Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Beyond London

On the sixth day of our British vacation, we ventured off on what I called a "triple trip" in my journal: Oxford, Stratford-On-Avon and Warwick Castle, all as part of the tour package that came with our trip.


From my journal:
On the way to Oxford, [our tour bus] pulled off the road and stopped at an inn called The Three Pigeons. Yet the sign had three buzzards on it. Inside, while Mike and Mom got some tea, I played a slot machine they had. 30p later I decided that I got what I paid for -- nothing.
I learned Oxford is what I would expect, a small elite college where people still wore gowns, although tailored now to match a good suit. To get in, you take an entrance exam similar to the ACT or SAT. That's followed by an extensive entrance interview and a background check to see how you've done in the "upper 6" of school. If this and your score on a mandatory test every English child takes adds up, you're in.

And if you get in, I learned, the town where you live grants you a free ride -- at least for your first year. Every year, during the summer, Oxfordites take a test covering the previous two semesters. If you pass, you grant is safe. Sounds like my Curators' Scholarship at MU. Come graduation time, you're in for six weeks of exams. Pass them all and you have the right to call yourself a "fellow," and you also have a masters' degree -- without that daggum thesis to write.
The main street -- or what I would call the main street -- is lined with bookstores. One had a history of obscene language displayed in the window, and I almost bought it. One place will track down even the rarest of books. A person can go in there, request a certain book and maybe two years later get a card in the mail saying, "We got it. Do you still want it?" And even if you don't, they'll keep on persuading you to take it.

We toured Shakespeare's home as well as his wife's cottage, quaint pieces of beautiful history juxtaposed against so much tacky commercialism nearby: McDonald's, Pizza Hut and the usual chains of suspects. Fortunately that's balanced with a lot of little pubs, brasseries and bistros to keep people happy. The Queen Mother wanted to visit a teddy bear museum there, but we couldn't find it. We saw it as our bus rolled out of town...


Like the Tower of London, we had a lot to see -- and usually a wait to see the best things, like Madame Tussard's wax recreation of a 10th Century Ball. We only had 90 minutes to spare, so we had to skip it in favour of taking on the dungeon, the state rooms, and the Ghost Tower.
The last of those took its toll on our feet and backs as we climbed up a long flight of stairs to get to the top... Meanwhile, Dad, who had gotten separated from us in the state rooms, had run out of battery power for the [video] camera and was trying to figure out what had happened to his $400 reading glasses. He filed a lost-and-found report up at the gate and they may contact us in London if they find them. He can barely see, he claims, to write now. I just hope he can see to drive.
With us constantly moving, trying to take in as much as possible between bus stops, all we had time for all day was a Pepsi. Back in London, we ventured to an Italian restaurant just around the corner from our hotel. It felt like stepping into The Godfather, as people all around us we're speaking Italian in dimly-lit rooms. I had spaghetti with meat sauce and it was great.

I don't know what Brother Michael ate, but it made him a little bit dangerous. First, he dropped an ice cube out our hotel window trying to see if he could hit somebody. Then he walked next to an Arab in the lobby (one of many who hung out in the lobby), driving him nutty with his headphones blasting out his ears. He could've gotten us all deported... or worse.


The day after that whirlwind tour, we went shopping: first to Hamley's, then to Harrod's. If Queen Elizabeth buys toys, she buys them at Hamley's. Everything in stock is demonstrated, not just displayed. You can play before you buy. That's how I ended up buying a rolling ruler similar to this one:

One problem: it only displayed metric. Whoever heard of an English ruler that didn't use English units? Even the English don't use English units.

I remember one room being filled with British toy soldiers, all proudly arranged in ranks and files. If I had been fascinated with history then like now, you probably would have had to drag me out of that room. Kindly, none of those redcoats were shooting at any patriots.
Harrod's was what I expected: vast and expensive. You almost can't go through it all in a day. But that didn't stop Mike from getting a Wimbledon shirt for himself. Dad got some ties. Mom got a tartan pin.

Price is no object here -- Harrod's stocks the priciest of items, including a $45,000 (approximately) golf simulator which they will come to your home and install within ten weeks... I presume the U.S. is included?
We had a snack in Harrod's tea room, which offered a hot dog lunch among other things. I can't remember what that hot dog tasted like, but I knew I didn't want seconds.


The best part of the day came after sundown, when we saw Cats, that musical Dad had promised to take Mom to when we eventually got here. He had rung a ticket broker in New York City and asked for "the best seats in the house." We got them, and then some, in an experience I described at the time as "Fantastic X 138."
From the moment we set foot in the auditorium, all of us knew that this show would be unlike anything we'd ever experienced in a lifetime. The whole area is covered with enlarged scraps of garbage and the floors and walls are coated with posters and slices of papers. The idea is that one is in an alley, seeing objects form a cat's perspective. Our seats were at the very front of the stage, right smack up against the main ramp used by the actors/actresses during the performance. The state is entirely round and covered with the same poster materials as the floor.

As for the performance itself -- YOW! We did not see the show, we experienced it. I could look straight into the performers' eyes and I was very nervous from the start because I knew the usual barriers between actors and audience were not present here: it was clear from the very moment the lights went out and the seats closest to the stage -- including ours -- started to rotate. We were transported into another world, and at times it was as perfect as a dream even though we didn't have control of it. With the lighting, fog, and special effects it was like being high in some places.

Mother was seated closest to the ramp and I was seated right next to her. After the intermission, the "cats" make their way slowly back to the stage much like the audience members retaking their seats, and one paused and stared right into Mother's eyes. The cat expressions were down cold and Mom couldn't resist smiling. She had the best seat in the entire house. Mike got her program autographed by the actor who played Old Deuteronomy. The girl who played Grizabella and sang "Memory" had an EXCELLENT voice. When she was done, the house applauded for a solid 30 seconds. She deserved a standing ovation. And to think that five years ago, Mom laughed when Dad told her that we'd go see this when we went to London.


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