad days. That was totally unexpected, and like walking into a room and seeing a close friend you haven't talked to in 5 years. We had nice chats and fondly reminisced about the good old days!

I also stopped by The National Portrait Gallery, which was wonderful. Both museums are in Trafalgar Square which celebrates the victory of (one armed) Admiral Lord Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar over Napoleon. (He wasn't stopped for long however. It wasn't until Waterloo did the Duke of Wellington finally put a stop to my favorite little emperor.)

Here is Nelson's column (with Big Ben and St. Paul's in the background!)

And you can see his sleeve is pinned up.

There was also this giant ship in a bottle, which I have to say is a less impressive thing to see when it's massive.

And here is the Olympic countdown clock. It was vandalized during the riots but they cleaned it up pretty fast.

A statue of George Washington with a pigeon hat!

There was a guy dressed up as Queen Elizabeth II, which I though was hilarious. And I wanted to take a picture so I pulled out some change, but all I had were pounds and then pennies, and of course I didn't want to give away my pounds! I didn't think he'd notice that I gave him just a few pence, but here you can see him pushing his mask back to see how much I threw in. Needless to say, this was the best shot I could afford.

I thought about going to Apsley House, but since I was so close to Covent Garden I decided to walk over. I was so unimpressed! Perhaps I was there at the wrong time of day or the week, but even though there were tons of people, there wasn't much to see or do. I did get a suitcase though. $30 for a rolling suitcase! I then thought I'd go to Fortnum and Mason, but didn't know where it was. Have a great map on my iPod that works offline and can locate major landmarks but for some reason this incredibly famous shop doesn't show up. While I was standing there, looking it up, I experienced a rare, completed sneeze, and heard a "bless you!" It was a pedicab driver, who offered to look up directions on his phone. He said he'd take me there for £5, so I agreed. We talked about New York and London, and he was from some crazy country and I could barely understand what he said. It was also raining, but I took this picture.

He gave me a little advertisement for a launch party, and I figured out later that he started a group that organizes parties (like, hip hop deejayed crazy parties) and this was his first one. He wanted to know my opinion about the flier, since it was his first time doing this. I told him it was fine, to be polite, and he insisted that I tell him what I really thought because he really wanted some honest feedback. I told him that I was not the kind of person to ever go to a party like that, so I probably wasn't a good judge for this kind of invite. But since I'm from New York, and that must mean I'm an advertising genius, he continued to ask me what I really thought. So I told him that it lacked information about his company, used crude imagery and didn't make use of the back of the paper, where more information could be written. He got very upset and said, "Well, you've broken my heart. I mean, most people say it's fine, just to be nice."

Meanwhile, he basically drove me around the block, and it cost me £5. I still couldn't find Fortnum and Masons, so took my suitcase back to the hostel and repacked my treasures into it. It just fits! I tried to rest a bit but a big group had just checked in and were getting settled in the room. I went downstairs and looked up Fortum and Masons on the computer, and had an hour before it closed, so went back into town and got there with about 20 minutes for shopping, which was fine because any longer and I might've come away with a sterling silver tea set. At least I did get another compliment on my signature!

I felt terrible but hated to go back to the hostel so early. I thought about seeing a movie, but couldn't buy a ticket. Everyone's credit cards here have a chip at one end, and they don't swipe cards hardly ever. And it's not the chip like some cards have, I think it's called blink, where it just hovers over a reader. You insert the short end of the card into the machine for it to read the chip. Anyway, all the movie ticket machines only took those cards and it wasn't worth it to figure out how to get a ticket. So back I went to Swiss Cottage. When I got off the train I saw a man bleeding profusely from his head coming down the long staircase. On either side of the stairs are escalators in either direction. The station attendants had hurried down the escalators to head him off at the bottom, and I have no idea what was going on. I have certainly never see someone bleeding in New York!

There's a middle aged woman staying in my room, who must be the chaperone to a school group. She got on my bad side when she unplugged my iPad without asking and moved it so she could sit on the floor by the door and watch shows on her laptop while it was plugged in. (We only have one plug in the room, which hasn't been very hard to rotate usage of.) Although clearly American, she does like to curse in German, and just now my occasional sniffles and throat clearing must be annoying her, because she tried to get me to take some of her medicine. Never mind that I already have enough pills in me to tranquilize an elephant...

I am desperately wishing I was back in New York, not because I'm particularly homesick, but because a hostel is a miserable place to be sick, and being sick in London with all the things I still want to see and do is like going into outer space but staying tied to a chair so you can't float around!

And I'm tired of stealing wads of napkins from restrooms and cafes. Tissues are just so expensive here!

Thanks for the flood of comments! They're like little strings of love that let me know you're there. Xoxo.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Day 9: The Day of Hobnobbing and The Dollar Deluge

Another fine, however slow day. I am still incapacitated by The Plague, so decided to spend the day slowly meandering around Harrod's.

What luxury! What delights! What treasures! What crazy decorations! (uh, and Egyptian themed escalator?)

A lady selling curling irons curled my hair for me, so I had lovely waves and felt more that I belonged in this haus of elegance. She also thought i was from the UK, even though I worked hard not to accidentaly-fake-british-accent her. I poked around on every floor, and thoroughly enjoyed seeing the variety of fine wares the impressive store was offering.

They don't really like you to take photos inside, but I did get a few in the food halls, which were AMAZING. I had heard tales of this amazing section of Harrod's, but truly, it is beyond words.

The ceiling of the grocery.

This was creepy.

(I just finished this blog post and am now proof reading and I JUST NOTICED THAT IN THE PICTURE THE DOLL IS LOOKING RIGHT AT ME! AHHHH I HATE DOLLS! ITS HEAD DEFINITELY WASN'T POINTED AT ME WHEN I WAS LOOKING AT IT. I'm going to have nightmares tonight.)

A selection of fine delicacies!

These doughnuts had red glitter on them!

Look at all those wee savory pies! I love portable food!

And some very, fancy fancy marshmallows. I need to step up my candy making!

In the lower level there is a memorial to Diana and Dodi.

I was quickly tired, so went to a cafe to sit down. It was a multiple beverage kind of day.

Best (and most expensive) chicken salad ever! With broad beans and potatoes.

I did get some little souvenirs at Harrod's, but my greatest purchase in London thus far is...

A complete set of British Harry Potters! With all the original drawings!
When I went into the Harrod's bookstore, I saw two sets, a fancy hardcover set and a paperback set that had new illustrations. I asked the sales person how much they cost, and the fancy hardcover was £182, which is about $300. No deal. The paperback was £59, more like $100. Better. But then the lady was saying how these are the new illustrations, and I said that would really rather have them in hardcover, if I was going to invest, anyway. She found a magical third set, what you see above, that has all the original books in hardcover, and it was £135. And it was the last one. But since it was opened, she said "I'll drop the price for you." AND she replaced the books that had scuffed covers with new ones. And then she took off £40!!!!!! That is no small discount! And at Harrod's, they can charge your card in the currency of your country so your bank won't charge you a fee. And in doing so I got an exchange rate of 1.4, instead of the 1.62 I've been seeing. So basically my dreams came true for $133.

Sorry for all the money talk, but I was incredibly happy and made off like a bandit.

Another interesting note is that in London they ALWAYS check your signature on the back of your credit card against the one you sign. And so I am constantly getting comments on it, which makes me happy because I practiced it a lot!

The toy section was also amazing, and so much fun. The little kids running around, exclaiming "oh my goodness!" in their sweet little accents, was almost too much to bear. And they had a little section on Dr. Who, so this picture is for Juliette and Cooper.

Next up was Claridge's for my gluten free afternoon tea.

This hotel is uber fancy, with pictures of Her Majesty the Queen visiting as well as Churchill. It also had some of the most spectacular flower arrangements on the inside, using all kinds of different flowers and plants in one color scheme, like hot pink.

A big Chihuly chandelier. I actually didn't like this one, too much, as it made me think of a big hairball, but I thought the shadows were cool.

My table! Before all the deliciousness ensues. I asked a waiter, who I later learned was the head waiter, or manager, if I could take photographs, because I would be reviewing the gluten free food. He said, "of course!" and I rather think I got special attention because of my *ahem* authority. The full review will be posted on my gluten free blog, once I return. I was here for 2 1/2 hours, and in that course of time nibbled on some delightful delicacies, listened to some wonderful music, watched some faboosh people, and drank about 3 gallons of tea.

Here is the napkin that one of my many waiters placed in my lap for me.

When you lack companions you overhear a lot of other people's conversations, especially the staff. They all referred to me as The Young Lady. I would hear the head waiter say, "Could you please go and check on The Young Lady?" So needless to say I had a lot of attention, and never had to refill my own cup.

First was a selection of finger sandwiches on Genius bread, which is all GF. Ham, chicken salad, egg and tomato, salmon and cucumber. My tea is a lavender infused Earl Grey. Ughhhhh it was so good!

I loved the sugar box!

My second round of scones and pastry. Drool Town, USA, population Alison! Raisin and apple scones with the love of my life, clotted cream, Marco Polo tea infused jam, a coffee cream tart, and a coconut cake with pineapple compote and currants. And ain't none of it got gluten in it! Yee haw!

The chocolate was tempered so perfectly you can see the reflection of the camera and ceiling in it. And that is not a hard shell!

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is how it's done.

My second tea, on the urging of the head waiter, was Marco Polo, which is what the jam is infused with. It was divine, and I drank the whole pot!

The waiter then recommended/insisted I try another tea, because "you might as well!" and he brought me an organic green tea with ginseng, since he said I could use a "boost." This too, was spectacular.

They will bring you refills of any of the foods that you want, and I purposefully didn't eat much today because I wanted to take advantage of that fact, since this was so expensive. But one of the stupid parts of being sick is that I have no appetite, but was resolved to enjoy at least what they brought me, which is why it took 2 1/2 hours!

I took notes the whole time, which probably lent to my impression as some great important food critic. I thought about creating a moniker for my food critic alter ego, but couldn't come up with anything clever on the spot.

It was a divine evening, and I only wish I was in better health to have enjoyed it even more. I came back to the hostel afterwards, very early, as I'm hoping to do a lot tomorrow (including buying a suitcase!). So here I sit, after my day of lavishness and expense, with tissues stuck up my nose and a Japanese girl snoring softy above my head. Oh the duplicity of life!

P.S. There have been inquiries as to the hostel. I have not met anyone, because for the most part I am only here to sleep and leave before everyone wakes up or after they are gone. Plus most people are young teenagers. I did meet a new bunkmate this evening, though, from Australia. She seems very nice.

Although a boy did point at my feet today and give me the thumbs up. That's probably some signal in a different country, right?

I don't eat breakfast here anymore because the don't serve anything I can eat and there is never a place to sit. The room is nice and pretty quiet for the most part, and I would recommend Palmer's Lodge to anyone visiting London.