Thursday, March 31, 2011

Got Away With It 3-31-11

There is a certain feeling associated with Spring skiing that is unnoticeably absent during mid-winter’s pelting snow and subzero wind chills.

There is something spurred on by the sun, but it goes way beyond the weather. It has little to do with the snow; in fact the granules make for sub-par slopes.

Spring skiing is more mindset than mint conditions: joy, adrenaline, escape. But don’t be surprised at the speck of guilt scraping at you like a bared rock on your skis. When you walk out onto the lodge deck, a cold beer cooling your sweating hands, a sunburn on the parts of your face that weren’t covered by goggles, and a mountain full of powder being churned into a Slush Puppie, you know you got away with something.

That feeling when you were a kid when you took the cookie but didn’t get caught with your hand in the jar. That feeling you got in high school when you finished cleaning up the empty beer cans before mom and dad returned from vacation. That feeling freshman year in college when the bouncer didn’t turn away your non-laminated New Jersey driver’s license (it was real, I swear).

That’s the feeling of Spring Skiing. I shouldn’t be here. But I am. And I’m not leaving until they make me.

At Maine’s Shawnee Peak they embrace the circumvention of Mother Nature by hosting their annual Spring Fling. The seasonal contradictions are reminiscent of many regional ski resorts post-March 1. There’s a BBQ, plenty of skiers in t-shirts, Corona specials and more than a few radio station promo prize giveaways. It all takes place in the shadow of a mountain just starting to lose its snowy edge (and because of those bared rocks, I lost both of my edges).

But you don’t go Spring Skiing in New England for the packed powder. You go to get away and to get away with something. You go for that moment at the summit when you look out at a green valley and ice-less lakes surrounded by the still-whitecapped Presidential Range. You go for the next moment when your gaze turns downward at your ski tips quivering over an icy black diamond trail pock-marked by puddles and pine needles. And you think to yourself, “cool, obstacles.” It’s that type of non-risky gamble we humans like to make when we seek reinvigoration. 

The Shawnee pond-skimmers see it that way. When they’re hurtling down the main trail toward the man-made rectangular slush pool, surrounded by spectators and ski patrol / lifeguards, all they’re thinking is speed, speed, speed. It doesn’t matter how much you think it, if you don’t start of tucking right away, you’re going to need a towel. We saw some valiant attempts. We saw a few successful crossings. And we saw some disasters that were doomed from first push-off. Not Jesus nor Criss Angel could get across that water with a total lack of control, velocity and basic coordination. From a bystander’s perspective, however, the sopping costumes and on-their-way-to-being-rusted-shut ski boots made for an entertaining end to a day of Spring Skiing. 

Whether it’s at Shawnee or another slope, you can get away with having a good time this time of year. 

Monday, March 21, 2011

To Be A Groundling 3-1-2011

I am not an original groundling. Nor could I ever be, what with widespread theatrical ambivalence, modern day health codes and a personal dislike for sloshing through human waste.

However, had I been the child of the 60s (the 1560s), I might’ve felt right at home on the wrong side of the Thames, amongst the bawdy bards and applauding proletariat. Right there, on the floor, standing room only, ankle deep in mud, stale ale and whatever that steaming liquid over there in the corner might be – reveling in revelry with a raucous reaction to sword fights and swooning ladies (men dressed like ladies) all the same. 

These are the cheap seats, the Elizabethan equivalent of the Wrigley bleachers during a mid-summer weekend day game – with more beer. Here on the theater’s ground, directly in front of the stage, apprentices skipped out on their masters to pack the floor and interact with the actors. They were loud, rambunctious and if their nickname, “Stinkards,” doesn’t describe them fully enough for you, just know that a trip to the loo meant aiming in between your shoes. 

But what the cheap seats during Elizabethan times lacked in hygiene (and they lacked a lot, including any actual seats), they made up for in sheer entertainment value. You were part of the production. The sweat on Shylock's brow as Portia argues his punishment must have dropped right at your poorly shod feet. True, to stand at the foot of the stage meant to be in prime trampling range should an errant spark find its way onto the thatched roof. But the play was the thing, ensnaring the attention of everyone from commoner to king. For what equaled out to ten percent of your day’s pay, a bit of entertainment was worth the risk and the aroma, which may have been just as deadly.

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre is a reconstruction. The original, lost to fire like most of London at one point or another, was located nearby the site of its modern day doppelganger. Like my ability to be a true groundling, the modern Globe is not, nor could it ever be an original. But since a trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon was not on the agenda (and if you don’t get that reference you probably don’t understand half of what I’m saying here), a tour of the Globe was my chance to indulge my inner Shakespeare-o-phile. Unfortunately, because the theater is open air, the season does not start until mid-April. A month early, we settled for a guided tour.

And I came as close as I ever would to being a groundling. Not while standing in front of the stage – but in the staging area inside, before the tour even began.

Danielle made her way to the waiting area while I found the little bard’s room (although an exact replica of the original, they did made a point to include indoor plumbing in this century’s Globe). As I descended the stairway into the waiting area the small crowd all turned to stare. All except my wife, who was in front of them all, like an actor on stage, accompanied by a young woman, an older gentleman and two racks of traditional Elizabethan garb.

My first reaction was to curse my wife not so subtly under my breath. I could see what was about to unfold. I was about to be ambushed by a gaggle of redcoats – planning with their scheming minds to dress me up and parade my be-knickered arse in front of international tourists. With every step toward the group I tried convincing myself it would be fun. I could pull off tights and a feathered cap. Right? Maybe they’d give me a sword, that’d make it manly.

Just as I quelled the embarrassment, my wife’s face turned redder than the scarlet dress hanging behind her. She motioned for me to sit and the young woman announced they’d be dressing Danielle up in the traditional clothing of Ophelia, an Elizabethan royal (albeit Hamlet wasn’t British but they wore the British clothes on the stage . . . you get the idea).

As a groundling, I witnessed the transformation from embarrassed modern woman to embarrassed British lady. She donned a white linen undergarment that looked more bedsheet than bra. The corset came next, followed by a “bump” to make her rear more ample (Elizabethans like a little junk in their trunks). The beautiful crimson dress was finished with an ivory jacket, laden with jewels and delicate stitching. Topped off with a bonnet.

Perhaps I should’ve been more true to the groundling form and heckled her. I had their vantage point, up close and personal with the entertainment. And yet something wholly Shakespearian clamped my voice. She had done this for me. She sacrificed her dignity (and probably a few pounds) by dressing up in heaving period attire, just to round out my Globe experience. I’d like to think Billy would’ve appreciated the scene, for all its skewering of humility, tugging of romantic souls and just plain comedic value (she did look a little like David the Gnome’s wife).

I may not have gotten to see a play in Shakespeare’s holy house but as a wannabe groundling, I thoroughly enjoyed the show. 

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Tale of Two Cities 3-5-11

London is a city of dichotomy. The people are diverse and international, yet British pride comes standard with every pint of ale. The old grand dome of St. Paul’s keeps a watchful eye upon the streamlined Millennium Bridge that leads across the river to the Tate Modern Art Museum, which itself sits next door to a modern version of the Elizabethan era’s Globe Theater.

They are ruled by a monarch embedded in a democratic Parliamentary system. The weather, let’s face it, San Diego it is not. But the tourists flock to the shores of the Thames regardless. Even the food contradicts itself: at the pubs the flavors are simple, the food is industrious like the people, serves a purpose with no-nonsense, and a minimalist amount of flare. Yet one of the busiest sections at dinner time is Brick Lane, the Indian Food capital of anywhere outside India. No fish and chips here, but they keep the colorful curry coming and Vishnu help you if you bite the wrong pepper.

You might think by this quick description that London needs to make up its mind. Modern or traditional? Simple or spicy? Fog or, well, a little bit less fog?

If you think that, you haven’t been to London.

In Dickens’ great novel he pits Paris and London head to head. They are the book’s richest characters, revealed as the opulent France and the practical England.

But what if Dickens were alive today? London, as I saw it, blended genres into one seamless and totally unique European experience. It is not the opulent Paris, nor is it the crisp Interlaken or the flavorful Cinque Terre. It is not just the practical England.

What London is, is a steak and kidney pie: utilitarian, traditional, minerally, curious to foreigners and yet all at once wholly satisfying (try one, even just a mini-pie, whether you like it or not you’ve learned something about the city you’re exploring, the people you’re meeting).
When you visit, you’ll simultaneously think it could be any city in the world and totally different than anywhere you’ve ever been. You’ll walk through the financial area (The City), en masse with hustling businessmen undistinguishable from those on Wall Street. Then a cherry red double-decker bus will soar up from behind you – on the wrong side of the road – and suddenly you’re nowhere near New York. Covent Garden was clearly the model for Boston’s Quincy Market. But slip down into a dim cellar pub (Punch & Judy’s for my money) and you’re sitting under brick archways sipping cask-pumped ale, the smoothest beer you’ve ever had (I didn’t have one bad ale in Britain – just pick a new one every time, bloody good no matter what you pick).
Paris is distinctly Paris. Rome is Rome. London is everything and everyone to anything and anyone.

And if Dickens disagrees with me, I’d love to argue the point over a pint.   

All This History 3-3-11

The Yeoman Warder stood on his block flanked by the Bloody Tower and the Traitor’s Gate. He scanned the growing crowd, lips pressed together and eyebrows furrowed underneath his traditionally famous Beefeater cap. His experience (all Beefeaters are enlisted in the Queen’s Guard for 20+ years, I learned) was on display when he immediately picked out the smattering of folks from the States.

With an actor’s flourish and a soldier’s gravitas he bellowed: “You Americans, if you only just paid your taxes all this great history could have been yours!”

Thus the Tower of London unveiled before us, one century at a time. 

The Tower is a must-see, any guidebook will tell you. But what it won’t tell you is to fully appreciate the suits of armor, the torture devices and the crown jewels, you have to experience the rest of London.

Monday we saw the tombs of the boy princes in Westminster Abbey. At the Tower, we walked through the room where Richard III had them secretly murdered to assure his ascension to the throne (allegedly).

I stood on the spot Anne Bolyn lost her head, then sat in the first pew afore the altar under which her body rests; sat in the stone tower where Sir Thomas Moore waited for death; gawked at Henry VIII’s illustrious (and ahem a little exaggerated in the codpiece) suits of armor. The day before, at the National Portrait Gallery, we went through the Tudor halls, every bit of the walls dedicated to their likenesses painted centuries ago.

The crown jewels, brilliant and bold scepters and headpieces, swords and crowns, were unrivaled in beauty and spectacle. Every diamond came with a story, a purpose and a symbol of an Empire’s strength and regality. Thursday morning we pressed up to the gates of Buckingham Palace to glimpse (and I mean only glimpse) the Changing of the Guard. Inside, the proprietor of those priceless bobbles was home, doing whatever queens do and preparing for her Jubilee anniversary celebration in a few months at which she will don those crown jewels.

London Tower is a full day of symbolism, literature, history, tradition. But across the moat, the Thames strings together a seemingly unending strand of jewels more significant than anything the Queen wears around her neck. If you aren’t blinded by the glitz, you’ll recognize connections everywhere. From the Darwin tomb in Westminster to Darwin’s discoveries at the Natural History Museum; from the World War II memorial outside Churchill’s War Rooms to the Blitz-ravaged then rebuilt dome of St. Paul’s (pay close attention to the story about the men and women who kept watch on the dome during the actual bombings; now that’s courage).

The Beefeater was right. The British History is not my native own. But my experiences, my never forget moments in London are part of my history. That’s enough for me.

Besides, I have enough American History to pull from the annals of my memory. And I seem to recall some connections there to British History, perhaps from the late 18th century . . .

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Last Night - Cliff Notes

Last night in London:

- 7 bottles of wine + 4 people - 2 girls from Albany = 2 husbands ultimately standinging on a balcony drinking canned ale while the two girls from Albany gather their stuff together, quickly fall asleep and the two husbands chug whatever is left in the tiny fridge while wearing winter hats and  gloves overlooking an empty school park in London.

And so ends our last night in London. I wouldn't have it any other way. Cheers Katie & John,  Cheers London.

(check back soon for more detailed posts about our time in the UK - I will catch up over the next few days)

The Walmsley Flat

I have to write about Katie before she reminds me again that I haven't written about her yet.

She has a point. Her and her husband John, after all, are the catalysts for our trip across the pond. At the top of our London sightseeing list: Big Ben, London Tower, Shakespeare's Globe, The Walmsley Flat in Islington, Buckingham Palace.

The weeks leading up to departure were filled with co-workers and friends questioning why I would escape the gray, cold, snowy New England winter for a gray, cold, windy Olde England winter. Why not Mexico? Did Aruba do you wrong? The Key West sun not good enough for you?

I had a canned explanation: you don't go to London for the weather, regardless of the season. You go for the city itself, the history, tradition, a few pints of cask-pumped ale and for the people. In our case, two specific people.

Katie and John, American ex-pats who now navigate the banks of the Thames, welcomed us with open arms and a quickly acquired English charm.

To see Danielle and Katie together, whether in the U.S. or the U.K., is to witness unintentional, soemtimes slapstick comedy in its most genuine, loyal and loving form. Their stories mix nostalgia and whimsy with a little bit of embarassment. Their conversations are the stuff of best friends, you know the kind between people that know each other so well they push the others' buttons just for the reaction?

I've explored the city of London for about a week, a large part of it walking behind Katie and Danielle. As an observer of people, I observed their interactions and reactions from the Globe to the top of St. Paul's. Because travel, to me, is built on those never-forget moments, I was curious to see my wife share those experiences with someone other than me. Someone that has known her longer, and in some ways better, than I ever will.

Because it's Katie, I have been thoroughly entertained. She met us the first night at our hotel and introduced us to our first London Pub. Throughout the rest of the week, she and John showed us around their city, brought us to their favorite pubs and gave us a local London experience we'd never get from a double-decker bus.
By the time we shifted from the Crowne Plaze to the Walmsley Flat in Islington, I knew how to navigate the Tube, the flow of the Thames and the typical pub protocol. Every morning Katie serenaded us with a different pop song, sort of like a completely off-key alarm clock. Danielle described it as a pillow case full of cats being drowned. She was being generous.

But Katie and John have been more than generous, exemplifying a city whose people who have been accomodating, polite and fun around every corner. From a full day at the Tower to a few minutes in the Tate.

Modern art, as it is, hits me in two ways. Awe and intrigue at the suffering, innovation and introspection exhibited by artists like Picasso and Pollack. And then there's the giant wall covered in bloody circles, the empty white room littered with random objects (an apple, a full-length mirror with numbers painted on it, a slideshow projector and some branches), and the line of living, breathing people posed and poised to spin around every few minutes. That just confuses me and frankly, carries no meaning or value. So when we swung through the Tate Modern at the foot of Millenium Bridge, and the entire floor was covered in porcelain sunflower seeds for about the length of a football (U.S.) field, my hopes for a justified visit dissolved quickly. I won't go into too much description of this exhibit - just know that it is an actual exhibit, by a Chinese artist who spread fake sunflower seeds in a giant rectangle. That's all you need to know.

We didn't stay long in the Tate but Danielle and Katie probably laughed more in the thirty minutes skipping past Pollacks and Picassos and porcelain seeds than they had all day. It was the opposite effect I envisioned. The Tate provided us with comical fodder.

We crossed the Millenium Bridge to meet John, right past a roast peanut vendor.

"Those smell good," I said, "I should get some."

And Katie, with perfect comedic timing and execution, deadpanned: "And then you could dump them on the ground and call it modern art."

We buckled over in laughter, both at the words and the source. Katie followed up her joke - as we were still laughing at it - by reminding us that she just made a joke.

London has been historical landmark after historical landmark, pubs and pies and a city vibrating with international pride. But what I'm taking feels so local. It feels more organic than anything in Paris or Venice and yet I'm somewhere I've never been. And it's undoubtedly because of the Walmsleys. Katie and Danielle's friendship, spanning oceans and terrible cellular phone plans, would entertain anyone, anywhere in the world.

From Albany to Abbey Road, our London is their London. What a bloody good time it was. Katie & John, cheers and thank you!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Got the Time? 2-28-2011

Got the Time? 2-28-2011
My wife asked me what time it was and when I screwed my face up in confusion, she got annoyed, rumaged through her purse to find her i-pod, turned it on, checked the clock and made the hour-conversion. I wasn't confused at what time it was. I was confused as to why she asked me.

"Wouldn't it be nice," I said, nothing but sweetness dripping from every word,"if they had a giant clock around here that we could check?"

She looked up. We were standing at the corner of Parliament, across from Westminster Abbey, in direct, unmistakable and clear as crystal view of Big Ben. It actually chimed on the half hour as Danielle brought her dumbfounded eyes back down to my level.

I know I shouldn't have laughed but I couldn't help myself. If my wife ever wanted to slap me - and I'm sure there's a quantity there I don't want to know about - now would be the most obvious time (pun intended).

"I think I have my first 'Stupid American' post of the trip!"

God save the Queen and my wife, because Danielle laughed. She looked up at Big Ben, then over at Westminster Abbey and in between cackles she sighed, "and there's a huge clock face on the Abbey front too."

Yup, I had seen that as well but thought it overkill to point out that timepiece in addition to the ominous, looming, gargantuan ticker being gawked at by us, every tourist, pedestrian and the hasty Londoners rushing to catch the Tube.

We laughed as we made our way to the Abbey, then inside and throughout its soaring interior. The ornate but sober building seemed endless, the vaulted ceiling criss-crossing over the ever-lit British Empire. Around every corner the casket of a king, a relic of history. The air, like the faith, tradition and history, was heavy.

Later that day we would go to the National Portrait Gallery and see the ageless incarnations of many of those same people whose tombs we had tread upon or decorated coffins we saw. The interconnectedness of London was not lost on me. History here is a lifeblood for a city with so many moving parts.

Back in the Abbey we happened upon Poets' Corner. In the moment I stood above Dickens, Chaucer, Kipling. As a man who has spent waking hours attempting to emulate these men, my throat clenched, my mind fogged. So much greatness cornered, interred and remembered. I said two prayers in Westminster Abbey that day: one when I lit a candle for my grandfather, the other while standing in Poets' Corner, alone with my thoughts, save the dozens of literary souls scribbling away for eternity.

"William and Kate will walk down over there," Danielle said. My moment evaporated; I was alright with that, I was sure I'd have another at Shakespeare's Globe. She guided me around the choir seats, into the vestibules and finally to the front door, the entrance to the immense hall where history rested and history would be made.

Prince William and his bride-to-be are getting married in April in Westminster Abbey. Their place in history - be it pop-culture or not - begins in earnest that day. My bride gawked up at the Abbey's grand entrance, envisioning the horse-drawn carriage, the guards, the white dress, the ceremony. I broke out of the haze Westminster put me in, the hold its contents had on me broken.

Danielle smiled, held my hand and snapped a few more photos of Kate & Will's wedding venue. The Abbey was full of emotion, grief, genius, courage, struggle, sacrifice. But outside here, in a moment in time, my wife and I were just happy. I hoped the Prince and his Princess-to-be would have that, for just a moment, in a couple months - that they accepted and interpreted the significance of their duty, their venue, their city, their family, their country. But for just a moment in time, under a few giant clocks, they were happy.

And right on time, Danielle squeezed my hand and said bluntly, "Hey, you know what time it is?"

The English Language - 2-28-11

The English Language - 2-28-2011
Language is a funny thing. Somewhere over the Atlantic, about an hour and a half ago, I realized I don't know as much about it as I once presumed. I've been extensively and expensively trained in the classics, the humanities, the history and traditions of our species, with particular focus on the nuances of creative communication.

Five hours ago, on the ground, in America, I waited patiently amongst a flurry of travelers, many going home to Britain. All at once I picture me and them in a movie; their charming English accents fluttering past the faces of Hugh Grant and Kiera Knightley. Around me were a businessman, a group of teenage girls being wrangled by a teacher and a young couple with an infant. Hollywood could take these Brits, plus me and weave a romantic comedy plotline without even lifting a finger.

Above the typical sounds of Terminal B, I chuckled everytime one of these people spoke. They sounded like Austin Powers, Harry Potter, Madonna (for a few years, back in the day). They spoke my language but it was a language of fiction and fantasy, a vernacular charicature.

Six hours and one ocean later, the novelty is fading into the ether with the red-eye moon.

I opened my window shade to take my first look at England. This is a land whose people I've studied incredulously, admired indefatigably, been entertained by endlessly. We steadily descended. There were little twinkling lights from awakening houses, rising to a new day underneath a familiar layer of fog that blanketed their neighborhoods and stretched underneath my plane, far off over the edge of horizon. This is a real place, with real people, who speak a language I know but am wholly alien to.

It is a humbling and exciting feeling to know something (somewhere) so well and yet never have set foot, never have seen, never have heard the native, never have experienced it off the page.

The wheels touched down at Heathrow and those same businessmen scuttled off to the financial district. The school girls packed up their American trinkets and set off for home. The young couple nestled the sleeping infant in his pram.

We picked our way to the Tube station, our indoctrination into the real UK. Shakespeare never wrote about this.

I found the map. Danielle gazed glassy-eyed at the rows of times and prices.

"Why don't we go to ticket window," she said, pointing across the increasingly busy underground station.

"Because..." I started. Then I realized we weren't in Paris. We weren't in Venice. We weren't in Interlaken. "Yeah. Good idea. I forgot, they speak English here."

The man behind the window greeted us with a jolly smile, a hearty "Cheers!" and a handful of information, Tube tickets and mini-maps. Before we walked away he rattled off two or three sentences of information/salutation/degradation (I wasn't quite sure which), waving with that same unchanging jolly smile.

"What'd he say?" I asked. Danielle just shook her head.

I know a lot about this nation, its literature, its history, even about our shared language. But I still don't know anything about England - yet - and I have no idea what that bloke at the ticket booth said.