Wednesday 7/3: Windsor Castle & Eton College

Wednesday began with the usual drill. The group then whizzed off to Windsor, along a tree-lined route that made me ache for Charlotte’s own streetside flora and fauna. However, any homesickness was relieved, at least temporarily, upon the sight of the castle erupting into view on my right, as if ripped right from a science-fiction fantasy, or an action-adventure thriller. (For some reason, the exotic growl of a vengeful promise from the lips of one Inigo Montoya came to mind. I remembered my essay, how I’d pictured gallantly eloping to those same rolling hills on some valiant quest, kicking butt and taking names. Windsor Castle encompasses a sense of magic that’s all its own–not only in a high schooler’s personal divulgences, but genuinely, out there in the real world.)

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I appreciated the audio touring device we received for free with admission, a small gadget, clipped to a lanyard, that we could plug our earbuds right into. I could listen to a track several times in a row if I wanted something run by me again, a convenience that I took advantage of on several occasions while waiting in line. I mean, queue. While queuing. Right.

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The view from the castle of the town was incredible. Miles of the sweeping circumambient terrain was visible: children playing cricket in a schoolyard, double-deckers whirling around bends where vendors had spread their wares, chipped dinghies bobbing languidly on the Thames. You really got the sense of how safe this place would have been during an attack. It’s the ideal location–invaders would both have been spotted long before they neared the walls, and the hill would have exhausted even the most highly trained combatants.

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After admiring the vista for a few minutes, we continued on.

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One of the first exhibitions was Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, a project that was actually headed by the granddaughter of Queen Mary (who was married to Henry V), Elizabeth II. The two were very close, so she wanted to give her grandmother a gift that she would cherish, and miniatures were kind of the Queen’s thing. The house was completed in 1924 and features the work of some of the finest architects, designers, craftsmen, and artists of the time, commissioned to incorporate pots and kettles, guns, replicas of famous portraits, books, sofas, the newest gadget on the market: an electric vacuum cleaner. The house is fully furnished, with working electricity. There’s even a fully stocked wine cellar, and a strong room containing miniature Crown Jewels.

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The Royal Paintbox, an exhibition of works (including paintings and drawings) by the Royal Family, running now through January 26th of next year, was also source of interest for me. Some of the art was really intriguing, which sort of surprised me. You can’t be royalty and an artist! It’s not fair! But it is, alas, wholly possible… and the diversity of styles was, in itself, really a joy to see. Some of the nobles were more inclined to realism, some to cartooning, but none put exactly the same spin on their subjects. Photography was not permitted, but I’m sure a bit of searching around on the Internet will turn up some finds.

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Once the tour was completed, we had lunch down by the river and fed some belligerent swans (there must have been hundreds!) before splitting up and exploring the town on our own. Brandy and I stuck together, stepping into a few touristy shops, and then crossing over the bridge and scavenging around in a (relatively overpriced) antique bookstore, which offered some vintage newspaper comics that I liked. Afterward, Brandy’s hunger led us to a combination cafe and barber shop, where she purchased a lemon pound cake. A significant portion of which somehow ended up in my stomach.

Once the group reconvened, it was time for a ramble around Eton, albeit a guided one. It was actually a private tour, which was cool. Plus, our group is kind of a loud one, so it was really to everyone’s benefit.

I think my favorite thing about Eton (a high school, for anyone else who is as confused as I was! The term “college” doesn’t have the same meaning in the UK as it does in the States) has to be the school uniform. It’s just one of the elements left behind from Eton’s past, and it’s a traditional Victorian getup. (Top hats were also a part of the uniform up until 1948.) Today, the guys have plenty of opportunities to don more casual garb during their free time, but judging by the number of times admin’s offer to alter attire requirements has been declined, they don’t really seem to want to.

One thing the guide made us aware of was just how grueling a day in the life of an Eton student would have been circa the 15th through 19th centuries (the school was founded in 1440 by Henry VI as “the King’s College of Our Lady Eton Beside Windsor”–a name which, being the mouthful it was, many were thrilled to eventually shorten). The boys endured school days twice as long as those typical of today’s students. Younger boys often had to act as servants (then called “fags”) to their older counterparts. All students were served very little food (lots of mutton!), and would beg for leftovers outside of local pubs, and when that didn’t work, they would hide what they could beneath their floorboards, an undertaking that drew hoards of rats and must have seriously deflated the already minimal living conditions of the dorms. Lectures were often so monotonous that they would invent games to play quietly among themselves, like one that was evidenced by a thin channel left carved into one of the antique desks in a surviving classroom we visited: betting on which way and at what speed ink would run when poured from their pens. Today, of course, Eton is much nicer, offering full scholarships to 40 boys a year, single dorms for each student, and about 50 organizations, called societies, at any given time, run exclusively by the students.

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Above: What a traditional dorm looked like.

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Above: A bronze statue of Henry VI, the founder.

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The door where Prince William and Prince Harry, both of whom attended Eton, had their names professionally inscribed.

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After the tour, we were all pretty worn out, and headed back to the dorms to sleep until dinner. Definitely one of the most interesting days, however tiring!

Friday 7/5: The Last Night

Oh man, I’m sorry to not have posted everything I expected to today. We’ve been insanely busy, particularly with packing. (For the record: packing for a trip? Fun! Packing for the return? Not fun.) I will, however, be home tomorrow with no definitive plans for a week beyond sleeping and posting here. No guarantees that I’ll be up to the job tomorrow, but you can unquestionably expect a full report on the trip, including the days I’ve yet to chronicle, by the end of Sunday.

Again, guys, thanks so much for all your kindness and loyalty to this blog. And even though this trip has just about come to a close, I will be continuing this blog, so please stick around! I’m just getting started!

Tuesday 7/2: Christ Church, Oxford

After my usual morning routine (I’m sure you know it by now), the group was whisked off to Oxford, where–who’d have guessed?–we descended upon Oxford University’s Christ Church location, the largest of its kind and one of the most famous, with approximately 430 undergraduates and 215 postgraduates. The map of the area that we used:

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I’d known bits and pieces about Oxford before the trip, but our meeting with Mr. Worthington the night before truly opened my eyes to just how exclusive the institution is. Generally, only a few students are accepted each year, after concluding a rigorous application process involving a written appeal (grades, exam scores, letters of recommendation, “personal” A.K.A. academic statement”– no B-average students or SAT scores under 2000 sounded like the basic gist to me), and then a thorough overnight interview in December. (Aspiring English majors like me might, for instance, be asked how E.E. Cummings influenced later authors.) What really struck me was how very intensive an Oxford course of study sounded. Mr. Worthington explained that this university does not stress the “well-roundedness” that the States do. Oxford expects its students to select a specific channel of education, and follow it through all the way to graduation. Which, I realized as we were briefed, is awesome for kids who know exactly what they want to do for the rest of their lives and prefer to bypass detours–hey, more power to them. Not so awesome, however, for people like me, who might major in English and minor in illustration and snatch up a few history courses on the side and look into education and the didgeridoo while they’re at it, and are just generally less decided. Basically, I love writing. But I also love a lot of other things, and I don’t know if I’m willing to cram all my eggs in that basket. (Especially considering the dubious quirk of an eyebrow and twitch of a grin one earns when disclosing their interest in the pursuit of an English degree. “Oh,” I’ve heard in response, “good luck with that.”) Studying at Oxford sounds amazing; the English program (sorry to keep circling back to this) embraces authors from the medieval period to present day, and as, thusly, might well be assumed, seems to weave a taut tapestry of both history and literature. Tutorials once a week offer opportunities for essay prompting, focus questions, review, suggestion, etc. English graduates go into business, journalism, law, the media, and teaching careers, as well as further academic study.

Phew. Okay. Getting a little wound up here.

Anyway, it was a bit of a rainy day when we visited, so I ended up picking up a sweatshirt in the gift shop and throwing it on over my other one. It’s marvelous.

(I was tempted, also, to purchase some Alice In Wonderland gear. The author of the series, Charles Dodgson, studied, taught, and lived at Christ Church, and many aspects of his stories were directly inspired by campus life.)

Our tour consisted of a look around the Christ Church Cathedral, which serves both the community and the school. It is the mother church of the Diocese at Oxford, and lots of special services that take place are attended by its Bishop. Here, he has his throne, or ‘cathedra,’ to which the cathedral’s name can be traced. During term time, the Cathedral Choir, founded in 1525 and made up of 16 boys and 12 men, sings throughout the week.

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Welcome to Hogwarts! Another highlight of the tour was the famous staircase where the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone scene in which Professor McGonagall welcomes the first years was filmed. (My father will hear about this.)

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The Hall, at the top of the staircase, has its own claim to fame: it inspired the ornate dining hall in the films. It is described as the center of college life, a place where banquets are held, where the eyes of John Locke, a sprinkling of Prime Ministers, and other respected alumni peer out from their keepers’ wall-hung oil paint facsimiles.

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After Christ Church, we spent about an hour combing through the Ashmolean Museum a few blocks down, created in 1908 by combining the Oxford University Art Collection and the original Ashmolean. Today, coins, sketches, statues, musical instruments, and other antiquities are secured beneath its roof. Ivy and Julia (both from Houston) tagged along with me in the Chinese and Middle Eastern collections, admiring the tapestries and pottery on display. It was really remarkable how well the pieces had been preserved. Even rugs hundreds of years old looked to be in exceptional shape.

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The final focus of our journey was a swing by Christ Church’s Bodleian Library, which stores a copy of every book ever published in the country, the combined collections racking up a total of over 11 million printed items, 50,000 e-journals, and many more materials in various alternative formats. Pretty big responsibility, and something I’m very envious of the students for. All current members of Christ Church may use the library and borrow modern books.

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What’s unusual to me about the campus is the distinct absence of grass. These pebbles are about it.

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We dipped into the gift shop while there, too.

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I liked the door.

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A knitted chain was draped across the top of one of the campus fences. I’d heard of this being done in other places but never seen it! So that was cool.

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It’s interesting that the entire town adheres to the same Romanesque, Gothic style of architecture. I mean, of course we’d seen this in London as well, but perhaps the effect was bolstered by the more compact vicinity. Someone back home asked me last night what the biggest culture shock had been, and I think it’s this liberal use of stone. No other place looks like it. (That is, as far as I know.)

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We had a dab of free time before our bus departed, so I poked around in an antique shop called “Antiques On High.” It was absolutely jam-packed with glistening doohickeys. (So proud of myself for finding an excuse to use that word.) Jars shaped and painted to resemble faces, bagpipes, silver platters, and records all come to mind. I could sped an entire afternoon there.

Off to dinner! I’ll be back later tonight!

Monday 7/1: Selfridge’s & Regent’s Park

Yesterday, I woke up at 6:00 (to drink tea and write!), ran two miles, took a shower, and hopped on the bus headed for Selfridge’s, where we would spend an hour zipping from floor to floor, reveling in the shimmering Shangri-La of 21st century materialism that is Britain’s most famous department store–in fact, so voted the “best department store in the world.”

Seriously, Selfridge’s was immense, glistening from floor to ceiling, decked out in chrome and crystal. It felt sort of like Oz–like I might pass from the dazzling shoe department into the Emerald City at any given moment. I had never felt so American here before, loping around in my Nike shorts and tee, gangly, disoriented, and endlessly out-of-place, my faux leather backpack slung limply across my back and my plastic water jug dangling from my crooked ring finger, rather than clutched in my fist, as if in a gesture of feigned daintiness. I have been assured, in the past, that I do not have an accent or, for that matter, any sort of “vocal extremity,” but in that moment I deemed my voice grating and riotously wrong. Nails on a chalkboard. A donkey braying.

A conclusion that led me straight to where other 16-year-old foreigners undoubtedly drown their sorrows:

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The giant candy shelves.

And, consequently, a “candy floss” machine, which invoked childhood memories of Angelina Ballerina and her wonderful mishaps at the country fair.

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The food hall (“It sounds so much better than ‘food court!’ Brandy laughed) had dozens of sweets shops and delicatessens set up, all advertising delicious-looking items in their glass display cases.

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After Selfridge’s, we trekked over to Regent’s Park, where we admired the flowers and ate lunch on benches, taking photos all the while. (We were in Queen Mary’s Gardens, an inner district of the park that accommodates more than 30,000 roses of 400 types.)

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(Yellow roses! My favorite!)

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We had some time before the performance of The Winter’s Tale, so we strolled around the park with no particular direction in mind.

Lots of birds–over 100 species of waterfowl.

(Several hundred years ago, these birds might have been targeted by hunters, whom King Henry VIII ushered in by appropriating the area as a hunting ground during his reign.)

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I’m not sure what type of bird this is, despite my (admittedly weak) attempts to identify it online later. But there were several in the pond, diving and surfacing continually. It was very cute.

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Also a few herons!

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Two people brought an entire loaf of bread solely for the purpose of feeding the geese.

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This pretty duck was just sitting on the pavement, unflinchingly, as we passed. Just goes to show how good birds must have it in these London parks!

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A swan was preening itself in one of the smaller lagoons.

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We also saw the home of the British ambassador to the U.S. Which was huge. Not a bad gig.

We made our way back to the Open Air Theatre–the only professional outdoor drama venue in Britain, and a widely acclaimed one at that–just before the doors were opened and the audience began spilling in.

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I was thoroughly impressed with the performance. I was somewhat hesitant about the whole thing, mostly because we’d been informed the previous day that it had been advertised as both appropriate and entertaining for children ages six and up. What? A Shakespearean play that’s fun for kids? But, yes, the cast and crew pulled this feat off spectacularly, incorporating (principally as interludes after exceptionally humdrum slices of the show) interactive songs, raps, dancing, and even a stuffed sheep-shearing competition between groups of audience members. Something I really liked was the free movement of actors in and between the seats of the theatre. They weren’t afraid to grab hats off heads, speak directly to individuals, sit on laps, etc.

So that was basically Monday. The weather was amazing–sunny, warm, absolutely perfect. Thanks for the read! Now, on to constructing Tuesday’s retrospection!

Saturday 6/29: Parliament, Piccadilly Circus, & Criterion Theatre

(Sorry about the wait on this one, guys. Luckily, we returned to the dorm fairly early today, so I have a little extra time to write.)

Yesterday, I woke up at 6:30 and ran 2 miles. Breakfast included chocolate-filled croissants, which was, of course, very exciting. I showered and pulled on a new shirt (yay!) and we boarded the bus.

The ride was the usual hour, give or take thirty minutes. We arrived just down the street from the Houses of Parliament, and with time to spare. This warranted a stroll through the Victoria Tower Gardens, the sunshine streaming down on us through the cool air. People cycled past. A man played fetch with his dog. It was so peaceful, I could have stayed there for hours.

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In addition to picture-taking, we made sure to pay our respects at the Buxton Memorial, a stone erection that bears resemblance to a gazebo, commemorating the emancipation of slaves following the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act. Originally located in Parliament Square, the Memorial was moved in 1957 to mark the 150th anniversary of the 1807 Act abolishing the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

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There was a lovely view of the London Eye from the edge of the River Thames! (We’ll be riding it on July 4th! This constitutes an Independence Day celebration, right?)

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Parliament peeks through the trees as we approach, its high-seated flag fluttering in the breeze…

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Such an incredible building.

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Richard I greeted us in front of the House of Lords, where he has been perched on his whinnying horse for over 150 years. Major conservation work was just completed on his likeness four years ago.

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We all managed some great shots as we filed in through a thorough security check.

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Just beyond the small, tree-lined courtyard outside of the entrance to Westminster Hall, Elizabeth Tower dwarfed us, an enormous glistening beacon.

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And then, finally, we entered the Hall–the oldest surviving portion of the Palace, as most of the others burned to the ground in October of 1834. (An echo of this disaster was hearkened when the Common Chambers were, again, reduced to little more than molten ash during a 1941 air raid, when their conservation was deemed less vital than that of the Hall. Our tour guide would later relay to us with a smirk that “the stories of great buildings are often the stories of great fires.” Indeed, London’s track record is certainly a testament to this quip.) Over a thousand years of history loomed before me, stretching into the rafters and filling the cracks in the stone, pressing against the glass panels in the lofty windows. Suddenly, I felt so tiny and unimportant. This was where London was truly born.

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We had a tour scheduled for around 10:45, and the guide led us through, and familiarized us with the building: the Robing Room, where the Queen dresses in her Imperial State Crown and ceremonial robes before gliding into the House of Lords, the Royal Gallery, used for state receptions, dinners, and ceremonies, decorated on either wall by a Daniel Maclise mural illustrating a pivotal moment of the Napoleonic Wars, the Lords’ Chamber, lavishly garnished in red and gold, woolsacks arranged in tiers and tasseled with gilded fringe, the Central Lobby, where the four corners of the UK touch, the Members’ Lobby, where Winston Churchill’s dangerous scowl and hip-bracketing fists are immortalized in stone, and the Commons Chamber, which can accommodate only 427 of the 650 Members of Parliament at a time. Personally, I felt myself drawn to the art–for instance, the chivalric value-personifying vignette pieces in the Robing Room, demarcated by runes reading “hospitality,” “generosity,” “mercy,” “religion,” “courtesy.” I was also fascinated to hear about the State Opening ritual dating back to the Civil War wherein the official of the House of Lords called “Black Rod” is sent to summon the Commons, and has the doors to the Chamber shut in his face. He then knocks again, three times (there is visible wear in the woodwork by cause of this), at which time the members of this house acquiesce and file into the Lords’ Chamber. The ritual is symbolic of the Commons’ independence from the corruption of the monarchy.

Lamentably, photography was not permitted in the Palace, so I have only words to hand on, but if you ever have the chance, I recommend paying it a visit. I definitely feel that you get the bang for your buck.

Shortly after the dismissal of our tour group, we clipped along through Parliament Square (the traffic was absolutely terrifying–too many electric bikes!) and wound our way around to St. James’s Park, passing, on the way, Abraham Lincoln’s effigy, carved out of bronze. This is a replica of the somewhat controversial original in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, created by artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

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Anyway, St. James’s turned out to be a wonderful place–for us as we nibbled at our sandwiches and, I’m sure, the hundred billion other park transients, as girls attempted wobbly handstands and young couples nuzzled one another in the grass. (“Londoners don’t understand Frisbee,” Ms. Nichols chuckled at one point, eyeing a band of teenaged boys repeatedly tossing a yellow disc slantwise and yelling in thick French accents when it inevitably plummeted into the ground and rolled, in lazy circles, to a halt.) We even saw some baby swans, while the estate is home to 29 other species of waterfowl, including mallard, golden eye, tufted duck, shelduck, and wigeon. (Not to be confused with pigeon… although there are plenty of those too.)

When we finished lunch, it was time to see Buckingham Palace!!! This was really exciting for me so I took a few pictures, to say the least.

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The group then continued toward Piccadilly Circus, crossing through what Mr. Worthington dubbed the “Ritz” area. Here, Ms. Nichols and the students trailing furthest behind erupted into animated shouts as we turned a corner–apparently, Russel Crowe had walked past them.

Here are a few shots from that part of our walk:

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(Right around here, we discovered an excellent photo opportunity. Below, the letters crowning the box stand for “Elizabeth II, Ruler/Royalty.”)

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Lots of these little blue plaques around London, as constituents of its blue plaque scheme started in 1866. This is believed the be the oldest of its kind in the world. Each plaque serves as a link between influential persons of the past and the places where they lived and worked.

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Long live the Queen! As we entered Piccadilly Circus, these banners flew high, recognizing the reign of Elizabeth II’s 60th anniversary this year.

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Upon our entry to the district, we were tossed into an enormous, sweaty, throbbing mass of people, absolutely crammed together for the LGBT Pride March, an event that the majority of us, myself included, weren’t expecting. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am an immensely ardent advocate of all things gay rights-related, but the lack of elbow room was deeply unsettling. Especially as a tourist.

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Thankfully, our clan managed to find its way through the Underground to the other side of the road, at which point we split into coteries of two and three and did some of what we like best–shopping. (Even still, I didn’t buy anything.) Many students ducked into Lillywhites for sportswear, while Brandy and I tag-teamed Cool Brittania, after escaping from the commotion into a health chain I’m becoming increasingly familiar with called, quite simply, “Eat.” We even got a few photos of the parade from the shop’s upper level seating space.

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Everyone met back again in front of Criterion Theatre, where we received our tickets for The 39 Steps from Mr. Worthington. The theatre was petite and cozy, and our seats were great.

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To be “ruthlessly honest,” (as Mr. Worthington says) I was skeptical about the show at first, but it ended up being fantastic, and very, very funny… despite the clear overtones of undeniably British humor, to which I don’t typically respond. I loved it. Arguably most impressive was that a cast of only four managed to effectively take on dozens of roles throughout the hour-and-a-half-long performance. Time and again, these talented players pulled off ingenious stunts, through comedic timing, the employment of “human props,” and breaking the fourth wall. The show conveyed all the cinematic wonder of a film, complete, even, with angle shifts through clever use of visual illusion and a willingness to play with the audience’s perspective. When wind needed to blow, the actors fluttered their coats; when a train needed to move, they rocked rhythmically back and forth. And sure, these tricks sound old hat, but what really lit up this staging was that everything was done in a very humorously self-aware manner that seemed to forge a bond between the actors and viewers. There was no “I’m playing a role,” but rather, “I know you know I’m playing a role.” If that makes any sense at all. Anyhow, I’m very interested in picking up a copy of the book by John Buchan, which the play is based on, if I can hunt it down.

After the show, we had about an hour of free time for dinner and what have you, so Brandy and I settled on Chipotle (a conservative choice, I know, but I needed a burrito like air). For the next half hour, we discussed the possibilities and mechanics of time travel while dipping into pinto beans and guacamole, before scoping out a gelato joint a few blocks down and ordering rosemary orange and salted caramel, and vanilla biscuit, respectively. Perfect accompaniment to our mutual quiet observation of the whirlwind of activities outside the shop, lit by the last flushed light of the sun as it fell across the cobblestone below.

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Before the group left London for the night, we watched a street performer juggling knives and unicycling across a quivering tightrope. As I tugged anxiously at my hair and ground my teeth, Brandy whispered breathily beside me. “I hope he knows what he’s doing.” But I guess that’s what London is all about–the magic of not knowing. This city is wrapped in mystery, dark figures in alleyways and unusual smells, profiles in windows and graffitied witticism sprayed against stones of Roman origin, street musicians with no names, crumbling towers with far too many. You could live here for a lifetime and not know the half of it. Two lifetimes. Ten. Exploring a town that built the world as we know it is a joy in and of itself, even if the fact of the matter is that I’ll hardly make a dent in the history books.

Uppity poeticism aside, Saturday was amazing. Now to begin crafting today’s chapter…

19 days until the flight! Just a reminder

Aside

19 days until the flight! Just a reminder that, even if you think I’m a hyperactive blogger now, you haven’t seen anything yet. Especially if I manage to get my hands on a camera between now and then…

On another note, my grandpa suggested today that I look into Alison Weir’s “The Six Wives of Henry VIII.” I guess the question is just whether or not that will be possible anytime in the near future what with me falling dangerously behind on my reading of “London: A Biography” in favor of listening to “When You Are Engulfed In Flames” on audio now that final exam week is here. Maybe I could SparkNote it?

Speaking of biting off more than I can chew, I checked out a few things from the library yesterday, including a biography about Shakespeare by Bill Bryson on audio, and a (thankfully) picture-heavy book called “Sherlock Holmes’s London: Following the Footsteps of London’s Master Detective.” It sort of retraces Sherlock’s adventures through photos and information about the sites he investigates in the series.

We’ll see if I can permeate the hypnotic powers of David Sedaris and actually knock these things out.

Anyway, have a great Tuesday everyone!