Friday, November 30, 2012

Man-Made Caves and Poor Man's Times Square

The weekend we went to Cardiff we decided to take another day trip. Last time Caitlin was in England she went to  his place called Chislehurst Caves. After some research we found it was only a quick train ride out of London and that it only costs £5 so we determined it would be a fun and not too expensive excursion.

So, Caitlin, Austy and I headed to the train station in the morning all bundled up since the weather had gotten colder. When we got into Paddington we had to take the Tube to London Charing Cross to catch the train to Chislehurst, where the caves were located. We decided that Caitlin and Austin should buy Oyster Cards since tube fare is cheaper and easier when using an Oyster. I already had one from my time in London with my parents and I needed to top up. The ticket office line was long so we were once again able to experience the annoyance of the tube money machines. We knew from previous experience that these machines do not like our American cards and so we had to pay in cash. By the time Austin and Caitlin reached the front the realization was made that this particular machine only took coins--no notes--and since we don't carry around £20 in coins we had to go to the ticket window anyway.

At this point I'm afraid we're going to miss our train (but then again I'm always afraid we're going to miss out train) and so we hurried down the stairs and onto the proper line. We ended getting there in plenty of time and were the first ones in our train car, but better safe than sorry, right? As our train left the station, and then London, we got a wonderful view of Parliament, Big Ben and the London Eye (as well as the Shard, which I discussed in my earlier blog post). We got to Chislehurst in no time at all and it was a short and very easy walk to the caves.

The caves were actually really cool and well worth the £5 entrance fee. These are man made caves (so no stalactites or mites in sight) and they have served many purposes. It was used by the Romans and the Druids a long time ago and more recently it was used as a music hall where artists like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin have played. Because of the acoustics of the cave I can't even imagine how awesome that must have sounded.

But the more important and practical use was as storage and shelter during the First and Second World Wars. During the first it was just used to store ammunition but during the second it gets really interesting Thousands of people lived down there during the war. They had very uncomfortable bunk beds (and a mailing address to go with each), a little store, shower facilities (only able to be used every once and a while because there were so many people) and anything else they may have needed. It was essentially a little town underground which I thought was pretty much awesome. They even had a hospital and it was the only one in England not to lose a single patient during the war. Pretty impressive for being underground, I'd say.

And during the war, because of the threat of bombs they would have to turn out all of the lights in the evenings. Let me unpack that for you: even though the caves are however far underground, enemy planes would still be able to spot the light from the sky if they were left on. Crazy, I know. So every night at 9pm, every single light would turn off, submerging the entire cave in darkness. And we were submerged in total darken for a minute or so during the tour and let me tell you, it was not fun. I would have hated to spend every evening that way.

After the tour finished, we headed back into London to walk around a bit and get some lunch. It was an easy and pleasant walk to Covent Garden on which we learned that Edith from Downton Abbey is currently on the West End starring in Uncle Vanya. We got to Covent Garden, which was all decorated for Christmas and walked around for a while looking for a candy shop that Caitlin wanted to show us. I didn't realize that Covent Garden was so big. We'd eventually given up and decided to find something to eat when we stumbled upon it. Hope and Greenwood was a very cute candy store where I got Toffee Crumbles and Caitlin got Cherry Bakewells as well as my newest obsession--Pear Drops. We were all rather proud of ourselves that we were able to find it.

We then had lunch at Bella Italia before heading towards Piccadilly Circus. We walked through Leicester Square (where the TKTS booth is) and went into the giant M&M Store. What I found interesting about the M&M Store was that the one in New York and this one were quite the same except for one major difference. In the one in New York, all of the cheesy knick knacks said I<3NY. In this one, the trinkets weren't about London, they were about the UK in general. There were Union Jacks everywhere. And while I'm sure the NYC store had some American Flags, probably not to the same extent as the Union Jacks here.

When we finally made it to Piccadilly Circus it seemed to be that the Piccadilly Circus and Leicster Square combo forms a bit of a poor man's Time Square. They tried--an M&M Store, TKTS, giant screens covering the buildings, tons of restaurants, gimmicky stores, located near the theater district--but you can't quite replicate Times Square, even in London. Sorry. It was fun to walk around and see everything though.

After a quick tube ride back to Paddington Station we were back on the train to Oxford. It was a good day, exploring a cool attraction, perhaps a bit off the beaten path.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Come Along, Pond

Warning, this blog is about to get real nerdy, real fast. And if you see some saying that don't seem quite like something I'd say, don't worry, they're common Doctor Who words and phrases I've decided to incorporate into this blog post for a bit of fun. They're all in italics. 

With that said, read on! 

Early Friday morning (way too early for my taste, Libby, Austin, Caitlin and I embarked on a journey to Cardiff, Wales to explore the city and to visit the Doctor Who Experience. Because of uncontrollable circumstances, we weren't able to get to the train station in time to catch the train we were planning on take, so we had to take the train an hour later. Usually, this wouldn't be such a big deal, but our tickets were for a timed entry to the Doctor Experience between 11 and 12. And our train didn't get in into just about noon. Now, as you all probably know, I have a thing about punctuality, and I absolutely hate being late. But some things are uncontrollable, and we had to just go a little bit late and hope we would still be let in.

We had to go under a tunnel to get into Wales and when we were on the England side it was bright and sunny, and when we exited on the Wales side it was dark, stormy and a little bit green as though there was going to be a tornado, even though I know they don't get tornadoes here. Not the best welcome. We got to Cardiff Central on time and it seemed that with the frequency of trains to Queen Street and then on to Cardiff Bay that we just might make it on time. The problem was, we didn't know what platform we had to be on. We walked towards the ticket help desk and heard the man telling a woman that a train was leaving in a minute or so. I knew we wanted to get on that train. "Basically, run" I thought to myself and we rushed up the stairs. We rode for four minutes or so and then had to change trains at Cardiff Queen Street. No time to loose, I gathered my things, ready to exit as soon as the train arrived. "Geronimo!" I said as we rushed through the crowds to the proper platform. 

We got to Cardiff Bay around 11:45 and I though we just may make it in time. One problem though, we didn't know how to get to the Doctor Who Experience from the Cardiff Bay Station. To our left was a road lined with signposts sporting Dalek (a characters from Doctor Who) banners so we knew we were at the correct station. The question was, do these flags lead the direction from the train station, or are they leading from a further road in the direction of the train station? I felt responsible for not knowing where to go because I was in charge of what train to take to get there and should have considered how to walk there from the train station. "I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry," I said to the group, frustrated with myself. 

Libby's iPhone was having trouble locating it, but I was almost positive it was on the water, so we walked towards the bay while waiting for the phone to find the location, not wanting to waste any time. Even after Apple Maps found it, we didn't seem to have much luck because roads in Great Britain are usually terrible labeled. After walking down the wrong street multiple time, we finally got on the right track. We saw a tourist information centre soon after and decided to just ask to confirm we were headed the right way. And its a good thing we did. Although the iPhone directions would have gotten us there it would have taken us much longer. The best route was really easy and a much more enjoyable walk. "Allonsy!" I said, hurrying us along. We just had to walk along the plass that the tourist information was on the corner of. We then got to walk along the water which is something we don't really get to do much here in Britain. And it was actually a gorgeous day. I always dress as though were going on an expedition to the arctic and it frequently ends up being really nice out. The sun was shining and reflecting off the water in a beautifully blinding way. The sun was beating down on me making me want to take my coat off. But there was no time for that and there unfortunately wasn't really time to take pictures of the bay of the beautiful day.

As we were walking I knew we were going in the right direction because we began seeing signs for the attraction. The question was: why not have these signs right from the train station? I'm sure lots of people take the train to get to the Doctor Who Experience and there were arrow/direction signs to other attractions nearby. But I have to say, once the attraction signs did show up, they were fantastic. You know those brown signs that show symbols of nearby attractions to lead you in the right direction. For some reason, they chose a Dalek for the Doctor Who Experience symbol. I mean Daleks are cool and all and quintessential DocorWho but why not use the TARDIS or something? I mean, the Daleks are the enemy  after all. But I digress. It was pretty awesome nonetheless.

We arrived at the entrance only a few minutes late and it turned out to not be that big of a deal which was a relief. We got in line, excited to go in. There's something awesome about being in an area filled with people who understand you obsession or fascination with something. I knew I could feel out as much as I wanted without being judged so that's exciting. If you're not interested in reading about Doctor Who I recommend skipping the next few paragraphs.

The first part of the type was an adventure with the Doctor in which we had to help the Doctor get the TARDIS back as he was stuck in the Pandorica again and needed it to get out.  And what kind of Madman in a Box would he be without his bigger on the inside police box? The good news is that we succeeded, having to battle Daleks, Weeping Angels and more. And it ended with a 3D movie where it looks like we're traveling through time like in the theme song. That was probably my favorite part of the first section of the Doctor Who Experience. Matt Smith played the Doctor in this section since he is the current Doctor but what will happen when he regenerates and the is a new actor playing the Doctor? Will the have a whole new adventure at the beginning for every Doctor as they change? Because that would be awesome and an excellent business decision.

The second half was the exhibition portion which featured props, costumes and aliens from the filming of the series. We saw Nine, Ten, and Eleven's Sonic Screwdrivers and we were able to take a picture with the 11th Doctor's TARDIS and look at a display of typical costumes of all 11 doctors. My favorite was the inside of the 10th Doctor's TARDIS which you could see up close and the video that played along with it was David Tennant's last very emotional scene that gets me every time. So good. And so sad. We also saw costumes of the Doctor's companions as well as the actual props used for a number of Doctor Who's best alien creatures: the Silence, Cybermen, Weeping Angels, Daleks and more.It was all pretty much amazing. And I of course got a picture with a cardboard cut out of Amelia Pond because Caitlin calls me Amelia and jokingly refers to me as Amelia Pond sometimes. 

We then went to the Doctor Who store at the end of exhibition which as pretty awesome. I ended up getting a TARDIS pen, which makes writing just a little more fun, and a poster of the TARDIS flying over London that only cost £1 so how could I not get it? One thing that I was bummed out about was that there wasn't a TARDIS replica for us to take pictures in. That was something I was really looking forward to and it just never happened. I mean, how hard would it be construct a replica for people to pose in. It's what the people want. 

Torchwood Shrine in honor of character Ianto Jones
After the Doctor Who Exhibition we explored Cardiff Bay a little more. As we walked, Austy was taking tons of pictures of everything and lagging behind, so we turned around and called "Come along Pond." This is actually something we say all the time, whenever anyone is falling behind. We saw the Cardiff Bay water tower which was featured in Doctor Who and is heavily featured in the Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood. Caitlin was saying that she was planning on forcing us to find it, no matter the cost, so we were pleased that it was super obvious where it was. Actually it was the first thing I saw once we got to Cardiff. It really is beautiful though, especially when gleaming in the sunlight. We also spotted a Torchwood shrine while in Cardiff Bay. It is located where the Torchwood entrance is filmed and features tons of pictures and fliers in memory of one of the characters who was killed off. It was actually pretty crazy. "Spoilers" I thought, since I hadn't yet seen Torchwood yet. I've since watched a few seasons and am pretty bummed that I know what is going to happen. 

A friend of a friend who went to Uni in Cardiff told us that there was an American diner in Cardiff Bay and we just had to go. It's fun to see Britain's attempt at American cuisine and decoration. It was a 60s themed diners with fries and burgers and when we got there we actually figured out that they filmed a Doctor Who scene there. So Doctor Who really was just popping up all over the place.While there, Caitlin, Libby and Austin picked up some poppies since Remembrance Day was fast approaching. In a Doctor Who mood, as I looked at us all with our poppies on, I couldn't help but think "We wear poppies now. Poppies are cool.

Soon it was time to leave Cardiff Bay which I was bummed about. "I don't want to go" I whined as I looked over the beautiful water. I love being on the water and wasn't quite ready to go yet. We got back on the train to look at downtown Cardiff. Although we had a map, it was still confusing but I chose a direction and went with it. I didn't really know where I was going, but I just looked at the others and joke "Trust me, I'm a Doctor". Turns out, I was wrong. But it was easily fixed and we found ourselves at Cardiff Story, which was a really cool museum focused on the people of Cardiff. This is actually probably my favorite museum of the ones we've been to about each place we visited. It was interactive and fun and chose to highlight the more fun aspects of Cardiff's history. We also walked past the Cardiff Castle though didn't have time to go in. 

After that it was back to the train station where we once again marveled about the lack of vowels in the Welsh language as the waited for our train to arrive. It was an absolutely amazing Doctor Who adventure and I'm so glad we went. On the train back, I was reading something Austy wrote in which she refered to us as her companions so, in a Doctor Who mood, I couldn't help but turn around and ask here "Are you the Doctor?"

Monday, November 26, 2012

You Had Me at Free Chocolate

After we went to Cardiff and Chislehurst Caves, we had three more days of our BritRail pass left, so I took to the Internet to  find some fun locations for day trips. In this sense, our BritRail passes are a great asset because they forced us to go to less obvious places and allowed us to go to placeswe may not have found otherwise.

As I searched Trip Advisor, I saw reference to a place called Cadbury World. Um, yes please. You had me at Cadbury. If you don't already know I love sweets. And I love Chocolate World at HersheyPark so Cadbury World sounded like a great use of a day. Upon further investigation I found that the tickets were only £10 and it's just outside Birmingham--an easy train ride from Oxford. At this point, I knew we were going. I mean, I still had to ask my flatmates, but it was pretty much a definite in my eyes.

My friends recognized my genius in this respect, we purchased tickets online and the next week we were on a train towards Birmingham.

Sidenote: it was Remembrance Day and we were on the train at 11AM but we did not have a moment of silence, which disappointed me. I was looking forward to experiencing this about Remembrance Day because I'd heard so much about it but I guess because of the business of travel, they don't incorporate into the train system. I mean, I would understand if we were at a station at that time, but we weren't, we were just whizzing through the countryside so it wouldn't have been that difficult to have a moment of silence. 

We had to change trains at Birmingham to get to Bourneville where Cadbury World is located. Luckily, the path from the Bourneville Station to Cadbury World was very well marked so we got there on time for our time-entry ticket of 12:50. We got in line and waited for our Cadbury chocolate experience to begin.

And me tell you, our adventure began on a very sweet note: when we entered we each were given a full size Curly Wurly and a full size Crunchee bar. Free candy? Yes, please! They sure know how to put me in a good mood!

The first part of Cadbury World started at the very beginning-in Latin America where chocolate originates. It was an Aztec rainforest and we learned all about how Cortes brought chocolate to Europe and we saw how chocolate was integrated into society. We then jumped forward to the Cadbury family and their foray into the chocolate business. This involved a 4D film on how chocolate is made: our benches shook as the cocoa beans were ground and it got extremely hot as they were roasted. It was a whimsical approach to the topic.

Next up was the packaging plant, which unfortunately wasn't in operation that day. But good news, we each got a full sized Cadbury Dairy Milk when we entered, so I really couldn't be too upset. It was interesting to see the packaging machinery, but because they weren't actually running there really wasn't much to see. There was, however, an interesting sign on the walls that featured a drawing of a man propelling from the ceiling with a diagonal line through it. No propelling from the ceiling? Damn, that's what I was planning on doing. Why would you need a sign that says that? Well, we were in Bourneville, so, the home of Jason Bourne, right? Well not really, but it was frequent joke between Caitlin and I (we love Matty D) during the trip.

After the packaging plant was the Abracadabra ride where we all sat in a little car moving through various scenes of personified cocoa beans. Yes, it was as weird as it sounds. To be honest, it was actually kinda creepy. Funny, but creepy. Especially since the little cocoa beans weren't even cute. Just creepy. As we exited the ride and entered the next room we were handed a small vial and spoon. It was filled with pure melted chocolate. Heavenly. This day just kept getting better and better. We walked through "Advertising Alley" which was interesting to me as an advertising student. The problem was that because I'm not British it wasn't as relevant because I didn't know the actors or the famous adverts. We don't really have Cadbury in the US, thus no Cadbury commercials.

I did learn, when I was at Cadbury World, that Cadbury owns a lot of other companies and makes candy other than chocolate. They make Britain's (sub-par) version of Sour Patch Kids and they also own Trident and Halls and some other confectionary enjoyed in the US. I also learned just how many chocolate products Cadbury makes when we got to the massive Cadbury store. I already ahd three free chocolate bars so I didn't really need any more but of course I bought more anyways! :) I bought a few different kinds to get a sampling: Freddo Frog, Fudge, Cadbury Caramel Dairy Milk and a massive Cadbury Oreo bar. This candy and a postcard only came out to about £2. It was awesome.

The last part of our chocolate adventure was Essense. This was where we learned all about how the secret recipe of Cadbury Dairy Milk through a strange little video. After the video we got to "concoct our own chocolate  combination." Basically, we got to choose one mix in (marshmallows, shortbread, white chocolate and about three other potions) and then they poured warm liquid chocolate on top. And it was free. So yeah, it was awesome and delicious and chocolaty. We sat at picnic table outside near a train engine to enjoy our chocolaty creations and reflect on how this was the best £10 we'd ever spent.

As we walked back to the train we learned all about how awesome it was to work for the Cadburys in the 1900s. They were actually a Quaker family and believed in positive working conditions, kindness and loyalty. They had sports ground and great facilities for workers and even baths for the girls to learn to swim. It was actually company policy to allow women to learn to swim on company time. All in all it sounds like a great place to work, like an olden times Google.

We got back to the Bourneville Station and returned to Birmingham not long after. We explored Birmingham a bit, went to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. As we walked to the museum Caitlin jokingly said "Maybe they'll have a Waterhouse painting," to Austy. John William Waterhouse is Austy's favorte artist. It was said in jest but there happened to be a travelling exhibit containing three massive Waterhouse paintings. Also cool was an exhibit about Birmingham's history on the top floor where it presented Birmingham to you as if you were arriving for the first time in the 1800s. It was a very cool way to learn about history. We didn't get to spend long there cause it was closing, but I wish we couldn't stayed longer. We had dinner at a pub and went on our merry way back to Oxford.

As we enjoyed our Cadbury chocolate on the train home I couldn't help but think my trademark "Best day ever!" Or rather, sweetest day ever. :)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Everybody Has Those Days

I don't think I've ever really had a Bad Day. Bad things have happened to me, yeah, but never all in one day to make it a capital-b Bad Day. And I never though my first would be here in Oxford. I mean, I usually describe my time here as the Best Day Ever. And I'm usually able to look on  the bright side of things, but the events of Friday definitely constituted a Bad Day.

It all started a few days before when my computer stared freaking out. It froze randomly and I had to restart it. This happened over and over again, interspersed with Kernal Panic. Sometimes after I turned it off, when I turned it back on again the screen would remain black and it would beep, once every five seconds. It eventually progressed to three beeps in a row every few seconds and I just knew this was not a good sign. So on Thursday I took it to an Apple Store  where they looked at it but couldn't find anything wrong without sending it out for a £78 diagnostic. (Side note: I miss HPU IT where they look at your computer for free!) To be fair, the guy who helped me was very helpful and nice and he did everything he could for me even though he wasn't charging me for this initial once over but since he wasn't especially technical there wasn't much more for him to do. I left dejected. Later that day I found a Mac Technician who would do the diagnostic for less than Apple so I made plans to go there the next day.

This brings us to Friday. That morning I turned by computer on and instead of the normal one or three beeps I had become used to, it beeped a pattern. Short short short, long long long, short short short. Yes, for those of you whio picked up on it, it was speaking Morse Code. And it said SOS. Not good. This should have given me an idea of what was to come that day.

So Caitlin and I boarded the U1 to try and find this place. We had to walk approximately 10 minutes from the bus stop. Part of the walk was along the Thames so it really wasn't that bad. We got to the road Mac Simple was supposed to be on and looked everywhere, walking up and down the street and couldn't find it anywhere. We eventually went into the Newsquest offices and asked the receptionist. She'd never heard of it but was really nice and offered to search it for us. She found it online and gave us directions that led us right there.

When we got to Mac Simple the man was really nice. When he asked what date it was, he said "Yesterday was Thanksgiving, right?" We were surprised that he knew that and he explained: "My wife is American. It's my job to know that." I left my MacBook in his capable hands and went back to the city centre for some shopping and then back to my flat.

I was in the computer lab working on some homework (and constantly typing @ sign instead of " because they are switch on the UK keyboards) when he called. "Bad news," he said, as he explained that my logic board was broken and it would cost over £700 to fix and thus I should just get a new computer. "I'm really sorry I couldn't give you better news," he said before he hung up the phone. And I genuinely believe he was. Sometimes he gets to be people's saviors and fix their computers when they think all hope is lost, and sometimes he has to take that hope away from people. And I just happened to be the second case. But it's not his fault.

I managed to keep my cool until I Skyped by parents and I broke down crying. My laptop was only two and a half years old and I was not prepared to buy a new one. Not only that, but I'm here for another 4 weeks and I'm not prepared to go without a laptop. But it's so much more expensive to buy one here (and I don't want a British keyboard) and shipping it over from the US would result in massive customs charges. I know Caitlin's parents worked it out that they were able to get a US MacBook shipped to the UK for what Caitlin thinks is the same price as the states, but I'm not sure.

I had to pick up my computer so I had to do the entire trek once more. The good news is that my hard drive is not damaged so my files can be saved, which is a relief. When I asked Tom from Mac Simple about it he said it would be quite easy, and that because I paid the diagnostic fee, he would be happy to do it for me for free if I brought my new computer to him. One snag: I won't ever have my new computer in Oxford. When I told him that he said that I could buy a hard drive case and he would take the hard drive out for me and explain to me how to transfer my files once I do get a new computer. I really appreciated this because he did not have to offer to do this for free. It was definitely above and beyond.

As I walked along the Thames back to the bus stop, I came across a houseboat that was entirely submerged under water. "At least my house boat didn't sink," I couldn't help but think. There's a bright side to everything I guess.

I needed to get home because I was making dinner and we had plans to leave the apartment at 5:35 to go into town. I got to the bus stop to learn that the next bus wasn't coming for another 20minutes because the stop is just outside the city centre and buses only come every 30 minutes. Buses come in the city centre every 15 and I saw on my bus schedule that there was a bus picking up at High Street in 15 minutes that would get me home 15 minutes earlier. So I decided to walk  the mile to the High Street stop, booking it the entire time. By the time I got there I was overheated in my peacoat and my feet really hurt because I was pushing it a bit. I got there with a minute or so to spare and I was pretty proud of myself. And then the bus didn't come. At all. And so, fifteen minutes later I found myself sitting on the bus that would have picked me up at the Osney Bridge stop had I just waited there. Of course this would happen to be. I was having a bad day.

While on the bus Austy texted me to ask if she could help me with dinner at all before I got home. I replied that she could shred some cheese if she wanted to, to which she replied "Mission accomplished" a minute later. She'd already shredded the cheese for me without me even asking her. She's the best. I got back to the flat and managed to make some delicious Quesadillas before we had to leave to catch the bus to the city centre.

We were going to see Out of the Blue, a male a capella group performing at the Oxford Light Night. I had been looking for it for weeks because I love a capella and all day all I could think was "At least I'll be seeing some a capella later." We got to the bus stop, and that bus came fifteen minutes late. And there was so much traffic in the city centre so it took us forever to get off the bus. So of course we missed Out of the Blue. This was the only thing that was going to salvage this terrible day, and we missed it. I pretty much just wanted to cry.

And then, to make matters worse, as we were walking I walked directly into a bench. It hurt so bad. My knee screamed and ached in pain: both the skin and the muscle felt like they were on fire and I had to walk with a bit of a limp. My knee still hurts now. Not to mention how embarrassing it is that I walked right into a bench. I mean, who does that|?

At this point I knew it was time for me to just go back to the flat and curl up in my bed watching Netflix on my tablet. I really just wanted that day to end. I know that everybody has bad days and that they are a part of life, but I hope I don't have to encounter one quite this anytime soon again. There were redeemable things in the day: almost all of the people who helped me were extremely nice and really did want to help, and my friends are pretty much amazing for putting up with me as I stressed about this all. And in the end that is what's most important, right? The people you surround yourself with? I think so.

Friday, November 23, 2012

A Very British Thanksgiving

Wednesday 21 November
Being across the pond from my family on Thanksgiving is difficult. I don't imagine my birthday being that weird over here, and it hasn't been that difficult being away for this semester but there's something about spending Thanksgiving apart that is so strange.

I guess it's because birthdays and other holidays are about other things and the family gathering is just a happy byproduct of celebrating the holiday, but Thanksgiving is all about the family getting together, at least for me. To me, Thanksgiving means giving thanks to God for all of the amazing people and opportunities He has presented you with, which I can definitely celebrate here, but it is also about celebrating as a family and seeing people that you may not see everyday. And of course it's also about the delicious food for dinner, the mountains of leftovers and my Grandma's noodle soup that I am obsessed with. But when it comes down to it, what I'm really missing is the family atmosphere of Thanksgiving. In a way I think that this is the most difficult holiday to be away from home for. I'd almost rather be away for Christmas but home for Thanksgiving.

And its weird being in a place that doesn't even know what Thanksgiving is. Tomorrow, I'm going to wake up and its going to be a special day for me, but when I go into Oxford for lunch it's just be any other day for everyone around. And that for me is quite strange. And then it gets me thinking, the people who landed in America and had that "friendly" dinner with the Native Americans were actually British settlers. So maybe they should join in on our celebration. It's an excuse to eat food and give thanks. What's not to love?

Although I have to say there is one plus to being in a country that doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving. Without Thanksgiving there can't be a pesky "No Christmas until Thanksgiving" rule so I've been jamming to Christmas music for a few weeks here. I can feel you all shaking your heads at me right now--especially you Katie!--but I just love Christmas music and there's nothing holding me back here. They've already started decorating for Christmas everywhere so why can't I start celebrating?
Anyway, Dr Schweitzer has organized a Thanksgiving Dinner for all of us High Point students tomorrow so at least we will have some sort of Thanksgiving celebration. This is super nice of the university and I'm pretty grateful because I am not much of a cook, so I don't think me helping to make a Flat Thanksgiving meal would end well.

Thursday 22 November
Just got back from our High Point Thanksgiving feast which was actually quite good. I wasn't really sure what top expect because our typical Thanksgiving food is very American. I mean it is an American holiday so it makes sense. For instance they don't really east pumpkins here. They actually find it quite strange that we do. And pumpkin pie I'd such a Thanksgiving staple so if it wasn't there it might make our break Thanksgiving for some people-- not me, because I don't eat pumpkin pie but a lot of people love it.

It was a really good meal with most of the staples: turkey, mashed potatoes, vegetables  sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce. And don't forget the gravy. At first I thought that they didn't have any gravy and I think my heart stopped a little bit. Obviously an exaggeration  but I seriously love gravy. I did find out that the gravy was hiding in a hot drink pitcher, so then my heart resumed its normal beating. 

It was actually pretty cool having a British catering company's attempt at an American Thanksgiving meal. Because things were largely the same but there were little differences. The pies were kind of different (they used tart apples I think) and British stuffing is actually quite different from American stuffing. Whereas American stuffing is usually made from bread cubes and stuffed into the turkey, British stuffing is made of very small bread crumbs and other herbs and is served shaped like a sphere. They're both different, but I think I like British stuffing a little bit more. 

It's been cool telling friends about Thanksgiving because they don't exactly understand. But our friend Beth actually texted wishing us a Happy Thanksgiving which was super nice of here and cool that we've been able to share a little bit of our culture with her since she's taught us so much about British culture. 

But yeah, it was quite weird celebrating Thanksgiving without my family, and unfortunately even though the meal was pretty much as authentic-American Thanksgiving as you can get it just didn't feel like Thanksgiving to me because my family wasn't there. But that can't be helped of course, so I just have to power on. 

It did get me thinking though about how thankful I am for my family and friends as well as all of the opportunities that I have had here in England. As cliche as it is, it really is a dream come true. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Stamm Family Takes on London

The second half of my time with my Mom and Dad was spent in London staying in a flat in Red Lion Square. I hadn't yet spend that much time in London so I was excited to explore the city with them. I arrive via the X90 Bus straight into the heart of London at Marble Arch. I bought an Oyster card because without an Oyster the Tube is so expensive (£4.30) and with an Oyster it is only about £2. The actual card only costs £5 which you can actually get back if you give back the card when you are done with it, so you really only need to take the Tube three times for the Oyster to pay for itself. And I knew that in the next few days I'd be using the Tube a lot so it seemed like a worthy investment. When I got into Marble Arch I took the Central Line to Holborn where I met my parents. It felt very strange to meet up with my parents in a big city in a foreign country--I felt very grown up and independent. And that's the point of studying abroad, isn't it?

We wanted to explore the Tower of London that day and decided to walk there by way of St Paul's Cathedral. It was absolutely beautiful--made of white stone with gorgeous marble steps leading into the church. We looked around the free portion of church and then opted not to pay to continue. Can I just say that it really annoys me that they charge admissions to churches. It's God's house. What right do we as humans have to charge people for them to enter. What kind of sanctuary is it if you have to pay? But I digress. Walking down the steps and looking around at all the people and the birds, Feed the Birds from the musical Mary Poppins popped into my head. You know the scene in the movie where the woman is sitting on the steps of St Pauls and feeding all of the birds which flock towards here. That is my nightmare. Just saying. Birds swooping down and invading really freaks me out.

After St. Paul's we walked along the Thames towards the Tower of London. When we had left the flat it was relatively nice out so I opted to just stick with my blazer. Bad idea. It got really cold. I knew that the temperature was supposed to drop about 10 degrees (in Farenheit of course) but I didn't think that the cold front was coming in until that night. I clearly thought wrong. And it was even colder when walking along the Thames because it's always colder near water. Regardless of the temperature, while we walked down the river, we took in the beautiful sights and architecture that London had to offer us. Whilst doing so we noticed a strange building. At first we thought it was just so tall that the top was blocked by the fog and clouds, but after a few moments we found that the fog wasn't actually blocking anything--there wasn't any top to the building! So we figured, they just must not have finished it yet. Nope. It's called the Shard and has an open air observation deck at the top. Made entirely of glass, it is the tallest completed building in Europe! And it seemed that everywhere we went, we could see this building. Must be because it's so tall.

We finally made it to the Tower of London where we collected our tickets and headed in. It was actually a lot of fun--I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. We went on a Yaoman Warder guided tour where a Beefeater told us all about the history and importance of th eTower of London. Our guide was absolutely hilarious. He made a lot of jokes about Americans, especially about how we chose to leave England and it our own fault that we're missing out on everything Great Britain has to offer.
Yaoman Warder: "If you're from Great Britain on the count of three give me a Yahoo! One, two, three..."
Britons: "Yahoo!"
Yaoman Warder: "If you're from Canada or Australia or the Caribbean or pretty much any European country, you were once part of the British Empire. So, on the count of three you too give me a Yahoo. One, two, three..."
Nearly Everyone: "Yahoo!"
Yaoman Warder: "And if you're American, well you were once part of the British Empire, but you made the wrong decision and chose to leave didn't you? Your loss. So you all can just give me a YeeHaw. One, two, three..."
American: "Yeehaw!"
And he was full of gems like this. He pretty much took the piss out of us Americans every opportunity he got.  But it was all in good fun (hopefully) and was really quite funny. During the tour in addition to laughing, we learned all about the gory executions at the Tower of London and the sad stories of death and deceit. We were also able to see the Crown Jewels which, obviously, were breathtaking.

Also, in case you were wondering, which I'm sure you were, the Tower of London bathrooms have won a number of Loo of the Year awards. They had signs that said this all over the walls of the loo. Kind of a strange award to receive, but something to be proud of, I suppose. Although if I'm being completely honest I didn't really think the loo was really even that clean. But maybe they were having an off day?

After we were done at the Tower of London we stopped at a pub called "Hung, Drawn and Quartered" to warm up because at this point I was freezing to the bone. We had some drinks and a light lunch to tide us over until dinner. Can I just say that my parents were not very hip to the idea of having to go to the bar to order food at pubs. I kinda think it's efficient but they were not fans. After our snack we headed back to our flat to get ready for dinner.

We headed to Covent Garden for dinner which is a really cool area in the Theatre District where there is a market and a bunch of stores and a ton of restaurants. We ended up having Thai food, which I'd never had before, and I actually quite enjoyed it. Granted, I got the safest dish possible--Mom and I split some fried rice and Pad Thai--but I was still proud of myself for eating a type of food I'd never tried before. And Maureen's meal had Coconut Ice Cream for dessert that she didn't want that she gave to me and it was so good. I find it really interesting that Thai food frequently has coconut in it. I'm not sure why, but it really surprises me.

The next day we saw the Changing of the Guard and this time was a lot more enjoyable than last time. This time we started at St James Palace and watched the New Guard march out and followed them to Buckingham Palace. This was better for me because this time I could actually see them! We then watched the ceremony from the circle instead of right in front of the gates. My Dad actualyl saw a car that we are pretty sure was carrying the queen because of the hat she was wearing and generally the entire situation. We know that Queen Elizabeth left during the ceremony because they changed the flag from the Royal Standard (indicating she is in the palace) to the Union Jack. So that was pretty cool. Also, interestingly there was a man from CBS Sports filming the Changing of the Guard to use as "setting the scene" footage for the NFL game being played in London's Wembley Arena that weekend.

Already in the area, we walked down to Parliament and Big Ben as well as Westminster Abbey (which we didn't go in because you shouldn't have to pay to enter a church). We took tons of pictures, got a bite to eat and then headed back to the flat to get ready for the West End show my Mom and Dad and I were seeing. I've already devoted an entire blog post to this, so I won't go into it again.

On Sunday, Mom, Maureen and I decided to go to Notting Hill to explore Portobello Market. I have to say I was let down by Portobello Market. I had heard such great things abut it and in the end it was just way too big to even enjoy because you want to see everything and there were tons of people there. Everywhere you stepped you ran into another person and every time you wanted to look at a booth there was at least one head in the way. So it just didn't do much for, but I did get an awesome Union Jack scarf that my mom bartered down from £6 to £4 (I can't barter to save my life, I get too uncomfortable feeling). After that we went to the equally as crowded and extremely expensive Harrods because you have to go to Harrods at least once in your life once. I'm glad I got that experience out of the way because unless I wake up tomorrow as an heiress, I don't think I really need to go there again.

We had an excellent meal nearby to Harrods where Maureen got Chicken and Mushroom Pie and Mom got Steak and Ale Pie (and I got a Jacket Potato  surprise surprise). They were quite pleased with their very British meal choices. And then that evening we had Korean food (another first for me) which didn't really excite me, but the restaurant was really cool.

By the time the weekend was over I had seen, tried and experienced so many new things. I also learned how to use the Tube and now I'm pretty much a pro at it. I can walk into the Tube station like a woman on a mission and get down the escalator and onto the proper platform without faltering once. Maybe I am cut out of city life? Nah, I don't think so. But it was a lot of fun to explore new places with my parents, but also help them out with knowledge that I have acquired here, like why everyone was wearing poppies, the way pubs work and the money. Speaking of, they just loved to make fun of me every time I said fiver or quid. I'm pretty sure John jokingly said "Oh you know, just a few quid and a fiver" about three or four times that weekend. But I figure, at least they're making fun of me for something I know, not something I don't know. It was all in good fun and it was a great weekend!

Monday, November 19, 2012

English Charm

On the Sunday of my parent's first weekend here, the plan was to spend the evening in the Cotwolds. Before heading up to the Cotwolds my parents wanted to go to Bath to see... well, obviously, the Roman Baths! I wasn't especially excited about this because I'd already been to see the Roman Baths--maybe I'll post about that another time--and I wasn't especially thrilled by it. I thought that the idea behind the Roman Baths was fascinating--water that heats itself and comes from deep deep in the ground--but after seeing it for a moment I was pretty much done. And that sort of museum just doesn't interest me. But obviously if my parents wanted to go I wanted them to go, they did come all the way to England after all. I just figured I'd go to Bath with them and just find a coffeeshop to go and sit in an blog or read, especially since I didn't want them to have to pay for me to go into a museum in which I had no interest. And that was all well and good until I looked at a map.

If you look at a Google Maps of Oxford, Bath and Winchcombe (our final destination for the night) you'll see what I mean. Bath is southwest of Oxford and Winchcombe is northeast. "Bath isn't even on the way to our final destination!" I thought. "Why would we drive down and then back up again?" Well, I knew why: because they wanted to go to Bath. But I didn't. For a split second I though about how easy it would be for them to go to Bath without me and then pick me up in Oxford on the way to Winchcombe. But of course I wouldn't actually ask them to do that. They were here to spend time with me, after all.

And boy was I glad I went. A few miles from Bath is a small town called Castle Combe. It is unofficially called "The Prettiest Village in England." And I would say this is a completely true description. Castle Combe was a quintessential English town--cobbled streets, beautiful houses and a small stream running through it. This was the type of town I'd been wanted to see since I've been in England. And here I was, dreading the drive down to Bath. I took so many pictures while in Castle Combe because it was the most adorable, quaint and picturesque little town. I've only posted one for you all to see now because soon I'll be created a photo essay using the pictures I took while there so you'll have to wait for that.

And not only is the architecture and gardening quaint  so are the actions of this town and the way they operate. Inside the town church is a handmade display of pictures from when War Horse was filmed in this town. The village is so proud in their involvement in this film and want to share it with others. Also inside the church, they sell Castle Combe postcards and prints by way of honor. There's a box to put your money in ,and they're trusting that we will hold up our end of the deal. This system of trust isn't just limited to the church. In the town square there is a little table selling baked good and sweets. There is a small sign that says "slip the money through the mail slot". There isn't a person around watching the table; it is entirely based upon the trust. This is something you only really see in small towns.

After that we headed on to Bath, where my parents visited the Roman Baths museum and I found a coffeeshop to sit and write in. Interestingly, while in Bath I saw a street performer duo that we listened to last time I was in Bath. They had a better location this time, so they must be moving up in the world.

About two hours later we were back on the road to Winchcombe, our destination the "White Hart Inn," an inn recommended by a family friend. And they did not lead us astray. Our evening at the White Hart was one of my favorite parts of my time with my parents. We drove into Winchcombe and their High Street was nothing like Oxford's as this is a much smaller town. As we drove in I was thinking about what a cute town it was and marveling at how small it was. I later learned. however, that Winchcombe is actually larger than my hometown in Maryland. Oh.  We brought our bags to our room on the top floor and headed down to the bar to wait for our table to become ready at the restaurant connected with the inn.

My meal at the Wine and Sausage restaurant was one of the best I've had in England but it was a bit of a rocky road. I ordered break and they were out of rolls so all I got were some random pieces of toast. Although they did discount it to 50p, so that was good I guess. Looking at the I decided a wanted the chicken wrapped in bacon. Doesn't that sound super unhealthy yet super delicious? I ordered and was getting excited when our waitress came out to inform me that they were out of chick. Wait, what? Of all of the things to be out of, chicken? Disappointed, I ordered something else, but suddenly wasn't very hungry at all. It turned out I was lucky they were out of chicken. My salmon dish was amazing. The salmon flaked perfectly with my fork and melted in my mouth. The cream sauce complimented the salmon ad asparagus perfectly and the mashed potatoes... well I just love mashed potatoes. We stayed at our table for a long time, enjoying the atmosphere and the fire in the room. It was an all-around enjoyable experience.

John, my dad's best friend who, with his wife, joined by parents on this tip, is a very outgoing person. A more introverted person, this worked to my advantage. After dinner, we went back to the bar for after-dinner drinks (I had a Bailey's Irish Cream) and John, as usually was engaged in a conversation. We stayed downstairs for a while talking to the manager Darren and our waitress Lizzie. Lizzie was interested in studying abroad in America so we talked about that and when her sister and her friends arrived to walk home with her, we had a long conversation about the difference between American and English universities. It was really interesting and a lot of fun and I would have never found myself in that conversation if it wasn't for John's outgoing nature.

The next morning we were up early so that my parents could drive to the coast to take a train to France. Breakfast was included and we're not talking a dinky continental breakfast. This was a real hearty breakfast and I had an omelette. As we ate, we watched the owner of the hardware store across the street bring what appeared to be his entire store outside for his sidewalk display. Throughout the course of our breakfast, he managed to get the entire thing set up in the rain. It was quite impressive.

All in all my trip to Castle Combe, Bath and Winchcombe was a lot of fun and definitely not what I was expected. It certainly exceeded my expectations.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

"I'm On Top of the World"

Best. Night. Ever. 

Okay, I'll admit, I say that a lot here. I can't help that everything I do is so amazing that it deserves the distinction of best day or night ever.
Austy says that by giving everything that distinction I'm making it mean less, which might be true, but I can't help it. I am have so much fun abroad and it seems like every day tops the last and things just get better and better.

The event in question in this blog is a concert by a band called Imagine Dragons. Now, I'd never heard of Imagine Dragons (other than their song "It's Time" that was covered on Glee) until a few months ago when Libby said "This band I like called Imagine Dragons is playing at some random pub in Oxford for £5. Want to go?" I love music and it was only five pounds, so of course I said yes. Caitlin and Austin ended up agreeing to go as well, and we all decided we should probably listen to some of their music first to see what we were getting ourselves into.

Good news, we listened to their album on Spotify, and I fell in love. Every single song on their album "Night Visions" is amazing. Usually bands have one or two dud songs on LPs, but not Imagine Dragons; every song is gold. So needless to say, I was getting pretty excited.

And the situation just kept getting better and better. The show as moved to the O2 Academy, a better concert venue and a much more convenient location, and the class we have on Wednesdays was cancelled so we didn't have to worry about getting to the concert on time. It was shaping up to be a really great experience.

And it didn't disappoint. Of course there was the opening band to get through (not exceptionally good but not terrible) and the awkward waiting where everyone wants to save their spot in the crowd, but there's nothing to see yet, but that expected at pretty much every concert, so I won't penalize the night for that.

As we stood and waited, talking amongst ourselves, a girl approached us and asked "Are you guys American" we replied that we were and talked about where we were from and why we were in England. Their motives for asking us soon became clear "Yeah we're from Utah. Imagine Dragons actually went to our school. Isn't that so cool?" They wanted to tell someone about their connection to the band, and opening the conversation by talking about what we have in common--America--sounded like a good idea.

You could tell that they were pretty pleased with themselves that they were from some of the band members' school, and it is cool, but they also gave off the vibe that they were better than everyone else because of it. They asked us if we were fans and spoke high and mightily about "how good they are in concert". Libby heard them later remark to one another about the crowd: "Do you think most of these people even know who they are". As a fan, they should be pleased that so many people showed up, and even if they don't know the band, they should be pleased that they're gaining new fans. I really don't like holier than thou "we knew them before they were famous" fans.

Side note: at one point during the show they were all chanting "BYU! BYU!" to try and get their attention (I'm assuming that's the school they all go to in Utah) and Imagine Dragons just replied "We love you more," obviously thinking they said "We love you! We love you!" I did feel a little bit bad for them that this didn't work out, no matter how annoyed I was with them.

As we waited for the show to start, this massive group of Americans next to us just got more and more annoying. I get that they were excited, but they were jumping around and acting ridiculous and the show hadn't even started yet. Let me clarify: the show hadn't started yet and I was already getting elbowed in the ribs by the girl next to me. Not okay.

Finally, Imagine Dragons were preparing to come on. Now, as I'm short, I can't see much of the stage, but I did see a massive drum on one side of the microphone, and a smaller drum on the other side. I have to say, I'd never seen this in a concert before. "Is the lead singer a drummer?" I asked Libby. She didn't think so, at least not primarily. And when Dan Reynolds, the singer came out with his earpiece and wire taped to his face so they wouldn't fall out, I knew this was going to be a really good concert.

They didn't muddle up the concert with a lot of talking, but when the lead singer Dan Reynolds did talk, it just made me love the band even more.
"This is a new shirt" he announced to the crowd. "I don't think I've bought a new shirt in months, but I really wanted to impress you." So adorably awkward.
"I can't remember where I got it," he continued.
"Primark!" Some people in the crowd shouted, laughing.
"I don't know what that is, is that a really bad place to shop?" Dan replied. "I think it was somewhere like... Saints?"
"AllSaints!" the crowd shouted, seemingly pleased with his shopping choice.
"Your fashion is so much better here than in the States," he said, met with cheers of agreement. "We're just a little behind. Give us some time and America will catch up." 
At one point he looked out into the crowd and smiled, an amazed look on his face.
"Can I make a confession? We've been wanting to come here for a long time." Cheers from the crowd. "And when we planned this European tour, I thought maybe like, 5 people would show up.  I didn't know you knew us over here. This is amazing. Thank you."
And the music. The music was amazing.  Standing a few rows of people back from the stage, situated left of center, we were right near one of the main speakers. It was so loud. I could feel myself loosing hearing in my left ear.  The bass was pumping in my heart. It was everything you want a concert to be, and more.

And let me tell you, it's a good thing his earpiece was taped to his ear. If it wasn't it probably would have fallen out during the first song with how much this guy jumps around when he performs. You could tell he was truly feeling the music he was singing. It was a part of him and he was a part of it. And this is what made it an amazing concert.

Sometimes when you go to concerts they are fun, but it's almost like just listening to the cd, or unfortunately a less talented version of the songs on the album. Imagine Dragons are not afflicted with this problem. They didn't perform the songs as they're recorded in the studio, they performed them how they would sound best live. He engaged the audience to sing along at key points in the songs and his energy gave the crowd energy. The drums on either side of the lead singer were used throughout the concert as he played them to create a musical experience that got the whole crowd into the music.

My favorite song of the night was one of the first ones played called Radioactive. Here's a video of the song being performed live. This isn't my video, and it's not from last night but their performance style is pretty much the same as the way it was sung last night. Enjoy!

As the concert was coming to a close, the lead singer said "We have just a few more songs left in our set, but we have some good news" to which someone from the audience replied "you're doing them all again?" This got some laughs and I realized that if they did perform them all again I would have loved it. Sometimes at concerts by the time it is over you're ready for it--you've heard the songs you wanted to hear and your feet hurt. Yes my feet hurt and I heard pretty much every song I knew, but I wouldn't have minded them doing the same songs over again. If Libby had said to me "Amy, Imagine Dragons are performing here again tomorrow, I would be there in a heartbeat. That's how amazing this show was. The good news was that they are touring in Europe again in April, and this doesn't really help me, but I think they're planning another American tour, and I'm sure I'll be there when they do. 

As we walked to the bus after the show that the way I was feeling could be described using lyrics to an Imagine Dragons song: 

"Now take it in but don't look down, Cause I'm on top of the world."

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Stay Left

A foggy English morning, an extremely narrow, winding road and the sight of headlights approaching.  

I wish you the best of luck driving in Britain. 

The weekend my parents visited they rented a car so I was able to experience novice driving in England. Not to say that my dad or our family friend John (also here, with his wife) are novice drivers, because they're not, but add in the fact that we have to drive on a different side of the road, that the drivers seats is on a different side of the car and that the roads here are unfamiliar and extremely confusing and you have an interesting experience.

Before this weekend, I don't think I'd been in a car since Peter drove us to our flat the day I arrived in the UK, a month and a half ago. This past month or so I've only really ridden in buses and coaches, driven by experienced English drivers. So riding in the car with my American family driving was a little bit stressful. And slightly scary.

Stay Left. It kind of became a thing to frequently remind whoever was driving to stay left. Not that anyone really ended up in the right lane instead of the left, but it can get confusing when turning onto a road and it's helpful to be reminded that you need to end up in the correct lane. It's also weird because in the US, the easy turn to make is the right turn, and for a left turn you have to wait longer because of oncoming traffic, so I always love it when I have to turn right. Here, it is the exact opposite and we were hoping for left turns.

Wrong Turns. Anytime you drive in a new area, you're bound to make wrong turns, but here, without a GPS or maps on my Mom's iPhone (service was pretty spotty when not in a city) we made quite a few wrong turns. Sometimes because we didn't really know where we were going and sometime because we missed signs pointing in certain directions. In one instance we were accidentally heading towards South Wales, but luckily we were able to turn around. But sometimes it's confusing here as to how to go in the right direction after you've made a wrong turn because exits from motorways don't work in quite the same way.

Roundabouts. Then you have roundabouts. Geeze, they love roundabouts here. Seriously, they're everywhere. We sort of developed the idea to go around the roundabout at least once before exiting to get our bearings. But did we ever really do this. Nope. Should we have? Definitely  There were multiple occasions in which we exited at the wrong point in the circle and had to backtrack. Actually though, we did go around twice on one occasion and if we hadn't we probably would have driven 5 miles in the wrong direction.

No Stopping
Street Signs. We still don't know what half the street signs we saw these past few days mean. We only discovered what this sign meant 5 minutes before they dropped me off in Oxford. We literally saw this sign everywhere this weekend, and didn't seem like these places had much in common. Because they were so frequent, we knew it didn't mean "don't drive here" but we didn't know exactly what it was telling me we couldn't do. Apparently it means no stopping. Huh, didn't know stopping was signified by the color blue.

Leaving Motorway
Another sign we saw a lot was this one. I'm going to be real with you, the first time I saw it all I could think was "no printing". It looks like a printer to me! And then I thought maybe it had something to do with a bridge, like "no driving over this bridge". But then either a.) there was no bridge, or b.) everyone else was driving over it, so it must be okay. What we were eventually able to surmise that it means that you were leaving the motorway. We only discovered this because we saw the image without the red line indicating motorway. But seriously, that wouldn't be the symbol I would use. Just saying.

There are so many signs that will confuse you and some you'll just disregard out of frustration  But if you would like to learn about English road signs before travelling over here, or just for the hell of it, you can consult this helpful guide to UK Road Signs.

Allow Extra Time. All in all, I would recommend allowing a good deal of extra time when driving in the UK, especially if you've never been somewhere before. What seems like it should be easy can turn complicated in the blink of an eye, so don't risk it. I don't even want to talk about the drive to Tesco on Saturday: let's just say it took way longer than it should have taken. We could see it from the motorway, just couldn't figure out how to get there. Can you say frustrating?

Yes, I'd say that's a common descriptor of driving in England, or a new place in general: frustrating  But at least it was an adventure.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Celebrity Encounters of the West End Kind

A few weeks ago I got to meet Matthew Lewis from Harry Potter and Arthur Darvill from Doctor Who. And it was amazing. And really it was all the result of a few decisions that could have easily gone another way. Which of course, I need to explain, so you'll have to wait until near the end to read about my celebrity encounters of the West End kind. 

My mom and I had planned to see a show on the West End from the beginning of my parents trip planning because of my long standing interest in theatre. Ideally, we would have like to see Les Miserables since we saw the US National Tour at the Kennedy Center in DC two years ago and fell in love with it. However, as Les Miserables is a seminal show and currently only playing on the West End in London (no longer showing on Broadway in New York) Les Mis tickets are hard to find and rather expensive if you can find them. Because of this and the the fact that there is an upcoming Les Mis movie to be released in a few months, we determined that we didn't want to pay a lot to see it. 

Because of this, we had to decide what show to see. We decided to go to the TKTS booth in Leicester understanding that we probably wouldn't get Les Mis tickets. It didn't really matter anyway because it was sold out and we had to decide what we wanted to see. Mom had never seen Phantom of the Opera and that really is a classic, but I had seen it on Broadway a few years ago and wasn't especially thrilled by the stage show so I didn't especially want to see it again. We really didn't know what we wanted to see.

A few weeks ago when I was in London I'd seen a poster in a Tube station for the show "Our Boys". It caught my eye because the poster featured Matthew Lewis of Harry Potter fame (Neville Longbottom) and Arthur Darvill from Doctor Who (Rory Williams) two actors whom I admire. When I first saw the poster I had no idea what it was about other than the fact that the characters are army-related given their fatigues in the poster. After I got home I searched it and discovered that it's a comedy about a group of patients in a military hospital.

So when we were at the TKTS booth and found that the tickets were £30 (down from £45) and were very good seats, I told my mother about it. We didn't know much about the show, only what was on the blurb from the pamphlet at the ticket booth:
"This searingly honest and explosively funny play is based on the author's own army experience. Six young soldiers are killing nothing but time as tehy recover from injuries incurred in the line of duty. Suddenly, the joshing banter and easy camaraderie of this unlikely band of brothers is jeopardised. A dangerous incident and an act of betrayal result in charges of misconduct looming--and as accusations fly, the fighting really starts.  
Fired by anger at the neglect of our wounded heroes and set in 1980s Britain, Our Boys remains as relevant now as it was in 1993, when it won a Best New Play award for its premiere production. This West End revival comes from the creative team behind the international hit Journey's End."
We knew that seeing "Our Boys" would be a risk because we didn't really know much about it other than the basic plot and the fact that it'd gotten good reviews. From the description and its acclaims, it was clear that it was going to be a good show, but whether or not we enjoyed it is a different story. But we decided to take the chance.

And because it was a play not a musical, it was a comedy and if focuses on boys in the military we called my dad to see if he wanted to join us (he went to a military school for uni) He said he would be willing to give it a shot, which made me happy but also a little anxious because it put more pressure on myself since I'm the one who chose it, so we bought three tickets. I was pretty nervous that the show wouldn't be interesting and it would be all my fault (I tend to put way too much responsibility/pressure on myself in this type of situation).

In the end it was a really good decision and we had a really nice evening. My mom, dad and I all dressed up (I opted for boots instead of heels because it had gotten really cold in London that weekend). We took the Tube to Covent Garden and had dinner near the Duchess Theatre where the show is performed. There were at least three other theatres in the area--those for Lion King, Shrek and Mamma Mia--so the Italian restaurant at which we ate had a distinct pre-theatre crowd. Our show did't begin until 7:45 (a quite random time and the latest of the four shows in the area) so even though it was packed when we arrived, by the time we left nearly the entire bottom floor of the restaurant was empty.

We got to the theatre in plenty of time to buy a program and get our seats. When we got there we discovered that the Duchess is actually quite a small theatre by West End standards: less than 500 seats. Our seats were in the 10th row, eye level with the stage. I had never been in a professional theatre of this size so it was pretty cool. A glance at the £3 program told me that the six faces on the "Our Boys" poster are actually the only six actors in the cast. I was excited because we were in a small theatre with a small cast and only one set (a hospital room at the Queen Elizabeth Military Hospital and interestingly whenever techs had to come on stage to change the set around or exchange props they were dressed like military doctors; it was a nice touch). I knew that we were in for something special.

The show started on time and for the first twenty minutes or so I was pretty nervous about what I'd gotten myself into. For those of you who don't know, I really do not like potty humor and although I can stand them, I'm not a huge fan of dirty jokes. And the first twenty minutes were filled with a lot of this kind of humor. I was expecting it: it is a show about six injured men stuck in a military hospital and lots of rules and no women after all, so you can imagine what they talked about. Add in the fact that Mick (Matthew Lewis) had just had a circumcision and you can guess that there were a lot of sex jokes. They were quite funny, but I felt some pushed the line, especially with my mom and dad beside me and twenty minutes in I was afraid that this was going to be the entire show. But never fear, after they'd established the reparte of this group of five young men--Mick, Parry (Arthur Darvill), Joe (Laurence Fox), Keith (Cian Barry) and Ian (Lewis Reeves)-- they were able to get on with the development of the story: that Potential Officer Menzies (Jolyon Coy), their new roommate doesn't quite fit in.

One hilarious scene is the end of Act One when the group is playing Beer Hunter, a Russian Roulette type game where one person shakes up a number of beers and mixes them all up. The players then have to pick a can, hold it up next to their head and open it, hoping to just hear the click of the can, but sometimes instead getting sprayed with beer. Combine this plot point with the reparte of the group and some hilarious impressions and you get an unforgettable scene.

What I did find strange about this show was that it had a very slow plot development. The interactions between characters during the first act are hilarious and entertaining but as I watched, I couldn't rightly tell you what this show was actually about other than these five guys hanging out and a sixth guy showing up and kind of crashing their group. By today's standards this would be the set up not the actual plot. It's not until the end of Act I, over an hour in, does a major plot point actually occur. The second act, following an accident in which one of the boys is injured when they are drinking (against the rules) details the investigation of just what happened when Keith was injured and what the circumstances behind it were. Tensions are high as they all face punishment and even expulsion from their respective branches of the military.

The show takes a really dark turn, so different from its hilarious beginnings, at the end when the true nature of some of the characters come to light, people are injured and some even die. It was such an abrupt change in tone that when it ended I felt left in a lurch. But I suppose that was the point. That war can have a terrible effect on people beyond just the physical injuries. And not everything turns out well and good after an injury in the line of duty, even if one physically heals. The show really got me thinking, and I would definitely recommend it. I'd like to see it again even if just to pick up on the intricacies that I missed the first time round.

And the excitement of the night didn't end there. While in the theatre I had looked up the location of the stage door and found a very vague description so didn't plan to pursue it. We exited the theatre and took some picture in front of the theatre and then planned to head home. The prospect of missing out on the stage door was just too much for me though, so I asked my parents if we could just do a lap around the block to see if we could find the stage door. So, exiting the theatre and turning left, we walked all the way around the block and couldn't seem to find it. We turned the corner onto the street the theatre's entrance is and there it was, right in front of me. It was directly to the right of the main entrance.

Because it’s such a small theatre the crowd wasn’t too big and it wasn’t long before actors came streaming out. Cian Barry, Lewis Reeves and Jolyon Coy came out first and I got the first two's autographs on my program. I feel like meeting and getting autographs from actors can be awkward because there really isn't much to say that they haven't heard already. Yes, I could echo what everyone else was saying: "Really good job" or "I loved the show" but that's not very original is it? I did have a short exchange with Cian Barry though, along these lines:
Me: Really good job. The Duchess was the perfect place for this show. I loved that it was just the six of you on such a small stage. It made for a performance that was more...
Cian: ...intimate, yeah, I know what you mean. And that's pretty unusual for a West End production.
Me: Exactly! I loved that about the show.
Then we waited another moment or two until Matt Lewis came out.  I could feel my heartbeat increase with excitement. We were having trouble with my camera and I was afraid the picture wouldn't come out (and you can't really ask to have another go if you mess up) but luckily there weren't an technological difficulties and I was able to get a picture with Neville Longbottom as well as his autograph. My mom kept remarking on how "Neville" his smile was.

Next out was Laurence Fox, who is actually quite famous as well for his work on the television show Lewis and his marriage to Billie Piper (a successful British actress) so there were people rushing to meet him as well, so I didn't bother. Especially since he came out smoking a cigarette, which really turned me off from wanting to get his autograph. I mean really, you're about to sign a bunch of programs and  take loads of pictures, you couldn't smoke before you came out or wait a few minutes and do so on your walk home. (In the end though, I'm kind of disappointed I didn't get to meet him because I've since become a fan of his work Lewis as well as his music. But I couldn't have known that at the time, could I?)

Out last was the person who I was most anxious to meet: Arthur Darvill (I'm a bit obsessed with Doctor Who, which you'll hear about soon when I post about my trip to Cardiff).   He came out and was signing autographs right in front of the door so I was making my way forward to ensure that I got a chance to get an autograph and a picture. About a minute it, a man (presumably his manager, bodyguard, assistant or something like that) came out and spoke quietly to Arthur and put his hand on his back as though he was going to lead him away. My heartbeat increased. No! He can't leave yet. Luckily, Arthur said "Go on, I'll meet you all at the pub" and the man left. Phew. As it became my turn, my knees were shaking from nervous excitement. Arthur was standing on a ledge and as I stepped up to take a picture, being the clumsy Amy that I am, my foot slipped and I stepped on his toes. Of course. It wouldn't be me if I didn't. I apologize and made some comment about how we wouldn't want what happened in the show to happen in real life (his character's toes were amputated) and he laughed it off. And at least I have a small story to tell about it, right?

Afterwords I was giddy with excitement. I couldn't believe that I had met Arthur Darvill and Matt Lewis. My dad said that when we first got to the stage door he noticed a woman and two girls who were freaking out about meeting someone and he laughed good naturedly at them. He then turned around and realized I was acting in the same way! (I think I might have embarrassed him a little!)

In the end I am so glad that we made the decision we did to go see this show. It ended up being really good and its a show I couldn't see anywhere else at any other time than here and now. It is only playing on the West End, for only three months so it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience this show in that intimate theatre with that band of actors who thrive off each others energy. And I got to meet two of my favorite actors. So I'd say yeah, good choice.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

New Places and Familiar Faces

This past week we have gone to a number of places that we've never been to before. Because we cook so many of our meals in our flat to save money, we haven't spent much time exploring the pubs and other restaurants and places to see in Oxford. And I'm determined to change that.

On Tuesday we decided to go out for dinner because Libby, who usually makes dinner on Tuesdays was unable to that night. So, after class we got onto the U1 to head towards the City Centre, no clue where we were going.

We decided to get off at St. Clements instead of heading all the way into the City because there are a number of restaurants and pubs in this area. We'd heard from friends that Port Mahon was a really cozy quintessential British pub, so we decided to try there.

When we walked in the first thing I noticed was the smell. I can't entirely explain it, but it smelled a little bit like stale beer with a mix of something unidentifiable. It did look pretty cozy though, with a fireplace and cushioned benches for seats. On the tables were lit candles sticking out of wine bottled that seemed precariously perched on the tables. I was afraid that with one wrong move it would crash to the ground and the pub, built pretty much entirely of wood, would not fare well. There didn't seem to be any seats available though, so we went down the stairs to what looked a little more like a typical American bar. There were high tables with typical bar stools and it looked more modern than the upstairs. Port Mahon advertises that they get Sky Sports so it would be my guess that this is where people gather to watch football matches.

And then we experienced the awkward situation that frequently occurs when we go new places. How do we order? Is there a menu? Where is my table number and will I need it when I order?  These are all questions that frequently course through my head whenever I eat somewhere I've never eaten before. The answers: order at the bar, the menu is written on a chalkboard, and I never quite got the answer to the third because our time at Port Mahon was shortlived. I'm a pretty picky eater, as y'all probably know, and there just didn't seem to anything I would eat on the menu. I can usually find something, but Port Mahon, which I think is primarily a gathering place as opposed to a food that primarily serves food, only had five main dishes.  They change depending on what ingredients they can get. So the menu just didn't seem to be in my favor on Tuesday. After consulting with Caitlin and Austin to make sure it was okay, we decided to leave and try out another pub.

Our next stop was the Angel and Greyhound, a pub that Caitlin and I have actually talked about going to for a while. We first became fascinated by it because of the messages frequently written on the chalkboard outside the pub to entice people to come in. My favorites: "The only pub in Oxford Inspector Morse DIDN'T go to" and "William Shakespeare, Inspector Morse, JRR Tolkien and Bill Clinton never came here, but YOU can." I quite enjoyed their comical marketing techniques and they succeeded in making we want to go in a have a bite.

Going in, I knew that the Angel and Greyhound was a good choice. It was cozy, but in a different way than Port Mahon. Where Port Mahon was cramped and cluttered, Angel and Greyhound was spacious and warm. It's the kind of pub I can see myself hanging out in. There were tables meant for eating, tables meant for just hanging out with friends, a pool table, an outdoor eating area and it was all arranged in a classy way. It wasn't gimmicky and it appeared to cater to a more sophisticated or professional audience without feeling uppity or fancy.

Caitlin, Austin and I all had hot filled baguettes which were really delicious. Like an open faced sandwich but with a baguette for the bread I had bacon and cheese on mine, Caitlin had vegetables and cheese and Austin had sausage and onions. We all enjoyed our meals; they were affordable and the atmosphere was really nice. Our eating out adventure, though off to a bit of a rocky start, ended up to be a success.

On Thursday we made plans to hang out with our friend Beth. We usually hang out in one of our flats but this time we decided to go out for drinks. We started the evening at the White Horse, a family oriented pub walking distance from our flat. Though not much of a drinker, I had the drink that I frequently have when we go to the White Horse: the Blue Lagoon. Made with Blueberry Smirnoff, Blue Curacao and Schweppes Lemonade (a soft drink similar to Sprite) it is extremely blue and tastes like candy. So I think it's clear why I like it.

I like that here in England you can go out and casually have drinks when in college. We frequently talk to Beth, who is from Southern England, about the differences in drinking cultures between here and America. Whereas in America college students primarily just drink to get drunk, in Great Britain it's much more casual. People go out for drinks not to get buzzed but just to enjoy the taste and spend time with friends. This is much more my speed.

While at White Horse Beth also buys a J20 Glitterberry for us all to try. Sold only in the winter, Glitterberry is a nonalcoholic drink that tastes of cherry and grape and contains real (edible) glitter. Seriously. It is the coolest thing ever. The drink sparkles and is pretty much beautiful. It's not everyday you drink glitter.

Libby and Beth excited to be at the very front of the bus.
After the White Horse we talked about going down to the Half Moon in St Clements where they have open mic nights on Thursday. When we went in, however, we found that it was extremely small and there wasn't anywhere to sit, or even to stand and have drinks. And it didn't appear that people were planning on leaving anytime soon. Because the current act was just a man playing guitar and not especially compelling, we decided to head down to the Angel and Greyhound since Beth had never been there and it's just down the street.

The sign out front on Thursday said "Help the Greeks, try our olives." Seriously, these signs crack me up. And Beth actually did support the Greeks, ordering a small dish of olives. Caitlin, Libby and I had Rekordorlig Winter cider. Rekordorlig is a Swedish cider company and in the UK cider refers to a hard drink made from apples and other fruits. Their Winter Cider tasted like apple with a hint of vanilla and cinnamon, and Angel and Greyhound serves it warm. It was the perfect to drink in the fall and winter, which ended up working in our favor because there weren't any seats inside and we had to sit outside. But it wasn't too cold outside and we had our hot cider to warm us up, so it all worked out.

On Thursday night we made plans with Beth to go to the Ashmolean the next day. The Ashmolean is a museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford that we hadn't visited yet. And Friday seemed as good a day as any. I'm not always much of a museum person--I like them but I have short attention span so I can only spend so much time there--but I had a good time at the Ashmolean. Probably because we did the entire museum in two hours. One of my favorite exhibits was their European art section of the museum. Even for just a small museum in Oxford they had quite a few esteemed pieces. There was a Rodin sculpture, a Degas dancer sculpture, a few Renoir paintings and even a Van Gogh. I love going to art museums and recognizing pieces of artwork and artists from my Art History studies.

The other exhibit I really enjoyed was about money of the past and present from all over the world. We saw coins from a variety of countries as well as old British and American currency. It also got me thinking: are there fivers and one pound coins floating around with King George's face on it? What will happen when Prince William becomes King. Will the Queen Elizabeth sterling just being to be phased out? It's all quite intriguing  Also of note, a British person asked me if we put President Obama's face on our currency. I guess it's a valid question since they put their monarchy's on their currency, but the idea of George Bush coins and Bill Clinton dollars floating around is pretty funny to me.

After the Ashmolean we went to Vaults and Garden, a cafe that we have been talking about visiting since we got to Oxford. It was the perfect time to go because it was near 4pm which is tea time. Right next to the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, the inside of the cafe looked like an old church. Walking into the cafe I instantly understood the name. The ceilings are vaulted and there is a garden that I imagine is quite pleasant to eat in when its warmer outside. Libby, Austin, Caitlin and Beth had a traditional cream tea with tea (Earl Grey for Libby, English Breakfast for the rest) and scone with clotted cream and jam. I had the Amy variation which substituted Hot Chocolate for tea since I don't drink tea.

The scones were delicious. The inside was soft, the outside crunchy, the entire thing slightly sweet. To me, scones taste like a cross between a pastry and an American biscuit and adding the clotted cream and jam makes the taste just sweet enough to make an excellent snack. We got the last scones and the woman in line after me had to wait for her scone. At first I was happy that we didn't have to wait, but after more thought I was kinda jealous. Her scone was delivered to her hot out of the oven and I bet it was even better warmed through.

This past week has been awesome because we've been able to see a bit more of Oxford and visit some places we've been meaning to visit since we've been here. Oxford is a great city--so much to do and a perfect place to live as a student.