Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Art and Easter in London

I experienced a minor panic attack last week when I looked at my planner and realized my semester in London is nearing its end. I dug out my notebook and began scribbling everything I still wanted to do and see in the British capital before my I fly away May 1. Then I got to work.

Thursday afternoon, my friend and I hopped on a red double-decker to Somerset House, a royal house turned ministry office building turned museum. By a stroke of luck, we picked one of the two days this month that the museum conducted free guided tours about the building's history. So, we learned who had lived in the house, we saw the five graves that are curiously in the building's basement and we found out which Hollywood hits had used Somerset House as there backdrop. We also toured the Courtauld Gallery featuring Van Dyck, Rubens, Renoir, Seurat, Monet and Van Gogh, amongst others. Seeing the masterpieces in the regal Georgian house seems entirely fitting for the collection.

Friday morning, I took the tube across town to Westminster Cathedral (for a Good Friday service). Less than a ten-minute walk to Buckingham Palace, I decided it was about time I saw the changing of the guards. I approached from behind the palace and as I came to the gate, I found several hundred people had my same idea. At 10 minutes past 11 (the ceremony supposedly started at 11.30), I could hardly see the guards' red jackets through the iron bars. At least six police managed "crowd control," keeping everyone on the sidewalk. I walked across the street to the center fountain and watched. After about 20 minutes of slower music, which uniformed musicians played sitting inside the gate, everyone stood up and put their chairs away. The massive gold-adorned iron gate suddenly began to open, the band began playing a traditional march and they stamped out in perfect unison. Then another group left and another. The gates closed and all of a sudden, the crowd began to migrate in all directions away from the palace. The end.

Left with a few questions about the iconic ceremony, I walked on to Trafalgar Square, passing the brilliantly colored tulips of Green Park along the way. I grabbed a quick sandwich and walked out to typical London showers. So, I chose an indoor activity for the afternoon -- the National Gallery. Nervous about running out of time in London, I attempted to see the complete museum. A word to the wise...there is a lot to see...probably too much for one afternoon... But, I still could not draw myself away from the masterpieces. I saw a Da Vinci drawing, Caravaggio paintings, Rembrandt, Raphael, a Boilly oil painting (I found the polished detail by the French 19th century painter fascintating), Monet's water lillies and Van Gogh's sunflowers. The collections take visitors through centuries of art in a single visit.

My flatmate and I walked down our steps a few minutes before 9 Saturday morning. With friends traveling over the long weekend and no other plans for that evening, we decided to visit the half-price ticket stand. We had a list of musicals ranked to our preference as we set off for Leicester Square to find tickets. The lady at the ticket booth slowly and painfully dampened our spirits. "The Lion King" was sold out. "Hairspray" was not offering half-price tickets that evening.The only "Billy Elliot" tickets left, even at half-price, topped our price range. And, the list of "no's" continued. Dejected, we headed back into the morning drizzle to catch the tube home. Just next to the station was one more half-price stand and we decided to ask one more time. "Billy Elliot?" No. "Hairspray?" No. "Chicago?" Two half-price tickets, front row, just off-center. Sold to the two ecstatic flatmates standing in the rain.

The dancer in me loved being inches from the action. We saw every wink Roxie gave, a very lucky spot for viewing the subtleties of a Fosse show. "Cell Block Tango," "Roxie" and the finale stood out as my favorite acts. The energy and rhythms made me tap along with the choreography. Being right in the action made the show that much stronger. After the show, the rain outside pushed my flatmate and I into a cozy Italian restaurant just around the corner from the Covent Garden theater. We split a bruschetta and a tiramisu and gushed about the show.

Before dispersing for our respective Easter morning services, my flatmate and I gobbled down quick hot cross buns--my Mom always said they made her think of Easter, and in a weak moment at the grocery store, I grabbed a pack for Easter breakfast. As another friend and I walked into Westminster Cathedral about an hour later, we faced quite a different scene than I experienced Friday morning. The dark brick church was illuminated by enormous sprays of Easter lilies at the front of the cavernous structure. People packed the entire nave of the church to its capacity. And the voices of the full choir filled the space with traditional hymns.

After mass, we met up with friends who had dispersed at different services and found an Easter brunch. We found a pancake restaurant in Chelsea that served thin pancakes with a diameter the size of a car's steering wheel, topped with anything from apples and cinnamon to chile con carne to lamb stew to sundried tomatoes and feta. I ate up every bite of my veggie and cheese pancake, which I found very similar to a crepe. With gloomy weather overhead, we chose to nix the Easter walk through Hyde Park and indulge in Easter naps.

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