Saturday, September 24, 2011

Don't Push the Wicked Walk Button

Oh Glorious day! With our clothes tumbling around in the little washing machine in the kitchen, we wondered how it came to pass that this was our last full day in London. It is much too soon to be leaving our comfy little Jaz-nest in Bermondsey. Now that our daily activities have turned into a routine it seems a shame to leave, but leaving is for tomorrow. Today we have a full schedule planned and it looks like the weather is going all out to make our last day a sunny and warm one. It will be interesting to see what a weekend day is like in this Capital city.

Saturday - September 24, 2011 - London, England

Leaving Rich, who is feeling much better and back to "normal" (Oh my!) and Lu at the apartment we made our way directly to the tkts booth in Leicester (Lester) Square. We planned on the Saturday matinee performance of Wicked, the coming of age story of two girlfriends (one green, one blonde), in the merry land of Oz, put to music.
(Ed. note: And for the little grandkids reading this, have you found the (not so) clever reference to Oz on each page of this blog? It officially ends here.) The gimmick with the tkts (which is an annoying name, by the way) booth is that you are able to procure 1/2 price tickets on the day of the performance if you get there early enough. We were certainly early enough, 12th in line in fact. What we hadn't noticed before however, was the small print on the ticket board which states that some shows are full price only. True that. In fact every show that people actually want to see are listed at full price only. Oh well, it was a beautiful morning, and early, and the city was just coming to life; my favorite time to be out and about.

With tickets in hand and plenty of time (1 and 1/2 hours) to kill before we met Rich and Lu, we walked down to the National Gallery (a very modest walk to be sure) to see a painting we had always thought interesting. It's known to us as the Marriage of Arnolfini. We didn't even know who the artist was but like a lot of things in life it's hard to get to our ages without absorbing knowledge about some things, or at least knowledge of their existence. (An example for me is the group the Grateful Dead - I know they exist(ed?) but have never knowingly heard their music, nor could I recite the name of any song or ditty they wrote or performed). That's the way it is with this painting (and the dogs, and diner, and bowler hat with green apple guy paintings); just the act of living long enough means you have probably crossed paths.

It's a really interesting work by Jan van Eyck who rose to stardom with his brother by creating one of the finest works of art ever - the Ghent Altarpiece. He experimented with applying thin layers of glazes rather than the traditional pigment and egg yolk mix(tempera). It was groundbreaking stuff and now he is generally considered to be the father of oil painting. We know it is his work because right in the middle of the back wall he has written, very Kilroy-like, "Jan van Eyck was here" (the first time I've seen a graffito that I've liked). This piece from 1434 is on oak panel and is rich in detail and color. It's real title is "The Arnolfini Portrait" and depicts a husband and wife greeting guests in an upstairs receiving room (according to the most widely held theory). You can tell from the furnishings that they are very rich (which allows him to wear that Dr. Seuss-crazy hat without being ridiculed). Wifey is not pregnant, it's just the style of the time and the way she is holding the front of her dress. There is a lot going on in this painting (reminding us of fellow Dutchman Vermeer's works painted 200 years later). Questions abound. Why is there only one candle in the fixture, and why is it lit? Look in the mirror and see who is looking back. Where is the painter? Is the main guy greeting the visitors, or taking an oath? Why do they have their pointy toed sandals off? Where's the dog's bowl ... they go on and on. Anyway, it's a cool picture and one more reason to take that Art Appreciation class rather than another study hall.

Leaving Kat to explore more treasures, I sought a quiet place to have a cigar and watch the world go by. I parked my butt right on the corner of Charing Cross outside the entrance to the National Portrait Gallery. As one of the feeder roads into Trafalgar Square there is a regular flow of traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian, so there was a lot to watch. Across the top of the square I could just see the entrance to the church of St. Martins in the Field, which we knew only from music CDs, as a bridal party arrived. I noticed the round globe with the word Coliseum on it and wondered what it was attached to. (The London Opera) I noticed the absolutely beautiful hanging baskets full of flowers on all the lampposts (ours at home never looked this good - it must be the exhaust fumes). Sometimes you just have to stop and take a look around. There is a lot going on.

Now for my rant (which I don't do too often). While Kat browsed fine art, I studied the fine art of over-engineering by well intentioned do-gooders. I had suggested to Mrs. Sweetie that we not push the walk button each time we wanted to cross a street at a stoplight. I have argued (at least mentally with myself) that in most cases it impedes the flow of both mobile and ambulatory traffic causing the gridlock we experienced on Oxford Street. My hour long study at this particular traffic light at this corner, at least supports my theory and I'm recommending to the London City council or whoever is in charge, that they remove this waste of time. Here's what I noticed: every tourist approaching the crosswalk presses the button then looks to see if there is traffic approaching. 50% of the time there was none and they crossed without waiting for the light to change. After they crossed the light did change and stopped traffic in both directions for exactly 30 seconds of useless waiting. 49% pushed the button, waited for the traffic to clear, then crossed, again leaving no one waiting to cross when the light changed. About 1% pressed the button, waited (even when there was no traffic) until the walk light lit, then crossed. My opinion is that the 1% who waited should take the bus and leave walking to the competent. Check out this picture of traffic waiting and no crosser in sight. End of rant (with apologies to DM). Thanks, I feel better.

Right at noontime we met Rich and Lucy at the tkts booth (I didn't want to look to see if they had reduced the price for Wicked), then headed to the Apollo Victoria theater, which is just south of Buckingham Palace and just outside the Victoria underground and train station (probably how it got it's name?). It was a beautiful moisture free day, we needed lunch and had a couple of hours to kill. What better way to do both then to pick up some street food and have a picnic in the park. There are plenty of small shops selling goodies and I had my eye on a particular one: The Cornish Bakehouse. When planning this trip we had to forgo trips to the two extremes of this large island; the Scottish Highlands and Cornwall. A long time ago in a faraway place (1978 - Saudi Arabia), my secretary at the time convinced me that Cornwall was one of the most beautiful places on the planet, and I had to promise (a four letter word in my opinion) that I would visit someday. I did, reluctantly - she was such a haunt about it. It may be the only outstanding promise I ever made. In any event, since we weren't going the least I could do was to sample some Cornish grub.

I selected an onion pastie (which I continually pronounce with a long "a" {paste-ee} and Kat continues to correct me saying that's an almost article of clothing and it's pronounced {past-ee}), with a golden brown pastry shell. We found a nice spot in the nearby Lower Grosvenor Gardens and grabbed a bench. It is a very nice park with two small shell cottages (perhaps garden sheds) that look totally out of place. Will have to read about them upon our return.
(Ed. note: This is all I learned and it's not much: [In the park] are two shell and pebbledash lodges studded with molluscs, with pediments on all sides, 'fabriques' brought over especially from France; there used to be a parterre between the two.) As to the pastie, it was delicious. I have no idea what everyone else had. We finished lunch then took a slow stroll through the market area, stopping just long enough to satisfy our chocolate urge. Life is good.

Wicked. We squeezed our way into the packed lobby of the Apollo. It was wall to wall people all trying to make their way (many with young children) to the little restrooms at the top of the stairs. They finally opened the doors to the auditorium and we were carried inside on the swell. We had great seats, first row of the balcony, just to the left of center. According to the sign the theater holds 2,208 people and just before the curtain rose I could count on my fingers (and a few toes) the number of empty seats. This on a lazy Saturday afternoon. Incredible. Rich and I knew nothing about the musical, Kat had read the book upon which it is based and is an avid Wizard of Oz fan, and Lu had seen it performed before and loved it. We all really enjoyed the experience. The music was lively and well performed and the production was excellent. Afterward I learned from Lu that it was not reviewed well by the critics but the audience loved it and that is why it has become a sensational hit and consistently sells out. A great way to spend an afternoon.

Post-musical we split again planning to meet at the Eye in early evening. Kat and I had two things left to do before we left London. We wanted to see the iconic, and it turns out elusive, rotating "New Scotland Yard" sign, and have a stroll in St. James, home to the most exclusive gentlemen's clubs (the old fashioned type) in the City. We circled "The Yard" twice before going down a little alley where we found the sign, twirling in it's little lonely orbit, insignificant amongst all the tall glass and steel buildings. Kat, amazing even herself, was able to time the rotation to get me and the sign in focus. Well done.

Pall Mall and St. James is home to the super picky, probably all old money patriarchs of London Society. The clubs like Boodles or Brooks usually don't allow women to become members or even women guests to pass through the doors. Tempting as it was to knock and see if we could get into one, we didn't. In fact I was a little hesitant to blow my cigar smoke into the rarefied air that surrounds these edifices. As the lights were just coming on we were able to see inside a few. It's a wonder we didn't have to wear blindfolds while walking down the street. It's nice but I wouldn't want to live here.

The end of the evening was the most pleasant part of the day for us. We walked back over Westminster bridge (it is so easy finding your way in this city), and along the waterfront to the Eye and the Southside food stalls. Once again we stopped at the Crêperie Nicolas for dinner. We were welcomed back by the owners (Gill & Keith) with inquiries as to how our day had been and whether I would like another spinach and cheese crêpe - really nice people with great memories. I decided on the lemon/sugar instead (which was delicious) and made a note to look them up on the internet upon our return.
(Ed. note: I did, sent them an email and received a very nice reply with this little tid-bit: "One of our last customers of the day was Charlize Theron who had a Nutella Banana crepe!". I bet that gets us within six degrees (probably 3) of Kevin Bacon. Thanks Gill and Keith.) Not two minutes later we ran into Rich and Lu, grabbed a Rich-recommended beer (I always trust his taste in beer) and parked ourselves on a bench to watch the Eye twirl and chat about the day's events. That time together is a lot of what made the day special for us. It was the first time really, that we all felt 100% and were totally relaxed and enjoying each others company with nothing else to do. We miss them and they are such good company, and so very generous. Living in the woods in Virginia is great but being around family is better. Thank goodness we have Kat's mother and brother in such close proximity to fill the void.

So that's about it for this part of the trip. All that was left was to return to our little apartment, hang up the laundry, and make sure we woke up in time to get to Gatwick in the morning. Seemed easy enough.

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