Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Science Museum and St. Martin in the Fields

I think the fact that I don't feel a touristy need to update this blog daily with excited reports of our adventures serves as proof that we're settling in comfortably. And we have! We've got the hang of the tube map and can now confidently plot a route anywhere in the city, we've been happily exploring coffee shops and pubs, and this week for the first time, I headed to the British Library by myself while husband ran some other errands. Oh, and hobnobs have become a staple of our grocery runs. (And to those who recommended we give caramel digestives a try, we have, and while nice, they still can't compare. But it's been fun to try all these different kinds of cookies!)

On Wednesday, we had a fantastic time at the late "drinking and thinking" event at the Science Museum, with a theme of "Making, Hacking, and Doing." They say about three thousand people attend these events, and we see why - it was fun to see the regular museum exhibits, awesome to participate in their special events, such as a screenprinting demonstration and a science comedy show, and truly epic to stand around a great museum drinking. We think all museums should follow this one's example and offer wine and cider!

This is one of the steam engines husband geeked out over.
A truly brilliant new invention that was on display for this special event:
bicycle lights with the international bicycle symbol. Drivers notice them better and
even behave better because of the little person. I told the demonstrator that they
really need to start selling these in the US - I would definitely buy them!
On Thursday, we took a long lunch break and trekked over to St. Martin in the Field's for one of their lunchtime events of choral music, Scripture readings, and reflections by one of their priests (not quite a service, though I'm uncomfortable calling it a concert). They sang music for Ascension Day, and I was utterly enraptured by their rendition of Finzi's God is gone up, which along with Wood's O Thou the central orb (which we heard last week at Westminster Abbey) remains for me some of the best that Anglican church music has to offer.

We've been impressed by the food options at King's Cross - it's no ordinary train station! This week we tried their pasty shop, loving both the sausage roll and their traditional Cornish pasty, and also Caffe Nero's, a local coffee shop chain that advertises itself as England's favorite (though sadly, neither its hot chocolate nor its almond croissant could compare to Paul's last weekend). We had meant to try either the Indian or Chinese restaurants just around the corner from our flat, but didn't quite get around to it. And next week we've picked out a very special pub - one that's been described as "Catholic church meets Harry Potter" - to celebrate our three-year anniversary.

Today was a slow and sleepy day, which I think is a brilliant way to spend summer weekends. Grocery shopping in the morning, afternoon naps, and then I finally started the actual prose writing for my encyclopedia article for Oxford Press. Articles like this don't have theses, which is very freeing on the one hand, but I found it difficult to start the actual writing because I didn't have as clear a grasp on my article's structure. I've ended up crafting a thesis anyway, and that seems to have helped! Now I just have to figure out how to fit at least 9,000 words of notes into a 2,500-word article!

Finally, isn't this an awesome gate? Husband likes it so much that he insisted on this photo, and has since turned it into his facebook cover photo. We're ever so pleased to have this opportunity to work in this institution every day.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A picnic at Thames Barrier Park, and the great hobnobs vs. digestives experiment

Despite being in the midst of several cold and intermittently rainy days, husband and I didn't let the wet stop us, and were lucky enough to discover that the rain had let up over lunchtime yesterday. So we packed a lunch (and our umbrellas) and set off for a picnic at Thames Barrier Park. We'd seen its interesting-looking hedges from the tube, and husband is a sucker for civil infrastructure.

These sail-like structures are the above-water part of the movable barrier that keeps London from being flooded by the Thames. They have a gate that when open lies level with the bottom of the river, and then rotates up to block the flow of water. Husband thinks this is super cool and even as I write this, has been looking up facts and photos about how this design works.

We had our first real date night last night - admittedly yes, we've been spending pretty much all of our time together since we've been here, but an actual date night is a little bit different. We took down careful directions (and still wandered off in the wrong direction a bit) and finally found the Greenwich Union, a pub renowned for its burgers. Yet neither of us actually tried the burgers! Husband enjoyed bangers and mash with lamb sausages, and I finally had my long-awaited fish and chips in a British pub. I forgot just how much I missed cod - and this was AMAZING cod, bought fresh from the nearby fish market. Both of our beers were excellent too (and we wound up switching almost immediately). This pub is near the Greenwich Observatory, which is where the zero mark for longitude is calculated. I wonder if the observatory allows visitors?

Finally, today we wanted some tea and cookies after we got home from the library. Our commute is mostly underground, but we still ended up fairly cold and wet. Unfortunately, though, we were out of chocolate hobnobs! So we stopped at the grocery store up the street and bought both hobnobs and digestives - apparently there's a big debate about which is better. One delicious experiment later, and we've both decided we like the "nobbly" hobnobs better (we both really like oats)...but I'm still going to enjoy the rest of the digestives with my tea for the next few days!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The bird with a death wish and an amazing cup of hot chocolate

There's a largeish black bird that roosts in the tree just outside our flat here. A crow, perhaps, or a raven. Husband says, however, that it can't be a raven because it doesn't say "Nevermore." Instead, it squawks "Aaaak! Aaaaak!" just outside our bedroom window starting at five in the morning and not really stopping until it's driven us both out of bed. If it's been a great night's sleep, I drowsily think, "Aww, the bird." More often, however, I think, "I'm gonna kill that bird!" and irritatedly try to get back to sleep. It doesn't help that it never gets truly dark in a city like London, sunrise is really early and our bedroom window catches all of its light, and there's a bus stop just outside with all the accompanying traffic sounds. It could be worse, though - we could be staying downtown - and at least I can sleep in as late as I like because we always wait for peak hours to be over before we catch our train into town.

After church this morning - we went to St Bartholomew the Great again - I wanted some hot chocolate. It's been cold and stormy this weekend, the perfect weather for a nice warm drink. So we found a small but extremely busy little French bakery and coffee shop right next to St Paul's Cathedral and I had a thick, rich, dark, and absolutely divine cup of hot chocolate.

That pastry on the left was husband's Viennoise Chocolat - a sort of brioche stick with chocolate chips - and on the right, my almond croissant, which even had an almond paste filling. Our only disappointment was the brisk wind, which kept stealing crumbs (and even almonds off the top of my croissant) and delivering them to the waiting pigeons. Yesterday's Regent Park birds may have been the most spoiled in London, but we think today's might be the best fed. I would cheerfully try every single pastry in this coffee shop!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Westminster Abbey, the British Museum, and Regent Park

Don't worry, we're not dead! My computer has been out of commission for a few days, which put an upsetting damper on my research (and also my ability to update this blog), but my excellent computer tech friend fixed it remotely and I'm back in commission. In the last couple of days, we've been to Westminster Abbey, the British Museum, and Regent Park, and had the pleasure of visiting a colleague of mine from the music department.

The sheer amount of history represented by Westminster Abbey is astounding and overwhelming. I goggled at the grave markers of Elgar, Stanford, Vaughan Williams, and Purcell. We attended Evensong, and I admired the acoustics, which I thought were better for the choir's balance than those at St Paul's. As at St Paul's, verse anthems were featured, which I suspect supports my view that verse anthems (which alternate between soloists and full choir) were invented in part because they require less rehearsal on the choir's part. On the way to Evensong, we had a spare quarter hour, so we walked around Parliament Square and enjoyed a quiet few minutes in another of London's many wonderful parks.

The view across the Thames from the park
The London Eye, which I've never been up and probably won't experience this trip either!
One view of Westminster Abbey - to get in this door after hours, you have to know the password
("We're here to attend Evensong")
At the British Museum, I discovered that I'm a little museum-ed out and also far more logocentric (text-oriented) than I realized, because I had less fun looking at the objects themselves than I did reading their descriptions. We only went through the Enlightenment Gallery at the museum, which displays some of the original collection but also teaches a lot about the original philosophy about the collection and its collectors. One of the men whose collections were featured turned out to be the man responsible for the invention of milk chocolate, so hooray for him!

Today, we met up with a friend of mine coming through London on the way to an academic conference - as husband says, it's not every day that a friend of ours comes to a faraway place while we're in it! It was lovely to visit with her - we showed her the treasures of the BL exhibit and then on her excellent recommendation, walked over to Regent Park.

This park is the home to what might be some of the most spoiled birds in London. Whole crowds of them would flock around the families feeding them, and the birds would barely flap a feather when small children ran giggling after them. We saw pigeons, two kinds of geese, swans, storks (? or herons? or both?) and a few other birds I couldn't even name, all of which were super tame around humans but sometimes pushed each other around in their eagerness for bread. I took LOTS of adorable bird photos, but I'll just post a few here:

  After the park, we were hungry, and in our quest for food we wandered onto Baker Street! We're excited to return and look through the Sherlock Holmes Museum, which, yes, is at 221B. We also came across this plaque, but I'm ashamed to say I didn't know who this composer was. Evidently, he wrote a lot of music for radio, film, and television, as well as a number of ballads. I approve of a country which values its composers enough to immortalize even its not-so-famous ones.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

In which we drink beer and geek out over Harry Potter

To start off with, my work at the BL yesterday was very much like working in the restricted section of Hogwarts' library! The book I was working with was actually "restricted," which means that you have to change seats to sit in the restricted section, where there are book cradles to help ensure that you take good care of the books, and presumably they're better able to find you and make sure you don't run off with something priceless. They also keep your reader's card, not giving it back until you give back whatever awesome thing you were working with. So I sat there for several hours tracing psalm tunes in a book of early English chant - it was a fantastic afternoon.

For the last few days, we've kept getting caught in rush hour on the tube, which is not fun - not only can I not sit and read, but there's an uncomfortable press of people (so much so that sometimes you can't even get on the train) and it's over-warm and loud. Our options are to leave, which we'll do tonight, since we've got some cooking to do, or stay around the downtown area until later in the evening, as we did yesterday.

I finally compiled a list of pubs we might want to visit, from personal recommendations and some google searches for "best pub in London," and tonight we tried one! We figure we can look up a decent pub in any area of London we visit and thus avoid extra train trips. The Queen's Head had some stellar reviews (and is advertised as "the best pub in London"), so off we went! The number of ciders available was overwhelming - as the guy said, I'm now in the home of ciders (is that true? I confess I don't know anything about the history of cider, only that I like it). So I asked for something "really traditional" and was handed a mug of a still, room temperature, extremely alcoholic cider that was quite unlike anything I've ever had before in the US. Fantastic, though. I took it slowly while we played two games of cribbage (husband trounced me on the first one, which is typical, but I won the second by the slimmest of margins) but even so, I felt the effects quite immediately. We also gave in to my odd desire ever since we got here to try British meat pie, so we ordered their pork pie and loved it. You eat it cold, who knew?

Finally, on our way back to the tube station at Kings Cross St Pancras, we popped in to the actual train station just above the underground, the actual Kings Cross station featured in Harry Potter...and yes, they now have a Platform 9 3/4. Thanks to the lateness of the evening, there was almost no line. I was beaming like an idiot - I grew up with these books, and they played such a huge role not only in my childhood but in my teenage years, when one is inclined towards obsession.

 While they're perfectly fine with folks taking their own photos, they also take professional ones which can be bought in the HP shop just around the corner. It was great fun to browse, and we decided we liked Luna's wand best.

Monday, May 19, 2014

St Bartholomew the Great, the Watts Memorial, and the Museum of London

Oops, another sleepy evening, and now I'll be posting this in the middle of the night for most of you!  I'm going to be a champion walker by the end of the summer, but for now, the increased activity, constant stimulation by a fascinating city, and extra fresh air is really tiring me out!  Never in Durham would I start falling asleep around 7 in the evening!

We set off yesterday morning for St Bartholomew the Great, because I'd seen that they were singing the Byrd Mass for Five Voices at their Solemn Eucharist.  Choosing a church for the day on account of its musical offerings makes me feel just a little guilty - as if it's a concert and not communal worship - but I'm ever so glad we ended up at St Bart's, because it turned out to be an absolutely fantastic place, and I was tremendously moved.  Ididn't take any photos to share and I don't actually have much to say because I'm still trying to process what a special atmosphere they created.  Just a few hints: the church building is actually a 12th-century Augustine monastery; the congregation pews are aligned with the choir stalls, with the altar on the far end, so between these two poles, the community is an active presence; we sang chant in Latin and in English, often accompanied by organ pedal chords, which I found to be an unbelievably symbolic bridging of two great traditions; the choir was stunning, and even pulled off a Lassus double motet with only eight singers; the sermon was the best defense of religious tolerance according to Christ's model that I've ever, ever heard.

After lunch in the church's courtyard - I'm not sick of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches yet, but I am relieved that we'll alternate them with ham and cheese this week ----

Oh, I haven't explained why we're eating sandwiches all the time instead of our usual fare of leftover casseroles! The British Library has no refrigerators and no microwaves, not even for the staff. They have no electronic tea kettles either, so the poor staff can't heat up their lunches or even make tea. This sad state of affairs is actually quite sensible - these electronics could start a fire and then where would the British Library with all its priceless books be? - but it does make us extremely grateful for our department lounges back home!

Anyway, we walked around the neighborhood a bit, identifying a few pubs we hope to try (our favorite is named The Bishop's Finger) and then meandered over to the Museum of London.  On the way, we were delighted to find this!

With husband a student at Duke Divinity, and me a staunch member of the community not just through my connection to him but because I take div classes myself, we couldn't NOT take a photo of the plaque marking the place where John Wesley converted to Christianity!  Duke Div, for those less familiar with it, is a historically Methodist seminary, and the Wesleys are an important presence even today when the school is opened to other denominations as well. We thought a lot of our friends might appreciate a chance to see this.

The plaque itself stands next to the gate of Postman's Park:

And there inside the park was a place my husband had hoped to find while we were in London, the Watt's Memorial for those who sacrificed their own lives to save others.

There's husband in the corner, already reading some of the stories.

The most recent of all the people remembered here
And then after this great little detour, we made it to the Museum of London, which charts the history of this fair city since its beginnings as a settlement for prehistoric peoples and then a trading post for the Romans (twice! the first town burned down), through the Black Plague, the Reformation (I took a few photos of that section for work purposes), the Great Fire in 1666, and all the way up to today, including some discussion of London as a host for the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. It's a very cool museum, with a lot to see. It really makes you wonder, as well, what the people of three hundred or five hundred years from now will consider essential enough in our lives to put in a museum about the early 21st century!

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The V&A Museum of Childhood

I find that my pace of life here is different.  Part of it is that it's summer, so we don't have as many appointments and obligations, and part of it is that we're in a new city without our old routines.  We've both discovered that we're more productive at the BL than we were with our academic work back home.  And it's an amazing feeling to be tied to a library for one's work, the way I am this summer - with few exceptions for tasks like organizing my notes or looking up the next day's books in the online catalog, I can't bring my work home with me.  The BL doesn't let you check books out; when I leave for the day, my work is done too.  That's a rare feeling for an academic, because our work lives have a tendency to spill out into the rest of our lives too.

Consequently, when I'm not there working, the pace of my life is a lot slower.  I'm not guilty over not continuing to work.  I don't have rehearsals, and I don't have music to learn (a bummer, true - I'm really going to miss singing this summer).  It doesn't stress me out that my daily commute is nearly an hour in each direction, because that time on a train isn't eating up valuable work time.  The BL doesn't even open until fairly late in the morning, and we arrive even later than its opening time of 9:30 am because we wait until after peak hours on the underground to start our commute.  So we have slow mornings, and I have plenty of time to wash dishes by hand (there's no dishwasher in this flat) and fold laundry (a constant task, because the washing machine also dries but as a result only does really tiny loads at a time).  We spend evenings seeing bits of London or watching television together (or often, both).  And if this weekend is any indication, our weekends this summer will be fairly slow-paced too.  It's very restful (which is important, because London is not a restful city!)

This morning, all we really did was our trip to the grocery store.  It's quite a production - we walk a few blocks to the underground station, then take it just to the next stop, across the Thames.  A few blocks on that end and there's the grocery store, and we have to be careful about our purchases because we have to carry all of them back with us.  Thus grocery shopping takes a lot of time - but it's glorious because we HAVE that time and can afford to spend it to do routine tasks like this.  This morning, we even passed a small produce market on the street, and we stopped on our return to the tube station to buy some bananas and mushrooms.

In case you're wondering: English cheddar cheese is awesome; English milk and London tap water both taste different, but I'll get used to it; it's really sad not to have our pantry with its baking supplies and spices, because we're not really equipped here to make even our normal repertoire of homemade bread (him) and scones (me).

In the afternoon, we waffled about which museum we wanted to visit before deciding on the V&A's (that's Victoria and Albert) Museum of Childhood because it currently has a cool exhibit of diaries throughout the ages that we didn't want to miss.  We both had a lot of fun examining all the displays of toys, oohing and aahing over cool toys we didn't have growing up and swapping stories about the ones we did experience.

I totally had one of these

Husband said he loved Paddington Bear even more than Winnie the Pooh when he was growing up

Of course we found the sci-fi cabinet!

I had to take a photo of Dogtanian for a dear friend!

Midway through our visit, we stopped for smoothies and a cookie at their little cafe in the middle of the building.
We thought the museum had a neat railway station vibe to it.

These are some of the diaries from their exhibit, "The Great Diary Project."  This collection goes all the way back to diaries of the eighteenth century...and though the specifics are different, it was fascinating to see how young people have maintained a lot of the same concerns.