Monday, November 24, 2008

Karaoke at The Cotswold

Apparently my social life isn't public enough... There are a lot of fun things to do in Cheltenham (it's a University town, you can figure out the rest), but none of them are better than karaoke night at The Cotswold. Every Wednesday we - and recently a rather large group of friends - trek two whole blocks from our flat to sing, dance, and generally make merry. Karaoke night is surrounded by mystique and steeped in a solid two months of tradition, so naturally I can show you all of my photos. It really does feel like we just got to the U.K., now that I think about it....

Right, karaoke! We know the regulars now: The Dancing Ken, The Blues Brother, Helmet Girl... and I think this relaxed social climate is what I'm going to miss most about living in England. There's just nothing like it around Messiah.

I could write you whole pages on this, but we all know you're just interested in the pictures. So, here it is!

This incredible gentleman is the reason people like me shouldn't be allowed out in public. He sings all of the jazzy, bluesy classics (he even serenaded me last week!) with that gruff, soulful voice and I struggle not to run up and join him. So far Chad and Gager have been more than happy to help keep me seated.

1) The Dancing Ken (yes, that's what he goes by; he's a local celebrity who raises money for charity) and Mr. Good Voice.

2) Some dancing, some singing... we're just getting started here.

3 & 4) English friends! I'm going to miss chilling with these guys so much. They are all funny, smart, and more than willing to make asses of themselves singing the Rickroll (not even my idea!) to a packed house.

And, of course, the final video just embodies the best of Wednesday nights at The Cotswold. I think it's self-explanatory. Get well soon Élise, I hope this helped!

Birmingham: The Anberlin concert

My life has been relatively boring of late, but all that's going to change this weekend; I'm going to Ireland! (Real Ireland, not that little lump they call "North Ireland.") In the mean time, here's a new post to appease Élise. Last Saturday four of us went into Birmingham to a place called The Bar Fly for an Anberlin concert. To be honest, I'd never heard of them before, but I figured it was better than spending my entire weekend writing a paper for Hinduism class (I finished it today, yay!). They were OK. I like them a lot better in concert than I do on the computer, but that's more to do with their stage presence than their musical talent.

I don't really have any complaints one way or the other. Here are the music and photos for your multimedia viewing pleasures:

A Night in Birmingham:

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sharing an Image

Brice sent me this image, and I thought it was a good conversation starter. So, here it is!

What do you think?
Best Response: Bordering on the Esoteric

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Love's Labour's Lost

I considered titling this post "Stratford-Upon-Avon," but since we didn't actually see Stratford I thought that would be a little misleading. No worries, though! We're going for a day sometime next week to get a feeling for the town, pay our respects to dear old Bill, and gain admittance into that special club of literary fanatics who legitimately care about those sorts of things. Oh! We attended this performance at The Courtyard Theatre. It's not the nicest venue in the world, that's for sure, but I'm led to understand that they are renovating some of the other theatres in the area. Then again, it was only opened in 2006, so I guess it's pretty decent as far as modern staging and seating arrangements go. Any way you dice it, we had a good time.

So, first things first: the plot. Love's Labour's Lost is one of Shakespeare's early comedies, and (as far as my experiences in the world of academia indicate) one of his lesser-known (but not apocryphal) plays. It tells the story of King Navarre and his court of men. Navarre convinces his three friends to abandon worldly pleasures and devote themselves wholly to study for three years. They have given their word, and the first two sign Navarre's contract without complaint. When it comes to Biron, a word-twisting epitome of sarcasm and wit, he pauses. Surely the King has made a mistake? No women? Fasting? Little sleep? After a splendidly witty debate, they all sign themselves into scholastic servitude.

Besides, they've got Don Adriano de Armado to look forward to. Three years spent studying how to best mock him seems short! And Armado is, indeed, an idiotic peacock. Don Armada loves a peasant girl, and is accompanied by a witty page boy. He, two scholars, and a clownish commoner called Costard (I didn't alliterate on purpose, but I'm leaving it there all the same) make up this play's equivalent of Bottom and the Tradesmen in Midsummer Night's Dream. They give a nice, plucky sub-plot, provide some intense word-play, and perform a severely mocked masquerade for the nobility at the end.

It turns out our boys have their work cut out for them. They forgot that the a French princess and her ladies would be visiting, and they cannot turn her party away. They send the women to sleep in the field, all four of them secretly in love with one of the ladies. As they go about how best to address their ladies fair, Shakespeare gets in a good bit of his usual punning, social satire, and wit. This play easily has the most elevated, whimsical use of language (as far as puns and double-entendres are concerned) of any Shakespeare play I've encountered. While Biron plans to woo his lady, he spies the King composing a letter to express his feelings. Ferdinand then hears someone coming and hides himself, so he and Biron spy on Longaville, and the process repeats itself as those three spy on Dumain. They then proceed to expose themselves one at a time, punishing the prior for his hypocrisy while never admitting their own faults. The process gets all the way back to Biron, and for a moment it looks as though he'll get to chide the other nobles without being exposed as a lover himself, but then Costard comes running back in with a mis-delivered letter addressed to Rosaline from Biron.

In the RSC production we saw, Biron goes through all sorts of antics to keep his compatriots from the letter, but as they begin to piece it back together he confesses to save himself the embarrassment of discovery. So, all guilty of breaking their vows and all truly, madly, deeply, in that lustful state of puppy-love that Shakespeare writes so often, they agree to woo the ladies.

Unfortunately, the women have word from their flamboyant servant that the noblemen are coming (dressed as Russians, no less) to make sport of them. Thinking that they cannot be serious in their suits, the women disguise themselves and exchange favors, thus confusing the men. Each pledges his undying love, but he pledges it to the wrong woman! When they return later, as themselves, the women flay them open for "infidelity" and explain that they were just taking the piss out of them. They have no intention of getting married (which is odd, considering how enamoured they seemed to be at the beginning of the play).

Well, you know how it goes. They bicker, they verbally spar, and ultimately they get word that the princess' father is dead. The women are suddenly somber and ready to leave, but the men are having nothing of that. They convince them to stay for "The Nine Worthies" (the B-team's production) using the logic that someone's performance has to be worse than the King's (aka, the horribly obvious Russian disguises). After a rather cruel roast, the women issue their ultimatum and depart. If the men can remain faithful for a year and a day, then the women will permit their courtships to continue.

Rosaline's is the hardest edict to follow; she tells Biron that he must go to the hospitals and use his wit to make sick people laugh, and if he cannot make them laugh then he must stop the mockery all together. I'm not sure if Biron goes through with it; in fact, I'd be surprised if he did, but that's the point of open-endings, isn't it? We don't know. It's like Measure for Measure in that respect. Does Isabella marry the Duke? Who knows.

This is one of those plays that keeps you laughing until the last 10 minutes. Then there's a moment of quizzical glances around the theatre as we all wonder whether we've seen a tragedy or a comedy. Maybe it's not quite as dark as the other mixed-mode plays, but it's definitely not a typical romance. Then again, when is Shakespeare ever interested in being typical?

If you haven't guessed it yet, Biron is my favourite. The fact that he was played by TV's current Dr. Who (David Tennant, also Harry Potter's Barty Crouch, Jr.) is only secondary to the great lines that Shakespeare gives him. As the other characters describe him: "Biron is like an envious sneaping frost / that bites the first-born infants of the spring." Now really, who doesn't love a figurative baby-biter? No one, that's who. Biron (Tennant) is the one in the blue mole-skin, in case you were wondering. I have never been a fan of what Chrissie and I affectionately call "diaper pants," but this man made them work.

The RSC chose to set the play in the country, staging the whole thing around a large tree that (I presume) is in the forest near and around the field where the ladies are staying. The men never go into court, at least not when we see them, so I don't know how useful the court v. country debate is here. There's really not that much evaluation of the environment, mostly it's just playful banter. Either way, the staging was gorgeous. The "leaves" acted as a curtain and camouflage, and Tennant climbed up and down the limbs like a monkey. I never realized what a tremendous physical actor he is; Dr. Who really doesn't do him credit, and I understand why he's ready to return to Shakespeare.

Tennant's wasn't the only face we recognized, though. His love interest, Rosaline, was played by Nina Sosanya of Love Actually fame. For you boys (all of whom will probably NOT be familiar with this actress or film), she plays a minor character called Annie. OK, I really shouldn't pick on the boys here. I didn't know any of this before Gager pointed it out to me, but my point is that these are some seriously diversified, gifted performers. They do a great job! I guess that's why it's the Royal Shakespeare Company.

They did such a good job that I bought myself a ticket for the "it" performance of the year, the one that you couldn't get tickets for if you tried, the one that's been sold out since the first day tickets went on sale: Hamlet, opening night, starring David Tennant in the lead role and featuring Patrick Stewart (yes, Élise, Jean Luc) as Claudius. The reviews are mind boggling, and it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as far as I'm concerned, so I took my money for the St. Tropez trip (which isn't happening anyways due to unforeseeable circumstances) and invested it in a somewhat legally re-sold ticket, a bus, and a hostel. I'm stupid, I know, but I don't regret it. I'm so excited I can't really sit still. It took me a good long time just to convince myself to sit down and type this much. I can't wait!

A Week with Fireworks

It started innocuously enough; late on Sunday evening the students gathered together for a bonfire. They immolated little straw men. They threw articles of clothing into the coals. They danced around it - drunk - like the primitive rites we imagine delighting our ancestors. It must have looked demonic from above. But I wouldn't know. I missed it, opting instead for a weekend abroad. When I awoke from my personal Bohemian rhapsody, Chelteham welcomed me back with a bang. Explosions in the court yard, Catherine's wheels overhead: and all because of a failed plot to demolish Parliament.

On Tuesday, some teens begged a penny for the Old Guy. Translation: "Will you help us buy explosives and booze?" I laughed, paused, and acquiesced. Fifty pence for the Old Guy. What a charming holiday, I thought. What a nice place. I woke early on the 5th - early by my standards, at least - and heard it again. A bang. And then another. Firecrackers in the alleys, bottle rockets in back yards, and all of them were popping into the foggy haze surrounding Cheltenham. A day to remember, this Guy Fawkes' Day. More than an excuse to watch V for Vendetta and quote T.S. Eliot. It didn't stop. At the first hint of silence, another insurgent took it upon himself to send up some form of screaming, screeching, popping charge.

By midnight the colours around us were as dense as their resulting trails of smoke, and no one wanted it to end. It didn't. The next night, the kitchen window: loud sounds from the lane, and bright lights in the sky. The process repeated throughout the night, from different windows, and again on different nights. For a whole week, we had explosions and colours and celebrations. I looked out my window and saw them. I grabbed my camera and shot them. I wanted to remember my week with fireworks.

And now that I'm sitting here, typing this entry and looking hopefully out the window, I know that I need a life full of lots and lots of fireworks.

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Fall the Fireworks.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Prague IV: The Weird Stuff

As they say in Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog, "We do the weird stuff!" But really, in the grand scheme of weird, extravagant, and generally odd things I encounter on a somewhat regular basis, Prague was pretty normal. There was, of course, the issue of the Dead Baby Public Art (left), but I'm not even going to hazard a guess as to what they were thinking when they erected those things. In a similar vein, we found some pretty hilarious sweat shirts (right) in one of the stores on our block. They had all sorts of interesting things in there, but that one took the cake. I think Prague is just one giant "dead baby" joke waiting to happen. They might be the new non-Internet dead baby capitol of the world. And let me tell you, the Brits in our flat are not going to relinquish that title without a fight. If you've never heard a dead baby joke, please don't google it (Mom).

I wouldn't say that gelato qualifies as "weird," but the fact that we only paid $2 for them does. These sundaes were enormous, delicious, and inexplicably (even by Prague's standards) inexpensive. We celebrated our first night in the city with them, in part because we didn't know when we'd find that much gelato for so little and in part because we were just really hungry. They had food and drinks on the plane, but they only got to the row in front of us before stowing the trolly for landing. Basically, we didn't eat anything after 9 AM at the train station until we sat down at around 7 PM for dinner. There is no reason anyone should ever go hungry in Prague - we ate at a series of very nice restaurants for around 10 dollars each, and the foods on the street carts and in the convenience stores was even cheaper. Not to mention, all of the restaurants have (at least) tri-lingual menus. So really, we even knew what we were eating. That's kind of a rarity for me these days - everything in England comes drenched in mushy peas and gravy.

We got very good, non-gravied crepes, salads, and lite lunches here almost every day. It's hidden in a courtyard off Národní (going from the water to the promenade it's on the right), and there are three or four wine bars in the adjacent buildings. I think I have a picture of the inside somewhere, but for simplicity's sake I'll leave it out. They've got it decorated in a cluttered country-home style, with lots of small bells hanging from the ceilling. It sounds tacky, I know, but it really worked for them.

This thing is called a "Hot Apple." I don't remember exactly what's in it, but it's a hot cider drink served with pieces of cinnamon and cloves (read: twigs). I normally wouldn't include something as mundane as this, but about 5 minutes after they brought out our drinks I convinced Chad to eat the cinnamon bark at the bottom of his cup. He did. Every last one. And then we decided we wanted dessert, but the kitchens were closed. So, I attempted to make something in the room. Our original plan was for bananas Foster, but the store didn't have any ice cream, so we amended that to cake. Except - remember, all the words were in Czech - instead of cake mix I ended up with frosting mix, so then we bought the single most disgusting pound cake I've ever tasted, "decorated" it, ate about five bites, and threw it away. I'm going to go ahead and say the Hot Apple was the culinary highlight of that late-night craving.

And this, if I'm not much mistaken, is every swan that ever lived in Prague. We were down at the docks for our twilight cruise, and a family was tossing bread crumbs into the river. I don't think I've ever seen that many swans together at one time, it felt a bit disconcerting. I don't know if it's residual memories from the time a goose chased my mother and a 5-year-old me back to our car and she kicked it across the lawn or if Hot Fuzz is finally getting to me, but they definitely made an impression. For some reason it reminds me of "The Ugly Duckling," except in this case the cygnet goes crazy and uses its arm-breaking beak to kill off all the ducks.

We found this club - N11 - while we were out looking for a place to dance on Saturday night. It doesn't look like much from the outside, but inside it had some of the best techno, trance, and 90's remixes I've heard in quite a while. We danced, we laughed, we sang along... a good time was had by all! It was a nice change of pace from the dance clubs in England, too. I don't know if you're aware, but every night is Halloween in an English club. We went out once and were accosted by Willy Wonka and (probably) 15 Oompa Loompas. And once I watched Batman puke on his own boots. Anyways, the people in Prague dress nicely and (that we saw) don't puke on their own shoes. Go Prague!

Speaking of Halloween, we were in Prague on the 31st. I didn't get a photo - to my eternal and undying shame - but we met a group of Czechs dressed as the Ghost Busters. The word "Slimer" in Czech might be the funniest thing I saw all weekend. The jury's still out, but it's down between "Slimer" and Max Payne (not my idea to sit through that piece of garbage -- it was, however, funny in its own pathetic, inaccurate way).

And this is a revision. I can't believe I forgot to put this stuff on here in the first draft!

This is the most extensive, completely fabulous tea shop in all of Prague. They must have had at least 2,000 different teas (individual types by box and brand) in this place. The man working there wasn't very helpful - I might have actually bought something if he'd seemed even slightly interested in what we were looking for, but he failed spectacularly. It's OK, though, I guess you have to expect the kind of person who would work in (or own?) a store like this to be stuck up and a little rude. It ruins the ambiance otherwise. In addition to all of their teas, they also had an upstairs section (roped off, probably to keep tourists like us out) that looked like it had a wide selection of tea pots and kettles. I wish we had gone up stairs, but even walking around smelling the different loose leaf varieties made the visit worth-while.

1) The Best Tree in Prague (not to be confused with The Worst Pies in London). It's in the park opposite the New Town Hall.

2) Exploring The Best Tree in Prague. Fun!

Prague III: The National Museum, Fountains, & Monuments

I know this is the part where I'm supposed to rave about how much we learned on our trip, and compliment the curators at the Czech Republic's National Museum, but I'm going to have to give this one a poor review. Prague - on the whole - has a lot of museums, all of which I'm sure are wonderful. I'm also sure that one weekend isn't enough time to see them, so we decided to go to "the big one" instead of a few smaller selections. That was a mistake. Prague's National Museum features one of the best collection of dust-covered taxidermy and rocks that I've ever seen, but aside from its vast halls full of dead and decaying matter (a bonus when accompanied by other Interesting Things) I was unimpressed. I guess when the nations were pillaging / raiding and stealing national treasures from their neighbors, the Czech Republic (Czechoslovakia, as it was back then) grabbed all the dead birds and hoarded them for itself. And dead fish. Did I mention there were three rooms full of dead fish? I was not impressed.

1) A box full of rocks - the gold coloured ones.

2) Mr. Fudge's big brother.

I think part of the problem is that I'm really used to learning museums where the artefacts have a certain context and signage attempts to explain each exhibit's place in "The Big Picture." This one was more of a Victorian box exhibit, which is fine when you're a geologist looking at shelves of rocks. But I'm a student of English, and unless there's more than a Latin subscript attached to an exhibit I don't know why its relevant. In their defense, they did offer audio tours. We could have tried that. Personally, I had a good time dragging the other two around and touching the big rocks on pedestals while security wasn't looking. I decided after the National Museum of Wales that we should continue to get pictures of ourselves touching things in museums. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

3) Touching a giant quartz crystal.

4) Touching a giant clam shell.

All in all, it only took us an hour and a half to see the whole thing. And really, it wasn't dreadfully boring for anyone but Gager. The building itself, however, is remarkably beautiful. It's one of the more impressive museums I've seen since coming to Europe (and the UK, but don't try telling them they're European). It's definitely one of the more iconic buildings in the city, that's for sure. I think buildings with large domes tend to stick out in my head, but I wonder why that is... Probably a cultural thing best left for later examination. Oh, and the museum was free for us to visit (as you can see, they were having some sort of national-celebratory-thing) but it usually costs 70 Koronas (around $3.50 US).

And now it's time for the monuments and fountains. I'm not even going to attempt to remember their names or locations, so just scroll through the pictures and think about how pretty they are. Oh, and that famous statue of St. Charles is included in the post about the Charles Bridge - that just seemed like the logical place to put it. He's the big green guy; Chris tells us that you can rub him for good luck and to return again or something. Beats tossing coins into Trevi fountain, I guess.

Monuments and Fountains

Other Clock Towers

Prague II: Karlův Most & Pražský Hrad

There are two places in Prague which every visitor is obligated to see: The Charles Bridge (Karlův most) and Prague Castle (Pražský hrad).

The bridge is easy - you're bound to cross the Vltava at some point, and when you do you'll probably see it on your immediate left or right (only pedestrians are allowed to cross on it). The Castle is a little more challenging. I suggest walking to it, since it's the best way to see more of the city and get a spectacular view of the valley. However, it is slightly up hill and there are a few stairs towards the top. No worries though - most people won't have a problem with the trek. Inside the palace is the St. Vitus, St. Wenceslas, and St. Adalbert Cathedral. We got a little carried away touring the cathedral, and as such completely missed the tours given inside the palace. So, be aware: Prague Castle is wonderful, but don't forget to actually go in it!

I think the simplest way to do this is photo-album style. You can google them yourselves if you want more details, and you can ask me (please sign or in some way indicate who you are on the comments!) to explain the photos. OK, here we go...

Charles' Bridge and the Surrounding Area

Prague Castle and the Surrounding Area