The First Last Words

August 6, 2009

Well, here we are.  It’s been two years since I left the UK, and a lot has happened in the mean time.  But, I’ve always been meaning to write a summary of my experiences: the good, the bad, the ugly and the sublime.

Back when I was in High School, around the age of 15, I went on the first of two trips to Europe with my mother.  This was one of those If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium -type of pre-planned tours, and I had a wonderful time.  After the tour, we spent an extra week on our own in London.  I loved London back then.  Mother hated it.

Apparently, she used to live there at some point shortly after WWII. (Her father was an Army officer.)  I know this because she assured me that she knew the city well, as we wandered around on endless wild goose chases, looking for this museum or that shopping street.  Like any city, I think a lot had changed in the intervening 40 years, and the changes frustrated her.  Not to mention that after a month of tooling around Europe on a very cramped bus with about two dozen other hapless American tourists… well, I think by the time we got to London she was simply tired from the whole experience and felt ready to go home.

Shortly before the trip, the film A Fish Called Wanda had come out in theatres and Mother seemed to have a real affinity for Kevin Kline’s character (or at least his deadpan wit).  There’s a scene in the film where he spitefully (yet very humorously) splashes the water in Michael Palin’s fishtank, yelling “Wake up, limey fish!”  Whenever Mother got frustrated with anything in London, she would mutter “limey fish” under her breath.  I didn’t really see the point of this.  After all it is their country.  We’re just tourists.  By the end of the trip though, as my luggage containing a month’s worth of dirty clothes and a pile of souvenir guidebooks was being rifled through at the airport (because, you know, a 15-year-old American kid travelling with his mother… what could be more suspicious?), I have to admit I turned to my mother and conceded, “limey fish” (much to the confusion of the people examining my dirty socks).

But, that was 20 years ago.  And, as I mentioned, you can’t really judge a place as a tourist.  So, how would I describe Britain after nearly two years of living and working there?  It’s impossible to sum it up in one word, sorry.  So, I’m going to give you a list.  Three lists, actually.  The “best of…”, the “worst of…” and the “I’m still trying to makes sense of…”  Admittedly, these lists will end up saying a lot more about me than they will about Britain, but at least I’ll have answered those two most frequently asked questions: “What was it like?”, and “Do you wish you could go back?”


Venice

April 9, 2007

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I know that Paris touts its reputation as the “city for lovers”, but for my money, there is no more romantic city in the world than Venice.  When I first came here, I was about twelve, and I must confess that all I really remember from that trip is being stuck on a tour with a guide who lectured us for what seemed like hours on the historical importance of the “Bridge of Sighs“.  (This tour guide so overshadowed my memory of that first visit that I wrote a one-act comedic play about the tour in high school.)

But, even then, I could see that this was a breathtakingly romantic city.  Earlier on, my mother had seen fit to make me watch David Lean’s Summertime.  If you haven’t seen it, you should.  It’s the story of a middle-aged school teacher from the Midwest (Katherine Hepburn) who travels abroad for the first time to Venice.  At first she feels awkward and alone, but then discovers the beauty of the city and rediscovers her own beauty through an affair with a local antiques dealer (Rossano Brazzi).  It’s still one of my favorites, and it will make you want to book your tickets to Venice tomorrow.

The real-life Venice is one of the few great cities in the world that lives up to and exceeds everything you read about in the guide books and see in the postcards.  Words really can’t describe your first sight of all those gondolas and vaparettos cutting across the water, and the sound of their wake slapping against the buildings.  There are “touristy sights”, for sure.  There’s the Doge’s Palace, St. Mark’s Square, the Guggenheim Collection and, yes, the aforementioned Bridge of Sighs.  But, all of these are mere diversions.  This is a city for romantic evening strolls along the water, and daytime urban exploring through a literal maze of twisting, turning little streets without a car in sight.

Derek and I lucked out tremendously on our room.  I had booked online at the Hotel Monaco’s website, and upon arrival we were lead out of the hotel, down a narrow street and to an unmarked door.  The bellman unlocked it and led us upstairs to what turned out to be a suite of rooms directly adjacent to St. Marks square.  Even better, the price included breakfast, and when we went down to the lobby to inquire where it was being served, we were led out to an amazing terrace overlooking the Grand Canal.  Normally, I’m not a “breakfast person”, but we ate breakfast every day we were there, soaking in that gorgeous view, being waited on hand and foot, and generally feeling like royalty.

For dinner, I splashed out and booked a table at Harry’s Bar.  This is yet another restaurant made famous by the patronage of Ernest Hemingway, and sustained by a steady flow of celebrities and crowned heads ever since.  The room itself is small and totally nondescript: straw-colored walls and a couple of brass sconces.  But, from the moment your seated, the white-jacketed wait staff swirl around your table like a ballet troupe, constantly switching out your silverware, glasses, plates, and linens in a manner that is both fawning and completely unobtrusive.  How they manage this in such a cramped space boggles the mind.  If you so much as look like your about to ask for something, they’ll already be bringing it to you before you even get a word out.

I knew I wanted to eat here for the experience and didn’t even see the menu before we sat down.  The food choices all sounded excellent, but shock of seeing the prices had me loosening my tie a little.  This was the sort of place where the soup is $40.   Harry’s Bar looks pretty innocuous from the outside, and since it’s located right next to one of the main water-bus stops, it gets a lot of foot traffic shuffling past its frosted-glass door.  Every so often, we’d see college-aged Americans in t-shirts and shorts come through the door.  The maitre’d didn’t have to shoo them away; he’d just smile and hand them the menu… at which point all the color drained from their faces and they couldn’t leave fast enough.

Our meal was incredible, from the ice-cold Martini served in a mini-highball glass to the beef carpaccio which literally melted in your mouth, and the Bellini (invented here), to the flaming dessert.  I couldn’t have asked for more.  As we were eating, a stream of diners and bar patrons stopped by the table next to ours and chatted with an elderly gentleman seated there.  After we got our jackets from the cloakroom, the old man came over and shook our hands.  Only later did I realize it was multi-millionaire owner Arrigo Cipriani.  I think I said “Thanks.”

We stumbled back to the room considerably poorer, but also happy, fully sated and sleepy, collapsing into bed and listening to the sound of tourists shuffling through the streets below us, music wafting from the orchestras in the square, and the calls of the gondoliers echoing in the distance.  It truly doesn’t get any better.

More info: Venice


Milan

April 7, 2007

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I don’t have much to say about Milan, as Derek and I were on there for a day.  I can tell you that on the whole it was not as “glamorous” as I was expecting.  And, if there’s one “must see” for Milan it is without a doubt the view from the top of the cathedral. 

The climb up to the roof snakes out and around the hundreds of flying buttresses, columns, statues, gargoyles, and every other type of gothic architectural decoration known to man.  Never have I seen so much intricate marble-work on a church at such an amazingly close distance.  You can literally reach out and touch it all.  And, your reward upon reaching the summit is not just the spectacular view of the city, but the uneasy yet awe-inspiring feeling of standing on the actual slanted marble roof of the nave, which vibrates below your feet with from bellow of the grand pipe organ inside the cathedral.  True, there are plenty of churches that let you climb up their bell towers or domes, but Milan’s is the only one I’ve ever been to that lets you run around the entire roof.  It’s a tremendous experience.

More info: Milan Cathedral


Prague

April 5, 2007

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My first impression of Prague was an overwhelming sense of deja vu.  Not because I’ve seen Prague in the background of a thousand movies, standing in for every european city from Vienna to Paris.  But, because I’ve already been to Budapest, which I’ve come to realize is sort of “Prague Lite”.  Both cities are built across two sides of a river; both have an “old town” mountainous side topped with a castle.  Both also have a flatter, more cosmopolitan side with tree-lined shopping boulevards.  Both have a signature bridge across the river; both have a grand fin de siecle train station.  Both have a metro system with three lines that meet in the center of town.

Prague is bigger, grander than Budapest.  But, it also feels a little more impersonal as a result.  Budapest has a mix of stunning Art Nouveau and post-modern architecture, palatial thermal baths, and amazing Hungarian cuisine, all packed into a fairly walkable area.  By contrast, Prague felt a little lacking on all counts.  Make no mistake, it’s still a beautiful city, but for me it occupied an awkward middle-ground, too large to be intimate, not large enough to be grand.  Prague also has a bit of an edge to it, a little grimy, a little dark (Dare I mention Kafka here?), and way too touristy.

More info: Prague


Mark Russell & the 80s, meet Wikipedia

March 15, 2007

Mix the politcal wit of Jon Stewart, the face of Elliot Richardson, the fashion sense of Tucker Carlson and the song parody skills of Weird Al Yankovic together, and you have Mark Russell.  In the 1980s, Mark Russell’s PBS specials combined biting political satire with a folksy piano-based humor.  The results were catchy songs filled with more pop-culture references than the average viewer could possibly understand.

And, it occurred to me that a) you can’t find his stuff online anywhere and b) it’s perfect for Wikipedia links.  So, without further ado, here’s my favorite Mark Russell song from the 1980s, which summarizes the entire decade, complete with every pop-culture reference convieniently explained through the magic of Wikipedia.  Enjoy.

1980 was a rotten year
When Mount St. Helens blew.
Abscam congressmen taking bribes;
Tell me what else is new.
Inflation climbed up to the sky.
Jimmy said “Trust me, we’ll get by.”
But the hostages were the reason why
By November, old Jimmy was through.

1981 was worse with another inflation hike.
David Stockman with his budget acts,
And don’t forget the baseball strike.
But, Sandra Day O’Connor made history,
Air traffic controllers got no sympathy,
And, the new gun-lobby spokesman was John Hinkley.
That’s what 1981 was like.

Many people reached their moment of fame
Back in 1982.
Names like: De Lorean, Von Bulow, and Anne Burford Gorsuch
To mention a forgettable few.
Little E.T.’s long-distance call,
The Falklands were saved. Why? I can’t recall.
And the only survivor was Tylenol,
Back in 1982.

’83, ’83,
Hitler’s diaries and Klaus Barbie.
Grenada was where,
In the glory we’d share.
We saved Grenada
Because it was there.

’84 everybody was bettin’
On Reagan
and Mary Lou Retton.
Bernard Goetz in the subway was gettin’
Target practice in friendly New York.

’85 as a year was so manic.
Philadelphia was bombed in a panic.
Over Bitburg emotions were manic,
But, at least they found the Titanic.

Speaking of Bitburg, in ’86
Kurt Waldheim’s reputation fell.
Cory Aquino took over in Manila,
Clint Eastwood, mayor of Carmel.
Rehnquist was Chief after long delay.
Andy and Fergie’s wedding day.
Our diplomacy in Libya? Bombs away!
The Iceland summit was also a bomb.

1987 was the craziest year in the decade.
It was the year that could have been.
Inside trader Ivan Boskey could’ve afforded
To keep Oral Roberts from being called home.
Fawn Hall could’ve been a movie star.
Oliver North could’ve been governor of the 51st state of Nicaragua.
Robert Bork could’ve been on the US Supreme Court.
Gary Hart should’ve stayed off the USS Monkey Business.
And the only people who behaved at all well in 1987
Were Baby M and Max Headroom:
A surrogate child and a computerized dummy.

Well, by 1988 we were all
Back on the campaign trail.
The was the anthropology of Jimmy the Greek
And the war record of Captain Quayle.
Pentagon procuremen, what a fleece.
The Moscow summit, would it lead to peace?
And, whatever happenned to Edwin Meese?
And, Elvis sited every day without fail.

1989 events went hardly according to plan.
Jim Wright, John Tower, the Alaska spill
And a budget which overran.
But, Communist countries are starting to vote,
And the wall has come down, and it’s okay to gloat.
America and Russia in the same boat!
And, in the ’90s, we attack Japan.

More info: Mark Russell


Equus

March 12, 2007

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Yes, sir!  I have seen Harry Potter naked!  The full monty!  The whole enchilada!  And, how was it, you ask?  Well, if you mean the guy’s equipment (and I’m assuming you do), it was fine.  Nothing porn-star spectacular, but perfectly respectable.  I will only say this about Daniel Radcliffe’s body and then I will say no more: a) he has abs I would kill for, b) his low-hanging balls were more memorable for me than his dick, c) because of this, I can tell you the pictures on the Internet are fake.

I feel guilty about opening this review that way… but, come on, that’s what half of you really wanted to know anyway.  Be honest.  For the other half of you out there, I’m happy to answer the other burning question about Daniel Radcliffe: can he really act?  The answer is a resounding, yes!

Equus is not an easy play.  It’s essentially a story told in flashback, uncovering the psychological mystery of why an otherwise nice normal kid would blind six horses with a hoof pick.  (Relax, there are no actual horses in the show.)  Peter Schaffer’s play was controversial back when it premiered in 1973.  It was one of the first stage productions to deal heavily with Freudian psychoanalysis.  This was at a time when the notion of seeing a therapist was becoming less of a stigma and more of a status symbol.  But, by today’s standards, it’s a little dated.  The pop-psychology of the “conflicted doctor” trying to “get through” to the “troubled kid” has quite honestly been told better in other scripts (most notably Good Will Hunting).  But, Equus was the first of the genre, and as such, we owe it some respect.

Oddly, for all the talk about “Harry Potter naked”, the most distracting body on stage wasn’t the naked boy or the naked girl (did I forget to mention they have some pretty convincing, albeit depressing, naked sex on stage?).  No, the body I most remembered belonged to Richard Griffiths, playing the part of the psychologist.  You may remember him, also from the Harry Potter movies as Uncle Vernon Dursley.  You may remember he was pretty fat in that role.  Well, he’s graduated from merely “fat” into full-on morbidly obese.  Now, normally I wouldn’t comment on this, except here, opposite the boyish, buffed-out Daniel Radcliffe, Griffith’s obesity was not only pronounced, it was distracting.  I really feared at times he was going to eat Daniel Radcliffe.  His shirts hung over him like a great circus tent that could’ve accommodated not only the star, but most of the rest of the cast as well.  I like Richard Griffiths; I think he’s a great actor.  But really, he needs to get some help, because I don’t think he’s going to be alive much longer at this rate.

Finally, I have to comment on the sets and “costumes”.  I understand that both are meant to recall the original 1973 production, and I think it was a wise choice.  Minimalism is the order of the day here, and while I’ve criticized other shows for their lack of creativity in the past, the stark greys and blacks of the Equus set worked perfectly.  Since the original production was “in the round“, they’ve inserted a section of the audience up on the stage, above and behind the actors.  It’s a clever move that makes the set feel, literally, more alive.  And, it adds a creepy Eyes Wide Shut sort of voyeuristic element to a play that certainly caters to the voyeur in all of us.

As for the costumes, what I’m really talking about are the amazing metal-sculpture horse heads.  As I mentioned before, there are no actual horses in the production, so instead we have faceless actors in black, with hoof-like shoes and these elaborate gleaming metal masks (designed by John Napier).  Words can’t really describe how beautiful and menacing these masks are.  It’s a bit like the Broadway version of The Lion King by way of H.R. Giger.  And, again, the gleaming metal is perfectly offset by the stark black background.

Overall, Equus is a show not to be missed.  In fact, I’d say it’s probably the second-best non-musical play I’ve seen here (after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?).  And, as much as I hope Richard Griffiths gets a gastric bypass operation, I also hope we get to see more great acting opportunities for Daniel Radcliffe.


Rock & Roll

February 21, 2007

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Okay, I have to be honest here.  I came late to Rock & Roll, and I was a little lost.  This is Tom Stoppard‘s latest cold-war-era piece about the fall of Eastern Bloc (in this case, using bootlegged American records to capture the mood of the era, hence the title).  I knew the gist going in, but between all the accents, flipping back and forth through time, the revolving sets, the obtuse pop-culture references… well, I was a little lost.  And, I never fully recovered.

I feel a little ashamed.  I feel ashamed for stepping on all those people’s feet as I dashed across them to my empty centre seat, panicky about getting there before the end of the scene change.  But, mostly I feel ashamed about not enjoying a Tom Stoppard play.  I love Tom Stoppard.  I was really looking forward to this play.  So, I felt a little disappointed that I didn’t love Rock & Roll.  And, worse, I’ll never know if it was the play’s fault or mine.

So, I’m going to give Tom Stoppard the benefit of my doubt (because I know he’s reading this right now), and go with every critic in London who says this play should earn him the Pulitzer Prize (or whatever the British equivalent is).  Personally, I don’t think it’s that brilliant.  It’s good, but like all Stoppard plays, it does tend to drag on in bits.  Dominic West was great, as always.  People talk about stage presence, and he certainly has it, even when finding his way through page eight of an uninterrupted speech about life in Czechoslovakia (at least that’s how I remember it).

I also felt a little ashamed that I didn’t know more about the history behind the play.  Although, in fairness, I was in grade school when most of the historical action was taking place.  I have to be honest: I thought the Velvet Revolution was a band.  So, really, is it any wonder that after getting lost on my way to the theater, I remained lost in the audience?  I wasn’t just late to the play; I was late to the history.  And for that, I’m truly ashamed.