Friday, March 24, 2006

Recent Happenings

I was able to make it to the Natural History Museum yesterday afternoon. I arrived about 2 hours before close, thinking that would be plenty of time. I was wrong. I was only through a few exhibits before the closing announcements came on and I started rushing. There's still more to see, so I'll likely head back to that area and also re-visit the science museum and Victoria & Albert museum next door.

What a difference a building can make. Some of the exhibits were similar to those in the Natural History museum in Ireland (both contain lots of skeletons and stuffed animals), but the building in London is phenomenal - you walk through a grand entry into an enormous foyer, large enough to dwarf the dinosaur skeleton that's on display. From there, you venture into the wings with each hall dedicated to its own topic. One of the first is the dinosaur exhibit that houses a mechanical T-Rex. As I walked past, I swear that it's eyes, head and growl were following my every move - when I stopped, it stopped, when I started again, it followed. Quite eerie (I later learned this was true - that it senses where the people are and follows them). The blue whale and gem stone exhibits were also quite impressive. Unfortunately, the last part of my tour took me through an exhibit on man's destruction of the planet, general wastefulness of resources and the imbalance between the developed nations and the impoverished. It was a bit depressing, but awareness means there is hope.

A quick stop at the hotel and then off to the theater to see Billy Elliot. When I was here last, this was the show that everyone was talking about, so I booked a ticket before I left. Once again, I was high up in the rafters - 2nd from last row (don't think I've been closer than 3rd from last in any of the shows I've been to). But, the sightlines were decent. Had a bit of trouble with the dialog as it was in a rich Irish/English accent and used quite a bit of slang. But, got understood enough to get most of the jokes and enjoy the show (about a son of a coal miner that wants to grow up pursue the arts and be a dancer). The audience on this night seemed packed with teenage girls that seemed quite impressed with the lead dancer (cheering loudly after each number and standing ovation at the end). Not sure if its like this every night or if there was an organized outing. I thought the show was good - but was not one of the most impressive I've seen in terms of the dance or the music (which was by Elton John).

I started the day with the normal routine - breakfast at the hotel followed by a cappuccino at one of several nearby cafe's. I then joined a walking tour of the old city of London ( As the guide went around and asked people where they were from, a very large number were from nearby or the city itself. I was chatting with one fellow from Wimbledon and he had been on a few others and gave high praise. The guide took us to a number of spots and told stories of the area, the events and the people that shaped the city. I plan on joining another tonight and one or two more on the weekend, weather permitting.

The tour ended at St Pauls which I wanted to visit, but at 9 pounds (about $17), I figured I had seen enough churches that I didn't need to see another (besides, the admission area was inside the church, so I did get to see a bit of the interior without the fee). Instead, I headed to the Museum of London which was recommended by the gentleman from Wimbledon. This is a chronological history focused on London from the earliest of times to the late 1800's. An interesting collection, but I fear I may be starting to get a bit weary of museums as I occasionally find myself standing in front of a display, but not truly looking at its contents or reading the history. Its as if some kind of genetic programming kicks in - walk to display case, turn to face contents, pause and look at contents with contemplative expression, repeat.

I typed the above from a coffee house after leaving the museum, but the battery died before I could send. The following takes place later in the evening. And I should say, that the day is probably the best so far. Still mostly sunny well into the afternoon, and when standing in the sun and sheltered from the wind, its not so cold!

The afternoon takes me across London Bridge to south of the Thames. I head west and follow the streets and walkways by the river until I arrive at the Tate Modern (yes, another museum). This one I can handle. As its modern art, each peice often has an extremely large presentation meaning there isn't all that much to look at. The first exhibit is an enourmous "wind tunnel" (or turbine chamber or something like that). Its an open space that's 5+ stories high and probably 2 or 3 hundred feet wide - basically, a huge open space where I'm guessing they used to test jet engines. The installation in this space was a bunch of randomly (or, maybe not so randomly) stacked white plastic boxes. I don't think I'll every understand or appreciate modern art.

The permanent collection was not as "out there" as the Guggenhiem in NYC - it contained a few from Picasso, Dali, Pollack among others. But there were a few of those large canvases with one or two colors or a few lines or some other rather simple application of paint that is deemed to be art by someone other than me.

Dinner was at an upscale chain that I had passed many times called Pizza Express. Either I was extremely hungry or the food was quite good (most likely a combination of both). Service was extremely good and the setting was very nice - a window seat on the second floor overlooking the Thames River looking back towards London.

After dinner it was time for another walk from the same company as this morning, starting from the same subway stop at the tower monument. This time, a "Hidden Pubs" walk. It was somewhat interesting in that the two stories I heard about the cause of great fire on the two tours was significantly different. I'm sure time will further dilute the accuracy of history and the proliferation of multiple written accounts will only add to the confusion rather than help clarify. Once primary sources are lost to time, history will start to erode and change and the stories told generations from now will no doubt be different than the ones that are told today.

Back to the tour. Turns out that "hidden pub" means travelling south of the city, so after rushing back north across the river after dinner to join the tour, we pretty much retrace the steps to where I was eating. But the narration was worth it. We stopped at 2 pubs during the tour (and the tour ended in front of a third). The first was rather crowded and smoked filled, but at the second I got to talking with a father / daughter travelling from Seattle. They had just arrived today so I'm not quite sure how they were able to keep their wits (even with a nap), but they shared some interesting stories about RV travels through Alaska. Overall, another enjoyable tour. I plan on taking one or two more on either Saturday or Sunday - including one that takes a boat down to Greenwhich where I can straddle the prime meridian.

I realize I haven't posted pictures in a while. I have taken a few, but much fewer than the last trip. The low number is a combination of the dreary weather, photos not being allowed in some of the museums, and the inability to determine which museum exhibits might be interesting to others (no doubt caused by visiting too many museums in so short a time).

Tomorrow I take a daytrip to Stonehenge, Windsor and Bath. The number of companies offering this exact trip is rather high. How does one choose? I have no clue so I chose the first that was suggested at the information center.

Todays observations:
There are a lot (truly a lot) of Starbucks here. And, they are all crowded. Though not as crowded as the (only?) Dublin Starbucks that I finally found and entered. The line there must have been 20 or 30 people - forget about finding a seat.

Lugging tour books for 4 different cities makes for heavy baggage.

I could have further lightened the luggage by packing a bit less of everything. The ability to convert my suitcase into a backpack has definitely proved useful and reasonably comfortable. But the fully packed bag is quite heavy. I have yet to use the running shoes that I packed. I'm sure I'll pay for this in the first few workouts when I return.

Having walked through exhibits of "here's how people lived in the 17th and 18th century" in both Ireland and London, the differences are immense. One was clearly built for function, the other clearly for comfort or to communicate status.

Its interesting how the relationship between the UK and Ireland is portrayed (or omitted) in the exhibits or narrations in the museums in each country.

I should have brought my MFA member card and researched what exhibitions it could be used for. While there's certainly no shortage to see in the permanent collections, it would be nice to have the option to visit the special exhibits with fee.

I think I can finally tell the coins apart on sight. The rules go something like this. Thick is better than thin (1 and 2 pound coins are thickest). Hexagonal is better than round (except thick round coins are better than thin hexagonal). Silver is better than bronze. Large diameter is better than small. In addition to coins for 1 and 2 pounds, there are coins for 50p, 20p, 10p, 5p, 2p, 1p - a total of 8 vs. only 4 in the US.

I've become addicted to the digestive biscuits.

Each coffee chain (Costa (sp?), Nero, Starbucks, Pret A Manger) uses a distinctly shaped cup to serve their cappuccino.

Don't plan your days based on the forecast - seems that weather prediction is still a guessing game here and the forecast tonight is entirely different than last night.

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