Thursday, April 30, 2015

London, Part II (UK)

2015 was the first time that tickets were required to attend the official New Year's Eve festivities in London. Of course, since we hadn’t intended to be in the city for the holiday, we were out of luck. Watching the queues forming and the temporary barriers cordoning off whole sections of the city, we hatched a harebrained scheme.  

While the city was still preparing in the early afternoon, we would stick to the parts of London that we thought would be inside the barriers later. Booking a late afternoon tea at the cafĂ© inside the National Gallery would give us a valid excuse to wait and lounge around eating scones and cakes in the warmth. When evening came, we would just pop out the front door, and bob’s your uncle, we’re in Trafalgar Square with the crowds. Everything went according to plan until they started kicking people out of the National Gallery early with no more people milling about Trafalgar Square than usual!

Plan B was going back to having low expectations and just seeing how it would all pan out. When we opted for a movie to kill a few hours, I realized it was my first time in a cinema in England. Curiously enough, tickets were assigned seating, and the theater seemed to be several flights of stairs down in the basement. Glittering holiday lights and the sleek new models of the red double-decker buses gave the streets a festive air, and Peking duck beckoned to us from nearly every window in Chinatown. We went back later to a restaurant doing brisk business only to find we were the last sober customers of the night. The duck was superb, but the drunken hooligans shouting demands and berating the wait staff had us hightail it out of there as soon as we’d finished.  

In the end, Trafalgar Square – apparently not part of the official festivities any longer – was actually very pleasant. The big Christmas tree was brightly lit, and there were enough people who weren’t lucky ticketholders, mingling and drinking out of paper cups and flasks to create a lovely atmosphere. The minimal police and crowd control in effect only made themselves known with the occasional “Please stop climbing on Nelson’s statue” over the bullhorn. The oddest part was the lack of a countdown clock… deliberate, I imagine, in an attempt to deter unofficial gatherings. The result was that any spotty cheering in the crowd made everyone else grab their smartphones to check the time. When midnight did arrive, we could just about see some of the higher fireworks over the Thames as they cleared the buildings closer to the riverfront. The square cleared out quickly after midnight, and the city’s fantastic public transport plans with temporary hubs for buses and trains in different directions funneled crowds smoothly away from the central London and for free!  

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

London (UK)

It is a long-running joke that any ambitious plans we make for New Year's Eve are sure to end in disappointment. Despite our track record, we decided to try one more time and ring in the New Year in Amsterdam. After delays and a couple of hours sitting on the plane at the gate, the captain announced they were unloading the bags. Never a good sign. Just as we finally got clearance, the emergency landing of an incoming flight shut down the runway at Gatwick Airport. No one was hurt, but the Low Countries were not going to be in the cards. We were treated to a bit of surreal theatre as Easyjet agents pleaded for passengers' patience as "you know, people could have died tonight" in the same breath as stressing with equal solemnity, "You must return any items bought in the duty-free store before exiting the terminal."

Grounded and resigned, we headed into London proper to find some kind of entertainment and festivities. Rich decided to introduce me to the dinosaurs of his childhood. When we arrived at the Natural History Museum, the queue wrapped dauntingly around the enormous building, but a friendly guard informed us the other entrance would save us over an hour. There was still a line indoors, the length of which one typically sees for brand new rollercoasters, but the dinosaur gallery was still impressive. Complete skeletons are exhibited in a sort of low light, casting shadows in high relief. It does wonders for the hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck sort of tingling, Jurassic Park effect. I kept expecting to hear a hiss in the grasses, or perhaps, feel a distant rumble under my feet.

My pick was "The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die" at the Museum of London. The BBC's Sherlock is, in my opinion, only the absolute best show on TV these days, despite the long gaps between seasons... and it has spurred me to re-visit the original texts. The special exhibit paid homage to all Sherlocks past and present, and some displays were carefully curated to make your own forensic deductions: ink spots on cuffs, uneven wearing on boot soles, etc. We also learned Arthur Conan Doyle had been heavily influenced by the work of Edgar Allan Poe! Not surprisingly, the Museum of London did a particularly fine job capitalizing on the stories' relationship to the city: original maps tracing Holmes and Watson's chases through different parts of Victorian London juxtaposed with fast, GoPro-style videos tracing the same routes in modern London.

With the tune of BBC's Sherlock theme inevitably on repeat in my head, we wandered over the Millennium Bridge. On the other side of the Thames, a father playing with his kids caught my eye. He looked so familiar I couldn't help but stare. Then I realized - it was Detective Inspector Lestrade! Or rather, the actor Rupert Graves, who plays Sherlock's friend/contact in the police. I managed to drag my eyes away and not disturb the man with his family by running up to him with my inane "But... but... but I just watched clips of you in the museum." Such a fun celebrity sighting!