Monday, May 30, 2016

Opera and people-watching and dinner in East London

Had I known how much I would like Kew Gardens, I might have planned to spend most of the day there.  But I hadn't known and had already made plans to see a matinee performance of Madama Butterfly at the English National Opera.  I headed back into town in search of the opera house and some lunch.

Lunch came first in the form of a Five Guys hamburger.  Not the most British of lunches, I admit, but refreshingly familiar with endearingly American traits such as public restrooms and beverages larger than two swallows (seriously, sometimes I wonder if Europeans have a different sense of thirst than me).

Having fortified myself with a burger, fries and Diet Coke, I set out for the opera house . . . only to realize that I needed a waffle, too.

Necessary sustenance for opera endurance.

The English National Opera performs in the London Coliseum, an ornate affair that looks nothing like the Roman Coliseum you might have expected. 

Interestingly, I attended a performance in the Coliseum when I was in London in 2003.  At the time, it was undergoing significant renovations with scaffolding everywhere, so this was the first time I'd seen what it actually looked like.  I remember it being kind of horrible, but this hall was lovely and quite comfortable.  (It probably helped that this time around I was in posh orchestra seats, rather than the extreme nosebleeds...)

The opera was also a revisitation of prior experience:  The ENO was doing Anthony Minghella's production of Madam Butterfly, which, I hadn't realized, had originated with the ENO, and which I had seen in New York shortly after it debuted in 2005.  I had loved the production at the time and had remembered it as one of the most beautiful theatrical experiences I had ever seen.  I was curious to see it again in its original setting -- would it be as good?

Turns out yes, the production was as good, though the overall performance wasn't, if that makes sense.  The basic appeal of the design, the tragic story, and the heartrending melodies was as effective as ever.  I missed some of the wonder that seeing it for the first time had inspired, but I also noticed some details that I either had missed the first time around or had forgotten.  One reason for this was its being sung in English rather than the original Italian.  Overall I didn't like understanding the words; I've become accustomed to thinking of the voices almost like another instrument -- focus on the melodic line and dramatic quality of the voice, without worrying about what it's saying (there are supertitles for that).  But the English lyrics did make the opera more immediately accessible, with some poignant moments that I hadn't expected -- such as when Butterfly asks early on about the American practice of pinning butterflies to preserve them (foreshadowing her own fate).

The opera ended around 6pm, and I wandered out into the touristy din of Trafalgar Square.

I found a spot and just hung out for a while, soaking up the afternoon sun and the energy of the place.  Although the view included a few iconic London sites . . .

 . . . I was more interested in watching the people.

My favorite grouping was the little family sitting just below my perch.  I loved seeing them sitting together, so quietly engaged in their individual pursuits.

I'd like to think that if I ever had a family, we would do things like this.
After a while my tummy started to growl, so I checked in with Matt and Dorothea to see if they wanted to meet for dinner.  They suggested meeting in East London for a more alternative vibe to what we had seen before.  I made my way to Camden Town stop and stood on the street for about 40 minutes before they joined.  In that time, I saw that the neighborhood was, indeed much different from the tourist-friendly neighborhoods downtown.  This neighborhood was much grittier, with hippies dancing capoeira, drug addicts having medical attacks and/or leering aggressively at passersby, and punks with their leather and piercings and tattoos (sadly, these things all felt very close to home, as so much of Seattle's downtown is filled with similar characters).

I waited on the sidewalk for a while but felt very conspicuous, being the only person in opera attire in a sea of punks and street people.  I eventually ducked into a Starbucks for a more low-profile way to wait.

Eventually Matt and Dorothea emerged from the subway and we strolled through the neighborhood.  At its heart was a giant warren of former industrial stables that had been converted into bars, nightclubs, food stands, and flea-market style shops.  It would never be my favorite neighborhood, but it had its charm, and I was glad to experience the contrast.

After exploring the stables, we found one of Dorothea's favorite Vegan restaurants and stopped for a dinner of falafel, soup, and coconut smoothies.  It was tasty enough and about as satisfying as Vegan food ever is.

The sun was setting by the time we finished dinner, and Matt proposed that we walk over to Primrose Hill.  In a flat city like London, Primrose Hill was reputed to be the highest prominence in the city.  It was basically a hill in the middle of a park, with hippie drum circles at the top and views of the city.  It was peaceful and pretty and breezy.  We soaked up the atmosphere for a while and then, when Dorothea got cold, walked back down and found a bus back to our neighborhood and bed.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Kew Gardens

Inspired by my run through Kensington Gardens, I decided to take the train out to Kew Gardens.  A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Kew Gardens are considered one of the best gardens in the world.  They cover hundreds of acres, and I could have spent all day there -- as it was, I only had time to just scratch the surface.  Seeing these gardens makes me want to plan a garden-hopping trip to England to see all the best gardens in the palaces and country houses.

The line was way longer than I expected
The gardens have a series of giant glass houses dedicated to different types of plants.
This was the Palm House.

First thing you see in the palm house? A palm that is older than the US and the French Revolution.
The plant was added to the Kew Gardens in 1775.
Throughout the gardens, I tried to soak up the richness and variety of the plantings.
I really love the plantings en masse with such different textures, colors and shapes.
A waterfall in the Rock Garden.
The Water Lily House was the highlight for me.
Hard to get a sense of scale, but if you're in any doubt, those things are HUGE!  Probably a good 3-4 feet diameter.
They're a type of giant water lily from the Brazilian Amazon.  Discovered and first brought back
during Victoria's reign. This one is actually a hybrid bred onsite with another lily from
Peru -- otherwise the pads would be so large they'd overwhelm the pool.
The variegation and star-shaped petals made these super interesting.
This was the plant-family section -- each bed had a bunch of varieties of plants all in the same family.
Peonies!  The plants themselves aren't interesting without the flowers, but look at the framework
of branches -- the plants grow up through the basket-like supports, which give structure to keep the plants
upright once they get tall and are laden with heavy blooms.
Is there anything lovelier than a calla?
Fair warning
Carnivorous plants
Cacti in one of the greenhouses
Kew Palace is clearly a side-note here. 
So, the garden map promised a greenhouse full of "climbers and creepers", which I assumed meant vines.
Not so -- it was the playground.  Boo.
The giant trees, and the tall uncut grass, had a lovely, almost wild feeling.

Vast expanses of parkland to offset the formality of the planted gardens.

Kensington Gardens

I went for a run this morning through Hyde Park and took a detour to visit the gardens of Kensington Palace.  I may have spent more time looking at plants than I spent actually running...

My favorite, the sunken garden.
Kensington Palace. Not super impressive from the outside.
The Italian Fountains.  Built by Prince Albert for Queen Victoria.
I love these massive banks of flowers.
The planting strikes me as so English -- obviously highly planned, but in a way that gives the
impression of nature (so different from the uber-formality of the French style).

Saturday in London

Compared to the difficulties I had trying to get to Brussels, it was a cinch getting to London.  The small commuter plane left the tiny Luxembourg airport bright and early, touching down in the London City airport an hour later (though with the time zone change, we only lost about 10 minutes). 
I checked into the hotel, went into the office for the rest of the day, and then met up with Matt and Dorothea (Justin's brother and sister-in-law, who live in London) for a tasty Mediterranean dinner followed by a screening of a new documentary about the Met's Fashion Institute back at their flat. 
The next morning, Saturday, was my first real non-working day of this whole trip -- like a mini-vacation!  I spent the morning running through performance listings and ticket-sales websites to ensure that I didn't spend two days in London without seeing something good.  It was a dangerous exercise, though -- while I was happy with the tickets I got, I came away with the same "why don't I live here?" feeling that I always have in New York and Paris (biggest regret: not being here in two weeks, when Isabelle Huppert will be performing Phaedra, in French, at the Barbican).
As soon as the e-tickets hit my inbox, I headed out to find Matt and Dorothea for a day of exploring London.  We started with the Portobello Road Market, which is a delightful progression of charming shops selling everything from vintage Louis Vuitton luggage and Uzbekistani textiles (temptation, thy name is ikat) to cheap antiques of dubious quality and artsy street fashion. 
I hadn't expected it to be so touristy.  It was body-to-body pretty much the whole way.
Fun enough, but not my ideal for browsing.  Plus, the shopkeepers wouldn't bargain
with me the way they do in the Asian bazaars I've become accustomed to.
Nothing says "I'm in London!" like a fresh pineapple-banana-berry smoothie.
We came to a section of the market with all the food stalls and paused for a quick lunch.
I got a Vietnamese noodle bowl that was very good and almost as good as what I had in Vietnam.

After lunch we left the market and went over the Victoria & Albert museum, one of the major art museums in London. We had hoped to see two exhibitions, one about the history of underwear, and one about Boticelli.  Turns out we were late enough in the day that we couldn't do both, so we opted for the underwear exhibition.  I was hoping for something on par with the Met's Fashion Institute exhibitions -- on the whole it wasn't, but there were some interesting elements that made me glad to have seen it.

Seattle-based Chihuly front and center in the museum
They wouldn't let me take photos in the exhibition itself, so this is the best I could do.
By the time we left the museum, the hours of market- and museum-walking had caught up with us -- we needed a break and some food!  After a 15 minute power-nap, I went down to a neighboring French restaurant to meet up with Matt, as well as Paul and Rachel, two friends from church in Seattle who happened to have just arrived in London. 

I love meeting people from home in other countries!

I ended up needing to leave dinner early to get to the Royal Opera House in time for the ballet performance I was seeing.  I was excited to finally be seeing something in the famous hall -- among other reasons to know this building, it's in the Covent Garden flower market right outside this building that Henry Higgins finds Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady.

You'd think this was the entrance.  Nope! Will call was on the complete other side of the
block. The building is kind of a nightmare to navigate.
But the interior is gorgeous.  And I had an excellent seat.
I love these old concert halls, with their gold and red velvet.
I saw the Royal Ballet do a mixed program.  The first was a world premiere of a work
that I didn't quite understand. The second was a disturbing tale of sexual violence. And the
last was a delightful, abstract piece by Christopher Wheeldon (one of my
favorite contemporary ballet choreographers).
Leaving the opera house, I was reluctant to go right back to the hotel -- the evening was fine, and I wanted to soak up more of London.  So I wandered down through Leicester Square and the West End theatre district, over to Picadilly Circus, and up to Oxford Circus.  The walk reminded me of when I was here in 2003.  I had no money to go into any performances or to pay for buses or even the subway, so I just walked all around town, looking at buildings and watching people, soaking up the atmosphere.  My budget is more generous now, and I've seen a lot of things in the intervening years, but I still feel that same wonderful energy wandering through the grand streets of this awesome city.

I love the curving facades of the buildings.
Midnight donut!
The British flags only hung over this one street -- I'm not sure if they're permanent.