July 11-13, 2008

Croatia, and especially Dubrovnik, has long been high on my list of places I wanted to see. I feel like everyone I know has always raved about how beautiful the country is. Plus it was featured on The Amazing Race, so it had to be awesome.

I was in charge of figuring out accommodation for our 3-day holiday weekend. Unfortunately, Dubrovnik appears to have no large rooming hostels; just guest rooms that people rent out of their homes. Ominously, the reviews for every single possibility I found warned of “serious stairs.” Hmmm. I figured they couldn’t be too bad though – Megan and I are young and fit! (yeah, right) – so I went with the best choice. Little did I know that our house was located at the very highest point of a very high hill in the city. Oh, dear. They weren’t kidding about the stairs.

Undeterred, Megan and I headed straight for the beach once we arrived mid Friday afternoon. We jumped in the water right away. London was chilly and rainy when we left it, and the 89 degree heat of Dubrovnik felt like a furnace. The beach was pebbly – very pebbly. The rocks soaked up the heat and were scorching to the touch. Throughout the afternoon we took turns swimming and baking on the rocks. We didn’t get sunburned (then) but I distinctly remember some very odd, rather psychedelic daydreams, brought on no doubt by the extreme heat.

Despite being rocky, the beach was quite lovely, and the bottom turned to sand a few yards from shore. The water of the Adriatic was a glorious deep teal color, yet not as crystal clear as the Caribbean. After our day of sunbathing we satisfied our seafood cravings with seafood risotto and mussels cooked Dalmatian style (the southern area of Croatia is called the Dalmatian Coast). I am not really a fan of mussels or other shellfish; the chewy texture doesn’t appeal to me. But the risotto was fantastic, even with random bits of prawn scattered throughout it.

That evening we encountered our first trek up the five separate flights of steep, crumbly stone stairs. Oh lord.

Saturday we were up bright and early and hit the beach just before 9 a.m. We scored two fantastic beach chairs with an umbrella literally at the edge of the water. A few serious sun-worshippers were out, but we mostly had the beach to ourselves. I settled down with A Caribbean Mystery, the Agatha Christie that Megan found for me in a second-hand bookstore after we saw The Mousetrap.

By mid-afternoon I was so engrossed in the mystery that I didn’t even notice I was burning the backs of my hands where I was holding the book up. And the rest of myself, unfortunately. Even though I spent most of my time under the umbrella, a full day of swimming and being outdoors in the blazing Mediterranean sun took their toll. First I was pink, and then I was red. Very red. Oops. We’d intended to spend the late afternoon exploring the Old City, but Megan came down with a rather severe case of heat exhaustion, which involves faintness and dizziness. May I remind everyone that we had to traverse 5 extremely long flights of stairs from the beach to our hostel. That was a fun trip. We retreated agonizingly slowly; I had a touch of exhaustion as well, not too bad, but I was worried with every step that poor Megan was going to pass out on the stairs. I could barely get myself and our bags up the stairs, much less another person. We were in bad shape. She rallied and made it though, and at last we got back to our room and the blessed air conditioning. We whiled away the rest of the afternoon bemoaning our sorry state. Silly girls with deathly pale skin; we were never any match for the Mediterranean sun.

We were sufficiently recovered that evening to cautiously make our way only halfway down the stairs to a cute restaurant for dinner, where the owner gently laughed at us and our red faces. Oh well! The evening air was lovely but so humid it literally fogged up my camera lens.

The next morning we headed into the Old City – Dubrovnik’s major tourist draw, and what featured very prominently on The Amazing Race – for our last day in Croatia. The massive stone walls of the Old City enclose a maze of tightly packed buildings and narrow streets. Everything is built of stone, and wow does that stone pack a lot of heat. Megan and I ducked into the first shaded side street we came across and ordered water and refreshments directly. This pretty much set the pattern of our tour: wander a bit in the sweltering heat, snap a couple photos, search frantically for cool shade and water, repeat. We lingered longer at the waterfront, both because it was possible to get a bit of a breeze (and ice cream) there and because I am the type of person who needs to spend as much time as possible amongst the boats. We could follow the city wall all along the harbor until we reached a jetty thrusting straight out into the sea. People were swimming right off the rocks amongst the crashing waves. I wish we could have stayed longer but there was no respite from the sun on the jetty, so we headed back into the city.

After a detour so that I could find a souvenir of Croatia – I ended up getting a lovely painted egg, deep yellow with red flowers on it – we left the Old City behind. We still had a couple hours before we needed to catch our ride to the bus station, but we couldn’t stay in that baking stone city any longer. So instead we squeezed onto a packed bus that was even more sweltering. I have never endured such a miserable bus ride in my life. At last we jumped off at the base of our hill, and Megan and I dragged ourselves halfway up the incline before sprawling in the shade for a rest. Our ten-minute break turned into an hour and a half, which was enlivened when we saw our bus stop right in front of us up the hill. Megan: “Son of a bitch!”

Well-rested, we met our hostel owner, who kindly hefted our bags and gave us a ride to the main bus station in town, where we could catch a shuttle to the airport. He was incredibly warm and welcoming and spoke of his city with great affection. As our shuttle wound its way through the hills right next to the sea we got incredible views of Dubrovnik and the Adriatic. Croatia is absolutely as beautiful as everyone claims, and despite my sunburn I’m so happy that we got to visit it.

Press Events - Grosvenor Square and the London Eye

Wednesday, July 9th

Today I experienced the unique perks of the press. We frequently get e-mails sent round the office as to different press events – usually free movie previews or parties for various products that are being launched. Quite a few of the big labels/department stores are holding “Christmas in July” parties, where they present their new offerings that will be available in time for Christmas. Just by chance, today marked two press events that Brielle and I were urged to attend by our editors as something fun to do: the Möet Hennessy Christmas in July party and the launch of the ZPen.

Möet Hennessy was up first and we headed to one of the poshest areas of London: Grosvenor Square. Whenever I see the name I always remember that Oliver Twist’s long-lost grandfather lived on Grosvenor Square, which showed how fabulously wealthy he was and how poor orphan Oliver would never want for anything ever again. The party was held in a small ballroom of a lovely hotel, with separate tables showcasing the different liquors, wines, and champagne. As my knowledge of liquor pretty much begins and ends with vodka (okay, a bit of kahlua too) I had no idea that Hennessy is actually a famous (and very pricey) brand of cognac. “Would you like a cocktail?” a very sweet PR girl asked us right away. She led us straight to the cognac and within moments Brielle and I found ourselves hefting large glasses of the finest Hennessy mixed with orange, with an entire orange peel artfully arranged inside the glass. What service! The first sip was very, very strong, but in a couple minutes the orange diffused throughout and made it much tastier, though still quite sweet for my taste.

We scoped out a couple of the other tables (collecting leaflets and press releases along the way) before picking up two glasses of Möet & Chandon Brut Impérial champagne. Alas I am not a big fan of champagne but Brielle slurped hers right down. Then we saw a man preparing Cosmopolitans with Belvedere vodka, and that got me very excited. My Cosmo was excellent but very sour with all the citrus liquors in it. A PR man very helpfully detailed what would be included in the incredibly pricey Belvedere vodka gift box: the white-leather swathed box, a massive bottle of the vodka, and a dagger ice-pick set with crystals that even he agreed was a little over the top. “Yeah, I don’t know why you’d need an ice-pick dagger, either,” he said. Hee.

While sipping our drinks we felt the desire to nibble on something, so we wandered back to the Glenmorangie whisky table which had a full array of fancy cheeses. “Can we just . . . have a piece of cheese?” we asked the girl. “Um . . . it’s supposed to go with the whisky,” she said. “Maybe you could sniff the whisky while eating the cheese?” Okay then! All I can say is: good lord is whisky strong. Even a whiff just about knocked me over. The cheese was definitely worth it, though.

We needed to leave soon in order to make the ZPen launch, but I lingered in order to sample the Dom Pérignon. I don’t even like wine, but when a girl has a chance to taste Dom Pérignon, she should take it.

Next came a race through the pouring rain to make the ZPen launch on the London Eye. Brielle and I were very excited about this because we’d really been wanting to ride the Eye – one of London’s most notable landmarks – but it costs about £13-15 for a 30-minute ride, which we thought rather steep. But this way we would get to ride for free. We had to be there right at 4:15, though, to meet the group and catch our ride. Waterloo Station was only a couple tube stops away from Grosvenor Square, but once there we still had to walk to the Eye. Silly me, I thought this would be easy. Oh no. We exited from some small, strange exit of Waterloo, and even with my map I could not figure out where we had to go find the Eye. What’s more, we couldn’t even see the damn thing. Here we are, searching for one of the largest ferris wheels in the world, a wheel that towers over all London scenery anywhere along the river, and we can’t find it. Forget the wheel; I couldn’t even figure out where the river was. Oh, it was bad. We ran one way, we ran another way, we ran a third way. The rain is sloshing outside, the alcohol is sloshing inside, the wind is buffeting umbrellas and hair and press leaflets . . . we were a mess.

At last, just by chance, I spied the struts of the wheel out of the corner of my eye as we headed in the (totally wrong) direction. We pelted through the puddles and thankfully found the group, 10 minutes late but just a few minutes before we all headed onto the Eye. Success! I have never been so happy that my chronic lateness didn’t backfire on me.

Our ride was absolutely fantastic. Not only did we get a free ride, we got a deluxe free ride, that came with champagne & orange juice and snacks. The glass capsule was more than big enough to fit our group, and the first solid twenty minutes were devoted to letting everyone watch the view and take photos. Of course it was pouring rain so all my photos are rather grey and water-streaked, but given that this is London I think it only fitting.

During the last 10 minutes, two company people pulled out their laptops and did a PowerPoint presentation – yes, right in the capsule – on the merits of the ZPen, a special pen that will convert script written on any type of paper into text. It’s quite nifty. I’d been saying Zee Pen this whole time but of course it’s actually Zed Pen, heh. Americans are the only people who say zee instead of zed; even Canadians say zed.

After our ride, the bulk of the group headed for the Firehouse Pub near Waterloo Station for some more . . . celebrating? Bonding? I’m not sure, except that it involved more free drinks. Yes, more. I think I set a record today. I got a Singapore Sling, which is basically an alcoholic Shirley Temple. Very yummy. On top of that we all got a free ZPen (which retails for £99.99, sweet) and a free tote that is perfect for transporting groceries. The organizers of the outing – from a PR firm, not actually part of the company – were incredibly nice and made sure to talk to me and Brielle, and were very interested in where we were from and how we were liking the city. They would have bought us more drinks but at last we had to beg off and head home.

Despite the pouring rain it was an incredible day and I’m so glad I made the effort of responding to the press invitations (the London Eye almost didn’t happen – they just found spots for us this morning). You never know what will happen!


Saturday, June 5

We’ve seen a great deal of the city today. We journeyed south to the Brixton Market to satisfy Megan’s craving for Jamaican jerk chicken. Brixton apparently forms the hub of London’s West Indian population. Although the market isn’t that large it is rather confusingly laid out, so it took us some time before we could hunt down the elusive chicken. The densely packed stalls, grimy streets and thick Caribbean accents all around brought me right back to the Bahamas. I didn’t even have to close my eyes to imagine I was in Nassau. At last we found some food stalls and I ended up buying my chicken from a teeny shop underneath a staircase. I found the chicken quite tasty but really enjoyed the beans & rice drizzled with curry sauce that went with it.

From grubby Brixton we headed to posh Pimlico and the Tate Britain museum to view Martin Creed’s Work #850. Which was . . . running. Literally, a young sprinter pelting through part of the gallery every 30 seconds. When Megan first described this art installation to me I thought it ridiculous and wondered again how some people got paid huge sums for bizarrely simple works of “art.” The actual thing, though, was surprisingly captivating. Megan and I stayed in this gallery watching people run by for over an hour. An hour. We would have stayed even longer but the runners finally stopped their circuit about 6 p.m. There’s something mesmerizing about standing in a long, echoing gallery and every 30 seconds, almost to the second (we timed it) someone blowing by at top speed, huffing and puffing all the while. It’s like a slow-motion tennis match, watching the runners traverse one end of the gallery to the other every half a minute—you can’t take your eyes off them. I still find the concept a little strange (and envy an artist who gets paid for having other people run for him), but in person the installation is well worth seeing. Especially since it's free!

We intended to head straight home after the museum but somehow ended up wandering along the Thames and up Whitehall all the way past Trafalgar Square. We lingered for quite a while outside Parliament, playing with camera settings and experimental shots. I have so many photos of Parliament and Big Ben but I can’t help taking more every time I see it; the building is just too gorgeous. On top of that we got sidetracked by the dazzling purple flowers in Parliament Square.

In a moment of happy randomness we found Trafalgar in the grip of the London Pride Festival. A few thousand people were packed into the small square watching some young pop star strutting about on a stage erected beneath Nelson’s statue. A good chunk of the LGBT crowd were elaborately costumed in leather and feathers and outrageous wigs, and an exuberant young man was dancing shirtless among the pillars of the National Gallery. Fun!

The singer finished her set and a manager came onstage directing everyone to watch the large screen for . . . . the season finale of Dr. Who. As in the actual television episode, blown up on the screen that had just been showing the concert. As in they stopped an entire rocking festival in its tracks to settle down and watch a TV show. WHAT.

I can’t imagine any American concert pausing to air Lost or Desperate Housewives. I knew Dr. Who was huge over here, but I had no idea it was that huge. Oh, England. I love it when you’re weird.

4th of July!

Friday, July 4

“Are you wearing red white & blue?” Megan demanded over the phone.
“Ah, I was,” I said. “I thought it would look silly—”
“Yes ma’am!”

Megan and Brielle and I banded together like good Americans to celebrate the 4th of July. As commanded Megan and I literally embodied the stars & stripes. Oh, yeah. Rock on, America!

We trotted over to the British Museum, literally across the street from my flat, to check out its 4th of July celebrations. Inside the museum’s massive main lobby we encountered blasting big band music and a line of dancers performing what I believe was the Charleston. Those . . . are not even from the same era, but okay. The line for hot dogs was simply impossible, but we found a nice surprise outside: free Krispy Kreme donuts! Pretty much the perfect symbol of Americans’ love of sugar and excess.

The museum had promised American football and basketball “demonstrations” as part of the show, and they were quite amusing as could be expected. The football demonstration began with some of the goofy warm-ups players have to do, which garnered some chuckles from the crowd. And a crowd there was indeed, ogling the few scrawny players and their movements as if they were a rare zoo exhibit. “Have you ever actually seen an American football player?” I heard one British boy ask his friend behind me. “They’re huge!!”

A single Krispy Kreme donut not being enough, we walked down the street to Ultimate Burger where Megan and I split a massive, juicy hamburger, thereby truly fulfilling our Americanness. If only we could have had some fireworks or sparklers, the day would have been perfect.

The Mousetrap

Tuesday, July 1st

I met up with Megan and another acquaintance to see Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap at St. Martin’s Theatre, near Covent Garden. It’s been playing non-stop since 1952; at 56 years straight it is London’s longest-running play.

And with good reason: the action is quick, the mystery gripping, and the dialogue clever. I had never heard the story of The Mousetrap and I was really glad I hadn’t; it made the play wonderfully suspenseful and exciting. During the intermission we furiously debated who the murderer could be, going through rounds of “I totally think it’s him,” “It seems like it could be him, so it can’t,” and “Maybe it’s been her all along.” And then the twist ending took us all by surprise anyway!

Windsor Castle

Saturday, June 28

We left the familiar environs of London today and headed for Windsor Castle, about half an hour outside the city by train. Queen Elizabeth II still lives there much of the year, making Windsor the largest residential castle in the world. And large it was indeed. It took us over three hours to explore all the grounds and public rooms, and that doesn’t even cover the large section of castle (gated off) where the queen actually lives. The flag was flying proudly the day we visited, meaning the queen was in residence. Megan tells me that occasionally people have been able to spot the queen out walking. Considering the beauty of the garden beneath the Round Tower, I’d want to stroll through it too even if it meant thousands of tourists would be snapping my photo.

Most of our time was spent touring the public rooms in the area of the castle formerly used by kings and queens past (with no interior photography allowed, alas). The rooms were . . . rather unusual. The private rooms, such as the king and queen’s bedrooms, were quite small, which makes sense when you think of the difficulty of heating even the smallest spaces centuries ago. The larger reception and banquet rooms were cluttered with furniture – all of it beautiful but many pieces quite faded and threadbare. I can only imagine that they really are antiques that once belonged to former rulers. No one could ever use them again but they can’t be tossed or even refurbished because they are chairs! Used by James II! Therefore precious! Etc.

The walls of all these rooms were fascinatingly decorated. In the private rooms valuable paintings covered every inch of wall space. My favorite was a very rare painting of young Queen Elizabeth I – I’d only ever seen portraits from when she was far older.

In quite a few of the public rooms, however, weapons took center stage. I have never seen a greater array of swords, daggers, spears, muskets, and pistols in my life. Not only were all these weapons displayed prominently on the walls all the way up to the soaring ceilings, they were arranged into artful patterns and swirling rosettes. Yes: rosettes made out of 17th-century pistols. Wild! Some of the swords displayed truly exquisite worksmanship, as did the suits of armor lining the halls. One room proudly showed off tributes and spoils from centuries past: a Turkish robe, an Incan crown, a carved African staff, bejeweled trinkets from around the world. And more weapons, of course.

Afterward we wandered along to the church within the walls, St. George’s chapel. It is quite a shock to absently look down and realize you are standing above the remains of Henry VIII and his third wife Jane Seymour. My degree is in History; clearly I know quite a bit about history and have read a great deal on various famous figures. Yet they never seem real in books, real in the sense that these were people going about their daily lives, existing in their time period much like anyone else in the world. But to visit the place where Henry VIII and Elizabeth I and Victoria all lived in their turn, to wander the same halls and parapets they did—that is what makes history real to me.

King Lear

Thursday, June 26

Seeing King Lear at the Globe Theatre marks my favorite memory of London so far. I’ve seen quite a few Shakespeare plays performed live, several by the actual Royal Shakespeare Company, but never a performance in England itself. And never while standing below the stage as a peasant!

Tickets for the covered seats ran about £15, but standing tickets were only £5. Peasants it was. We arrived in good time and snagged excellent spots literally right next to the stage – we could rest our elbows on it. A supporting pillar blocked some of the view, but being right next to the action was worth it. Occasionally we would feel the need to duck when an actor’s skirt or sword swung too close.

The play was magnificent. I’ve always loved King Lear, and seeing it brought to life by extraordinarily talented British actors thrilled me to my toes. David Calder was fantastic as Lear; he spends most of the play mad as a hatter and running around in his nightgown while rambling nonsensically, but his rise into sanity and sheer majesty at the end was wonderfully affecting. I have a strong memory from my college English Lit class of the professor discussing Shakespeare’s way with words and the incredibly powerful repetition of Lear’s anguished “Never . . . never . . . never . . . never” over the dead Cordelia. My professor’s brief reading of the line was enough to quiet my class; to see it performed in its full context and an entire crowd of several hundred people absolutely riveted and hushed into utter silence – there are no words.

The rest of the cast was just as impressive. Regan and Goneril were delightfully screechy and cunning, while Edgar’s Welsh accent only added to his charm. The riotous swordfight between Edgar and Edmund at the end was absolutely thrilling. It’s difficult to create a believable fight scene on a stage, and the production pulled it off brilliantly.

Standing like a peasant throughout the 3-hour play was….interesting. The novelty was really fascinating at first, but after awhile everything started to ache. At intermission we all flopped down on the ground, desperate to sit – and the play was only half over! Shakespeare’s words were beautiful, but at a certain point I began to wish Lear would quit monologuing and just get on with it.

Now, the center of the Globe Theatre is open to the sky; only the seats and most of the stage have any sort of roof. This being London, about 2/3 of the way through the play it began to rain. Of course. The rain slowly built in intensity with the acts onstage. Luckily for us, we were so close to the stage and its overhanging roof that we were mostly sheltered; we only got a bit damp while others in the crowd became soaked. Not a single person left, though. Even sopping wet, how could you ever want to miss a moment of Shakespeare?