A Travellerspoint blog

Across the Universe

We Will Rock You
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A completely random show made entirely from Queen’s music. It was fun even though there was almost no story line. Also my first musical in London!

Les Miserables
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This was my second time seeing Les Miz, and although I was in the nosebleed section (meaning the last row of the highest balcony and the actors looked like ants), it was still amazing.

Wicked
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INCREDIBLE!! It’s definitely one of my new favorites, and it was extra special because I was able to go on my birthday!

Spamalot
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This show was probably one of the biggest surprises because I didn’t really have any interest in going, but since Margaret wanted to, I agreed. I’m very glad I went because Monty Python in musical form is awesome and another one of my favorites! (I even got to go a second time because my boss wanted to see it too and we all agreed Spamalot would be more entertaining than just dinner.)

Chicago
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Although I love the music and the movie, I was somewhat disappointed with this show. It wasn’t as vibrant, perhaps, as I was expecting. The actors could sing and dance amazingly, but I also couldn’t see them very well due to the annoyingly large head in my way that uncannily moved no matter how I shifted my line of sight.

Mousetrap
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This was the only non-musical I saw while in London, and it was fabulous! This famous murder mystery whodunit thriller has been running for almost 60 years!

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
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Loved it. Not much more to say.

Mamma Mia!
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Ah, mamma mia. So good. A little different from the movie but still wonderfully fun and generally just great.

Phantom of the Opera
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The set was fabulous! The entire theater was used rather than just the stage, and the music was incredible as usual. This was one of the ones I couldn’t miss and I’m so glad that I didn’t.

The Lion King
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This was the other show that I’d already seen, but I love the music and the costumes so much and I was thrilled to see it again. The only strange thing was animals with British accents …

Hairspray
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I was excited to see the show because I love the movie, but I was also nervous for the same reason. I wasn’t disappointed, however, and I laughed the hardest when two of the actors actually broke character and had laughing fits on stage.

Avenue Q
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This was like the adult version of Sesame Street – puppets and people and absolute hilarity. Lauren and I got box seats at the student price, and we actually decided that we’d have preferred sitting with the rest of the audience because our seats had a restricted view.

Billy Elliot
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Although I didn’t like the movie, I somehow decided to see the play anyway. I’m so glad I did because it was really well done and the story of a little boy who loved to dance was funny and heartwarming.

Posted by ecfong 21:49 Archived in England Comments (0)

Dizzy Miss Lizzy

overcast 10 °C

After doing so much traveling outside the UK, it was finally time to stay home and show off London … to Elizabeth!!

Day 1

We started the weekend off right by going to dinner and show. We almost didn’t make it on time though because the tube was slower than I’d anticipated. With a few sprints however, we made it to our seats just in time to say hi to Lauren (who met us there) before the lights went down and the powerful theme, Phantom of the Opera, filled the theater.

All I can say is – wow. The show was amazing. I loved how the entire theater was the set and not just what was on stage. The special effects were wonderful, especially when Christine first travels to the Phantom’s lair. And since I had (purposefully) not listened to the music in a while, I’d forgotten how much I loved it.

After the show we didn’t want to go back home right away, so Lauren and I took Elizabeth on a night tour … we walked through the Squares Leicester and Trafalgar and then past Big Ben and the London Eye. It was fun and I think Elizabeth enjoyed seeing a bunch of famous sights.

Day 2

Our first full day was jam-packed with sightseeing and we still didn’t get everything done! We certainly made a valiant effort though …

We went not-quite-bright but still early to the Tower of London, one of the must-see sights that I’d somehow not managed to get to in the three months I’d been living in London. It was really interesting and a lot more fun than I’d expected! We walked through the gates just in time for the next Beefeater tour, and our guide was absolutely hilarious. He obviously loved telling all the stories and legends of the Tower as well as getting out a few somewhat inappropriate jokes. (My favorite was his mention of his wife who also works at the Tower. She handles the jewels every day [significant pause/snicker from the audience] … the CROWN jewels that is …)

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Did you know that there are resident ravens at the Tower? They’ve been there for (I’m guessing) hundreds of years and legend has it that if all of them ever leave, the Tower will crumble, the monarchy will fall, and a terrible tragedy will befall England. Or something to that effect. So – there’s a special guard who watches the birds all day to make sure they don’t leave (and keeps their wings clipped). Also, did you know that people actually live in the Tower of London? (And by tower I mean the complex in general, not the White Tower for which the fortress was named …) There are currently about 120 residents! Who knew!?

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We also took a stroll past the Crown Jewels which were shiny and through the White Tower which was tall. I hadn’t realized there was so much to see at the Tower, so I’m glad that we had plenty of time to wander through it.

Next stop – King’s Cross Station! Were we catching a train anywhere? Not exactly. Our actual mission was to act like thousands of other tourists and find Platform 9 ¾, where Harry Potter famously caught the train to Hogwarts. Yes, we know we’re dorks, but we couldn’t NOT go since we were already so close! It took some effort to find the spot though. We easily found platforms 9 and 10, but there was no 9 ¾ in sight. We finally gave in and asked a guard walking by, and he pointed to the wall behind us and said it was behind there. This wall was definitely not what we were looking for though because it had a bunch of garbage (or rubbish, if you want to be British) and construction tape in front of it and no tourists. We obviously couldn’t go THROUGH the wall either. After questioning the guard again, and feeling even more like dumb tourists, we finally understood that we had to go back through the ticket barriers and around to the other side of the wall. THAT’S where the sign was – so simple! (And yet, I think the guard was being confusing on purpose just to entertain himself.)

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Our final adventure for the night was a quick “flight” on the London Eye. At the ticket booth we were sad but unsurprised to find out that there weren’t any student discounts, but then the lady helping us did something incredibly nice – she charged us as if we were buying a disabled (£10) ticket and then the carer (£0) which meant that rather than spending about £16 we only spent £6! It was great! As was the view … absolutely spectacular.

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Day 3

We began our last day together by touring Kensington Palace, located quite nearby in Kensington Gardens. There were a lot of exhibits for such a comparatively small museum, but it was fun to look through them all. First we saw some old court outfits followed by a display of some of Princess Diana’s dresses. The largest exhibit by far was called ‘The Last Debutants.’ It was fun because in addition to the history part of the exhibit there were also some interactive rooms where Elizabeth and I learned how to curtsy, waltz, walk in a straight line with a book on our heads, and tie a bow tie. The tour ended with a walk through the State Rooms of William and Mary and the bedroom of Queen Victoria. I wonder what it would be like to live in a place like that … where sections are preserved as a museum.

After the palace we were hoping to run by Speaker’s Corner and Harrods, but we didn’t have time since we’d picked up tickets for a matinee of The Lion King! We hadn’t originally planned to see two shows this weekend, but Elizabeth decided she was up for another musical and I’m always ready for a great performance! (It was a little weird to hear the dialogue in British accents, but the actors could REALLY sing!)

We finished off the weekend in a nearby pub where we met Lauren for dinner and a drink. We ordered fish and chips as well as bangers and mash so that Elizabeth could get the full British experience. Very tasty in my opinion!

Thus endeth the wonderful weekend of Emily and Elizabeth …

Posted by ecfong 18:01 Archived in England Comments (0)

With a little help from my friends

overcast 11 °C

After so much traveling in such a short period of time, I decided that one last hop across the channel would be just about right. I decided to try a new travel method however – going under the water through the chunnel! On the Eurostar you can get to either Paris or Brussels from London, and Belgium was the winner with its siren call of chocolate …

Day 1

We (and by “we” I mean Annie, Cheryl, Lauren and I) were late leaving our flat in the morning and had a rushed journey to St. Pancras Station. We made it to King’s Cross with about ten minutes left to run into the adjoining St. Pancras, print our tickets, and board the train. As you can probably guess, we didn’t make it. Even so, we tried – we ran through King’s Cross dodging slow-moving travelers and sprinted up what felt like the longest escalator in Britain before printing our tickets in record time. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t let us through the ticket barriers because we wouldn’t have enough time to go through security and find the platform before the train was supposed to take off.

We were sent to the ticket office instead, and I was thrilled when they just gave us new tickets instead of making us pay for another set. (And we got to sit next to each other, unlike our original tickets!) The next train was only 1 ½ hours from then, which gave us time to leisurely go through security and get a little breakfast on the other side.

One thing I noticed at the station was that most of the workers spoke as if English wasn’t their first language. They were perfectly fluent, but I think they all had French accents. It was something I would have expected in Paris of course, and even Brussels, but not in London. Anyway, I just thought it was interesting.

After getting settled in our hostel and finding a map of Brussels we went in search of lunch. By this point we were all starving, so we chose the first restaurant we passed which advertised panini's amongst other delicious-sounding foods. We got a little surprise when we sat down, however. Our waitress only spoke French! Everywhere else we’d traveled so far had plenty of people who spoke English, even if it wasn't the national language. We quickly realized that this woman really didn’t know English though and we were thinking, okay – now what? Fortunately, Lauren had retained some of her high school French and was able to translate the basics for us like “tuna” and “chicken.” We basically ended up pointing (Subway style) to what we wanted since we really couldn’t identify much, and my sandwich filled with orange stuff was one of the best I’ve ever had! I think it may have been chicken in a sweet sugar sauce, but since I speak no French whatsoever I can’t really be sure …

The rest of the day we just walked around Brussels. We got waffles at a little stand near the main square, and then wandered through the shopping area and the restaurant area as well as down some random but cute streets.

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For dinner we went to a restaurant recommended by the TI at the train station and ordered mussels and fries – they were delicious! Before coming to Belgium I’d had no idea that mussels were such a big deal. I’d only known about the chocolate. But - since I hadn’t had any good seafood in a while the mussels were very welcome!

After dinner we went to a bar recommended by one of Cheryl’s friends. It supposedly has the best selections of beers in … Belgium? Europe? The World? I don’t remember. But what I do know is that there were 2,000 beers to choose from and in order to figure out which one to try you had to snag one of the few circulating menus and study it profusely. My only complaint about the place was all the smoke … it was a little unpleasant to breathe at times and after marinating in it for three hours we all reeked.

Day 2

We hopped a train to Bruges the next morning, and even though I didn’t really know what was there, I was just really excited! The town is so cute and quaint and old and quiet and I fell in love with it almost immediately. There were lots of horse-drawn carriages and I loved the sound the horses’ hooves made against the cobblestones. As Cheryl aptly described, “It sounds like Christmas!”

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So far the food had been amazing, and breakfast at Laurent was no exception. Everyone had either pancakes or waffles (with strawberries and whipped cream for me) even though locals eat them as dessert rather than as a meal. We tried to go back to Laurent the next day as well because we’d enjoyed it so much the first time, but they actually closed the place to do some renovation work! Good thing we went while we still had the chance ...

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The whole day it sort of misted on and off, but even in gray weather Bruges is beautiful. I’m sure the town would look amazing on a sunny day as well, but I think that it’s really cool how Bruges (like London) can be beautiful in opposite types of weather. Maybe it has something to do with the architecture and cobblestones and canals. I’m not really sure; I’m just happy that I got to experience it.

We decided that it felt like a museum day, so we started with the Chocolate Museum! I had no idea what to expect, and it was actually really interesting. First we learned about the history of chocolate, like where it came from and how it was the drink of the (Mayan and Aztec) gods. Then there was information about the plant itself, how it came to Europe, the rise of chocolate houses (think Starbucks), and its evolution into candies.

Our next stop was the Fritz Museum – yep, an entire museum dedicated to fries!! This one wasn’t quite as interesting as chocolate, but it was still fun and I’m glad we went. We finished in the café downstairs with a few orders of – what else – fries! I decided to try them with mayonnaise since that’s the thing to do in Belgium, and I actually really liked it! Cheryl and Lauren tried some of mine, but they both still prefer ketchup.

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Our next stop was De Halve Maan – the brewery! (Notice a pattern yet?) Our tour guide was amazing because she gave the tour in three different languages, basically at the same time. She’d speak to one group, send them ahead, and then speak to the next groups, before following behind the first one. It was impressive. At one point we went out onto the roof and had a beautiful view of Bruges. At the end we sampled the one beer that they actually brew in Bruges, Brugse Zot. It means Bruges Lunatic, as the fool on the glass illustrates. I think he’s probably had a few too many pints …

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After the brewery we did some chocolate shopping, stopping by all of the recommended places in my Rick Steves book (and by book I mean the few relevant pages I ripped out so that I didn’t have to bring the entire thing with me). It was good to have a little guidance because there were chocolate shops on every street and it was somewhat overwhelming (although thoroughly entertaining!) trying to choose.

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We ended our day with another delicious dinner of mussels and then drinks at a couple of pubs. We ran into some traveling Americans and the local Belgians they had befriended in the second pub, and it was entertaining to say the least. For details – ask me in person.

Day 3

Today we’d planned on climbing the bell tower and admiring the Flemish art in the Groeninge Museum, but since it was Monday they were both inconveniently closed. It’s ok though! We rallied and had a great time visiting other important sites instead.

Our first stop, since everything else was still closed at 9 in the morning, was the Church of Our Lady. It houses Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child, one of the few (perhaps even the only) works of his to permanently reside outside of Italy. Before reading about it on our little guide map I’d had no idea it was in Bruges, so being able to just say, hey let’s go see a famous statue today, was pretty cool. The rest of the church was really beautiful too and we spent a while in there just looking around.

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The second church we visited was the Basilica of the Holy Blood, where a vial containing Christ’s blood is housed. I hadn’t realized before this that such a thing even existed! Who took the blood from Jesus? And how in the world did it get to Bruges? No matter the answer, we went in and got to see the vial for ourselves, and even went up to touch it and say a quick prayer. The vial itself was decorated in gold and the content inside was solid and chunky looking. Not particularly appealing in my opinion, but being over 2,000 years old will do that to you!

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Sadly, we never got to take a canal ride. We figured out where to catch the boat, but then the gate was locked and no workers were around. I guess since it was the off season they weren’t running the boats except for the weekends. Mondays are just not good sometimes.

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Instead we helped Annie in her hunt for a good cook book. In the last book shop that we went into there were a few cushions set up that had half-made lace on them. I was fascinated because I had no idea how to make lace. I saw lots of thread and spools and pins but still couldn’t comprehend how it became anything other than one big knot. Then from behind me a woman appeared and asked if I wanted to try it! So I sat down and she showed me how to move the spools of thread over one another and add new pins to the cushion and after a while voilá! Lace! Well, that’s assuming you’re any good at it of course. There was another woman there as well, and she was working on a much larger piece. In each hand she could grab about four spools and shuffle them between her fingers before moving onto the next set, and she was moving so fast I have no idea how she kept everything in order! It was really amazing!

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We finally made our way back to the train and to Brussels to await our Eurostar to London. We had a couple of hours to kill though so we went in search of one last sight, Manneken Pis – that’s right, a peeing boy. He’s a fountain, and it doesn’t take too much imagination to guess where the water comes out. We successfully found him and my reaction of “that’s it?” is apparently very common because after all the hype people are surprised when the little guy is only about a foot and half tall! But still certainly adorable and hilarious.

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Posted by ecfong 15:51 Archived in Belgium Comments (0)

How do you do it?

All the world's a stage ... especially this little bit in London

Today for my British Life and Culture class we toured The Globe! Shakespeare’s theater! Well, the building is actually a reconstruction not quite on the original site, but it is still an open air theater in the round and has London's only thatched roof since the Great Fire.

For the first part of our tour we sat in the theater and learned about its history and admired the thatched roof (currently being repaired). The original theater didn’t have any blueprints, or at least none still existing, so the reconstruction is built as similarly as possible to the original based on outside writings describing it. The main difference now is lighting (so plays can be done at night) and the concrete floor rather than compacted dirt for the standing room only audience. Apparently some of the best (and therefore most expensive) seats in the house were actually on the stage, up above the actors on a little balcony. The only problem of course, was that the view was mostly of the actors’ backs! So why pay extra for these seats? Because then the audience could see you too and know how rich you are!

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For the second part of the tour we sat in a room downstairs which was much warmer and definitely more comfortable. Our guide was very informative; he knew a lot about the business because he used to be an actor and is currently a director. We learned about the origins of some words, like an actor’s “role” or “part” in the play. In Shakespeare’s time, an actor was not given a copy of the entire play to read while preparing for the performance. Instead, he only received a short (sc)roll with his “part” of the play. (This was to keep actors from selling the work to others because there were no copyright laws back then.)

Plays didn’t run for very long in the same location, so new plays were always being written and performed to keep the audience coming back. The actors only had a few days to memorize their lines, and only a few hours to rehearse. Since the actors only got their part and not the entire play, they only had a three-word warning on their scrolls before they knew to speak their lines. They didn’t know who spoke the lines before them, or for how long, so they really had to be paying attention in order to make everything work. They also had to pay attention carefully because it was the other actors’ lines that told them what actions they were doing – ie holding someone’s hand or dying slowly and painfully. This went for the audience as well who had to be told via the lines if it was day or night, hot or cold, etc. So the entire performance was a huge collaboration between everyone in the theater!

Shakespeare’s work was meant for hearing, not reading, and the audience had to determine what he meant by just listening to the actors. For example, he used some tricky phrases such as “adieu” or “a dew” and “good night, good night” or “good night, good knight.” Clever, huh?

After this lecture we had to do it ourselves. Four people went up to the front and were given lines with just the three word warning before them, and they had to perform having never read the script before. We in the audience were given a script as well, and it was funny because one of the girls up front began reading her lines but didn’t realize that the audience was supposed to say them too, so she was definitely surprised when we all started speaking at the same time!

Overall I thought it was a very cool field trip. I’m sad that I never got to see a play at The Globe, but the theater isn’t open during winter because it’s just too cold without a roof. It’s definitely on my list for next time though!

Posted by ecfong 16:02 Archived in England Comments (0)

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