Venetian Law at The Globe

It was a last minute thing. Zoe, her roommate, Kelly, and I were in the kitchen Sunday night, and we started talking about the things we wanted to do in London. Shakespeare’s Globe naturally came up. Thirty minutes later we had tickets for Measure for Measure for the next day (thanks to the magic of WiFi).

Shakespeare's Globe. © Violet Acevedo
Shakespeare’s Globe. © Violet Acevedo

I love Measure for Measure. Most people have never heard of it (including Zoe), but I think its Shakespeare’s deepest and most complex comedy. Besides the usual themes about love and relationships, it also deals with sexuality, duty, purity, hypocrisy, feminism, and more. I read it for a writing class and have been smitten with it ever since.

The play takes place in a bawdy version of Vienna where people are constantly having sex outside of marriage and prostitutes are visible in the public sphere. (It’s probably not far from the real Shakespearean Vienna, but that’s not the point.) The Duke of Vienna wants to crack down on this immoral behavior but doesn’t want to seem like the bad guy. So he runs off, leaving his hard-ass deputy, Angelo, in charge. Angelo takes it upon himself to enact various old, very strict laws and sentences a guy to death for getting his finance pregnant. This guy’s sister, Isabella, who is minutes away from taking her vows as a nun, is sent for to help persuade Angelo to show mercy. Meanwhile, the Duke disguises himself as a friar and inserts himself into the crisis. Drama and hilarity ensues.

My ticket. © Violet Acevedo
My ticket. © Violet Acevedo

I would’ve jumped at any chance to see Measure for Measure live, but to see it at the Globe was something I couldn’t miss. I probably was the driving force behind our hasty ticket purchasing, but it was worth it. It helped that our tickets were pretty cheap. You see, because we’re poor college students in one of the most expensive cities of the world, we bought the £5 standing tickets.

It far from diminished our experience, though. Described as the “best seats in the house” by the Globe’s website, the area where we stood was where the common man in Shakespeare’s day would’ve stood. By standing there, we became “groundlings.” The walls and pillars of the theater towered over us and the actors looked out over our heads like giants, all of which enhanced the power and experience of the play.

The directors also staged the actors so they interacted with the standing audience. The prostitutes in the beginning pushed through the crowds, laughing and “drinking” literally feet from where we were standing. They even pulled the man in front of us up on stage with them. As we shuffled out of the way, Zoe and I looked at each, an expression of utter excitement on both of our faces. We both couldn’t believe what was going on, that a play could be so up-close and personal.

The view as a "groundling."
The view as a “groundling.” © Violet Acevedo

Things settled down once the Duke entered and all the actors stayed upon the stage above us. We were still so close that we could easily see the tears on Isabella’s face and the stitching in the Duke’s robe. To me, it was the most intimate a play has ever felt.

Overall, save for the occasional plane passing overhead, it was a fantastic performance. The acting was marvelous (especially Mariah Gale as Isabella and Dominic Rowan as the Duke). Everyone played their parts with the perfect blend of outrageous humor and somber drama. They perfectly captured all that I love about the play and more. I would see it again, and indeed I might.

There have been plenty of moments lately in which I can’t quite believe that I’m here in London doing these things. I felt like that the whole night, especially when I stepped out and ended up moving with the flow of the crowds across the Millennium Bridge towards St. Paul’s. The Globe behind me, the Thames below me, the lights of London in front of me, I almost couldn’t grasp what was happening to me…Almost.

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Portobello Road

I had already been to Portobello Road (I sort of stumbled upon it), but it was 5 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon. I had expected the famous shopping market praised in movies like Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Notting Hill, but there were only a few knickknack stalls and tired tourists.

I should’ve known better. The weekend, Saturday to be specific, is when the market is in full swing. It is on those days that the stalls stretch for about half a mile, even fanning out on to side streets. It attracts hundreds of people a day and sells everything from food to antiques to vintage clothing to crafts.

To use a cliche, it was all I expected and more. The size of it was astonishing. It was so big that most people stopped half way, so the farther down I got the smaller and more eccentric the stalls became. I was fascinated. I could’ve spent all day there.

As it happens, I think I’ll go back.

 

Tale of Two Teas

“What is more English than a good cup of tea?”

Chances are people wouldn’t be able to give you an answer. Tea is as English as their accent, but there isn’t just one way in which they take it. Below are the tales of the first times I had the most common ways of taking tea in England.

 

Cream Tea (Greenwich)

It was the day of the Thames boat tour. They dropped us off in Greenwich and left us to defend for ourselves. We had grouped together randomly, like bubbles in a bath. Several of the people in my group were still suffering from jet lag (it was the second day we were there), so once we were back on solid ground, caffeine was our first order of business. Based on the map that they gave us, there was a café near Greenwich Park. So in a drowsy haze we walked in that direction.

Everything was still so new to us: People driving on the opposite side of the street, the double decker buses, the winding roads. Despite our general lack of sleep, we were still curious and open to exploring. We found a random alleyway with shops and decided to wander down it.

At the end, was a sign hanging from a second story wall. I can’t quite recall the exact name of the place, but I do remember us being caught by the words “Café The Coffee.” We ambled up to the shop. Another sign outside was advertising “Cream Tea: scone, jam & clotted cream, and tea” for £3.50.

We peered inside. It was a little place. A chrome/laminate counter and register hid the coffee machines, ice cream freezer, and pastries and took up most of the space in the entry way. A man squeezed past us, coming back in from serving the people in the tables out front. A woman stood behind the counter making the coffee and guarding the food. A whiteboard menu hung above them. We could tell it was local, old, real.

We turned to each other and said something like, “This place looks good. The cream tea looks good. Let’s go in.”

I don’t know how many of us were just desperate for caffeine and didn’t really care where we went, but I was genuinely interested in the cream tea. Real English tea and scones in a local café? How could I say no?

The man led us to an upstairs sitting room, which was complete with plain, wooden tables and creaky floorboards. After a quick look at the menus he provided us, we knew what we wanted: one cappuccino with an ice cream cone, one herbal tea, and five cream teas.

Cream Tea in Greenwich. © Violet Acevedo
Cream Tea in Greenwich. © Violet Acevedo

When they arrived, we all gasped (either inwardly or outwardly) in eagerness. After the waiter left, we immediately went about eating our scones. We hesitantly put on the cream and jam, only vaguely aware of how we were supposed to eat it. Once everything appeared to be properly spread on my scone, I took a bite and fell in love.

In hindsight, the jam wasn’t the best, and the tea was probably Tetley (the most basic type of bagged tea here). But it was the first cream tea, the first tea and scone I had in England, and it will always remain delicious in my memory.

 

Afternoon Tea (South Kensington)

I’d been looking for an affordable afternoon tea since I stepped off the plane. Unlike cream tea, I’ve heard about this way of taking tea and was eager to try it. The second week we were there, my friend Zoe spotted an advertisement along Cromwell Road for an afternoon tea for two for £25. Perfect.

A little context before I continue. The Natural Science Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and Harrod’s are all located along the same section of Cromwell Road. As a consequence, the place is crawling with an equal mix of camera-toting tourists and Coach-toting rich.

So really there were only two possibilities as to which kind of place the restaurant could be. I should’ve seen it coming, but it was still new to the area. I was only vaguely aware of the character of the neighborhood. I hadn’t even been down that way on Cromwell Road yet. So I was hopeful and excited.

The restaurant was called Patisserie Valerie and loudly boasted its skills with a front window full of tempting deserts and treats. Inside, the light was golden and the wood paneling was polished. Everything shined. We were quickly seated off to the side at a two-person table. Our waiter had a French accent.

It was midafternoon (just around tea time) and the place was about half full. Looking around, several other tables were also having afternoon tea. There were families, couples, and friends all enjoying a tower of sandwiches, scones, and cakes. Zoe and I looked at each other, eager to get our own.

Afternoon Tea in South Kensington. © Violet Acevedo
Afternoon Tea in South Kensington with Zoe. © Violet Acevedo

The tower arrived along with a gleaming pot of tea. I went to pour, but stopped. Lightly amber-colored liquid filled the bottom of my tea cup. I could tell the tea wasn’t ready it. I looked inside the pot. A tea ball floated in the water. I let it alone to steep.

We started on the bottom of the tower with the sandwiches. They were traditional English finger sandwiches, cut thin and long without crust. They were savory, rich, and…a bit stale. I didn’t notice at first, but Zoe pointed it out afterwards.

The tea had been steeping for a good while now, so it was about as done as it was ever going to get. It was still a tad bland though. I’ve been drinking tea for a couple years now and have learnt the finer points of steeping. I knew what was wrong. Tea leaves need room to “breathe” so that the full flavor can come out. The restaurant had simply put too much tea within the tea ball. I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed.

As I sipped on my weaken tea, I looked out at the restaurant again. These people I saw before enjoying their afternoon tea were all tourists. They wore T-shirts and jeans, had cameras on the table, and bore wide-eyed looks to their faces. Zoe and I concluded afterwards that Patisserie Valerie was probably an upper-end chain (like Le Madeline in the US).

So was the thing a complete bust? No. The scones, jam, and clotted cream were wonderful. While the jam was obviously store bought, it was much better than what we had in Greenwich. The cakes, even though we were both pretty full by the time we got to them, tasted rich and satisfying . Add on the fact that it was a relatively cheap and easy way to experience our first afternoon tea, it was overall a pretty good tea time.

Wandering in Whitechapel

The London borough of Whitechapel is known for its Victorian murders, general poverty, and immigrant population. Like any place in a thriving metropolitan area, it has changed over the centuries. Populations have shifted, and economics have changed. Nowadays, according to the latest census data, the population is half-Asian, mostly Bangladeshis.

I went because of the market. I read a little blurb about it in Time Out: London and decided to check out. Armed with my camera and tennis shoes, I walked out of Whitechapel Station and into the bright sunlight. What I encountered was such a sharp contrast to the hyper posh-ness of South Kensington that it took me a moment to adjust.

The place was gritty and urban. Construction pylons ate up half the street. Graffiti adorned normally sparse corners. Some store windows were boarded-up. Others boasted prices with handwritten signs.

The market that I had heard about ran along a big chunk of Whitechapel Road. When I got there at 11 am on a Friday morning, it was far from peak business hours. Some were still setting up, but there were enough stalls open to give me an impression of what it was normally like.

Numerous places sold cheap headscarves (6 for £10) and pieces of Southeast Asian clothing. Others sold luggage bundles and wallets. A few sold shoes. A couple produce. Even though the market was still getting into the swing of things, many people were out shopping, mostly Muslim women. I could tell they were Muslim because they practiced various degrees of veiling: from a causal hijab to a full-body burqa. Men were out in force too, chatting in nearby fried chicken shops or surveying their stalls.

After a few moments to get my bearings, I began to walk around and take photos. What I found most fascinating about Whitechapel as I was exploring was not the immigrant population, but the little pockets of gentrification. With both the Royal London Hospital and housing for University of London nearby, students and professionals directly mixed in with the immigrants. As a result there were seemingly random indie coffee bars and cafes. I even spotted what looked like a gastropub and a cronut-selling bakery. These were amongst not only the market but also small stores selling everything from cheap household goods to Islamic literature.

It was strange yet intriguing. I attempted to capture this urban, eclectic Whitechapel in my photographs.

Cousin in Cambridge

My cousin is stationed right outside of Cambridge, so, of course, I had to visit him. (But honestly, I didn’t need an excuse to see the town.) My time was brief; just enough to get a taste of the place. We stumbled upon their Food, Garden, and Produce Festival in Parker’s Piece where we got a taste of English food and the chance to hold an owl or falcon. We also walked into a craft fair with local artisans selling everything from pottery to fountain pens.

The main highlight, though, was going on a punting tour of the River Cam. The weather was beautiful and people were out in abundance. I, of course, took plenty of pictures.

Malaysia in Westminster

No class on Fridays (for now) means that I have time to explore and try new things. I found out about a Malaysian food festival (called Malaysia Night) going on at Trafalgar Square and decided to check it out with my friend.

I started at Piccadilly Circus (arriving in time for a brief rain shower) and made my way to the square. Once there, I encountered large crowds and amazing smells. It was invigorating. The day had quickly turned gorgeous, so my friend and I decided to also walk down to Westminster Palace.

I, of course, took pictures every step of the way.

The Victoria and Albert Museum

The Cromwell Road entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum. © Violet Acevedo
The Cromwell Road entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum. © Violet Acevedo

Every class in the abroad program is required to take at least two field trips. For my British television class, I went to the BBC (as I detailed before). For my  British journalism and culture class, we went to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Established in the 1850s, it was meant to be a source of education and inspiration for the masses, showcasing the best designs from around the world and across the centuries. 150+ years later, the museum is still fulfilling this purpose. The curating and design is some of the best I’ve ever seen. Time and space are mixed in interesting ways. The galleries are maze-like. I was constantly being surprised.

Because I visited the V&A for class, I had to do a write-up of the place. The prompt was to give a general account of the museum and one feature that we found most noteworthy. To reduce redundancies, here’s an abridged version of my write-up:

“Nothing stands near it. On the opposite side of Cromwell Road, stores and apartments huddle together and stare with their flat-faces down at the shoppers. But this building is alone. Quiet and regal, it stand back from the street and towers over the people on its steps with well-meaning grandeur. Made up of brick and white stone, the Victoria and Albert Museum is not as imposing as the other Victorian buildings found in South Kensington. But once you step inside, you know it’s not just another Victorian relic.

“Time and space is fluid here. Decades of expansions and renovations have created a maze of galleries that span centuries and continents. A contemporary exhibit to the left. Medieval statues to the right. Things seem to shift and change almost at will…

Narcissus and
Narcissus and “The Tower of Babel.” © Violet Acevedo

“There’s a new installation not far from the lobby called The Tower of Babel. Made up of hundreds of ceramic recreations of London stores, The Tower soars high above level 2’s balconies. The museum has even provided binoculars to see to the top. According to the artist, it’s supposed to be a commentary on modern consumerism, our  apparent religious-like tendency to shop and spend. To add to the meaning, each ceramic store is for sale. Dozens of them have already sold. This monument to London’s modern economy stands amongst the smooth faces of medieval and renaissance statues. Narcissus, Jason, and Samson watch the people crowding around The Tower with blank eyes. Only the art students seem to pay the ancient statues any attention.

“Near The Tower are the Asian galleries. They reach farther back in time, thousands and thousands of years. Turkish rugs cover whole walls. Teapots huddle in small glass cases. In a Chinese gallery, a chair sits in the middle of the room. Elegant and simple, mimicking styles that have been around longer than the building it sits in. Hanging behind it is a painting from the 2014. Made of textured oils, the colors blend into a chaotic beauty.

“Time and space are more stable on the upper levels, but there are still surprises. On level 3 is a long series of galleries showcasing ironwork from across the centuries: Intricate gates and elaborate locks from the middle ages to the 1920s to the present day. Down at the end of the galleries are panes of colored Plexiglas. They run along a short corridor, standing out amongst the white walls and floor. Irregular holes are cut into them so that visitors can walk through to the other side. It leads to a gallery not yet opened to the public.

“You can get lost in that maze of galleries. The map doesn’t accurately portray the expanses within these Victorian walls…”

The BBC

I visited the BBC today for class.

I write that sentence like it was no big deal, but I was extremely excited beforehand. I love BBC shows (at least what they export to the US): Doctor Who, Monty Python, Call the Midwife, Sherlock, BBC News, etc. They’re responsible for getting me interested in Britain, which, of course, led me here.

The BBC trip was in conjunction with my British Television Studies class, in which we look at all aspects of British TV from the broadcasters to the programing itself. We’re focusing mainly on the BBC because it’s such a big name, and it’s struggling, in some ways, to adapt to the modern age. You see, the BBC is not paid for by advertising or subscriptions; instead it’s paid for by a licensing fee. Every time someone buys a TV for the first time in the UK, they have to pay the BBC an annual licensing fee. It doesn’t matter if they don’t watch the BBC; they still have to pay the fee. To get around it, people are now choosing simply not to buy a TV and watch everything online. Its a bit complicated and antiquated. Overall, not the best system in an age where people can still watch TV without a TV.

BBC's London Headquarters, New Broadcasting House. © Violet Acevedo
BBC’s London Headquarters, New Broadcasting House. © Violet Acevedo

Anyway, whatever you think of the BBC, their London headquarters is pretty cool to see. Their new building (opened in 2012 next to their old one) is large and curved, the glass sides swooping towards you as you walk in. Inside, the walls are plastered with pictures of their numerous successful shows, and in the guest lobby, you’ll find a life-sized TARDIS and Dalek standing guard. There’s a small café and shop, too, ready to take tourists’ money.

On the right side of the guest lobby, a bank of windows stands, with signs declaring, “No Photography Allowed.” Our tour started here because below these windows is the newsroom. Arena sized and filled with dozens and dozens of desks, the room is the beating heart of the BBC local and international news. Everything on their websites, radio stations, and TV shows eventually makes its way through there. And off to the side is the international news desk, meaning that when you watch BBC World, the screens and people behind the anchor are from a real newsroom and are not a projection.

The tour continued with a visit to The One Show studio (a celebrity evening talk show) and on to Old Broadcasting House. Constructed in the 1930s, the building was the original headquarters of the BBC and hosted a variety of celebrities throughout the twentieth century. Even though their new headquarters (dubbed New Broadcasting House) opened three years ago, the older building is still in use (though to a much smaller extent).

BBC's old London Headquarters, Old Broadcasting House. © Violet Acevedo
BBC’s old London Headquarters, Old Broadcasting House. © Violet Acevedo

Once inside, they showed us the original lobby and the theater. Broadcasting history saturated the walls. At least the tour guides made it seem that way. Many of the celebrity names they mentioned were quite literally foreign to us. They then led us through the building, eventually making our way to the interactive studios where people from our group had a chance to pretend to report the news and make a radio play. It was all kind of hokey, but fun nonetheless.

Looking back, it was all pretty underwhelming. Enjoyable at the time, but I longed to see more. Then again, I guess there’s only so much that they can show the general public. Trade secrets and all. (Think Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.)

Plus as I’m learning in my class, the BBC is not the end all be all of great British TV. In America, we tend to put BBC programming up on a pedestal and label it with words like “craft” and “quality.” But as my professor says, sometimes you need to put on your “bull-shit glasses” and block out the PR campaigns.

Regardless, the BBC will always have a specially place in my heart, and I’m glad I got to see part of where it all comes from.

Lazy Day in Hyde Park

I’m grateful that Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens are about a ten minute walk from my dorm. I’m truly in love with them. London’s equivalent to Central Park, the parks covers several hundred acres and are crisscrossed with paths (paved and unpaved) and dotted with statues and water features. When the weather is nice, the place is absolutely gorgeous and hundreds of people can be found walking, running, biking, reading, picnicking, and all around enjoying this little slice of nature in this urban hub. I go there whenever I can, and on Saturday I brought my camera.

From Piccadilly to Trafalgar

Friday night, what can we do? We didn’t want to go out clubbing. We thought about a pub, but we didn’t want to pay the higher weekend prices. So, what else is there? Don’t worry, it didn’t take us long to decide on something. This is London after all. You’re only bored if you want to be.

In the end, we choose to go to Soho. We’d heard good things about it and decided to check it out. So, we hopped on the Tube and got off at Piccadilly Circus, the closest station. The station shares its name with the intersection it’s located in. Now, I’ve also heard a many people talk about that place.

“It’s the Times Square of London,” they said.

Well, they weren’t wrong. While it is relatively smaller and less ostentatious than Times Square, the resemblance is certainly there. The place smelt of exhaust fumes and asphalt. Several screens twisted around one major building, advertising everything from Coke-a-Cola to Samsung and lighting up the street below in harsh, white light brighter than the full moon. The noise was immense as thousands of people and cars squeezed past each other and everyone tried to negotiate the messy cross-section of streets. Further down the lights of famous theaters shone with all the might of international show business. We walked around gaping like the lost tourists we were as others pushed past us or took selfies.

Yup, just like Times Square.

© Violet Acevedo
Can’t escape American chocolate. © Violet Acevedo

There were even some of the same stores. Besides the biggest souvenir shop I’ve ever seen (you have to check out Cool Britannia, the place is crazy), I spotted an M&M World, a TGI Fridays, a Bubba Gump Shrimp, a Ripley’s  Believe it or Not, among others things. The plays being advertised at the theaters were the same as the ones in New York City: The Lion King, Wicked, Jersey Boys, etc. I was simply amazed at how Americanized it all was.

We soon got away from the tourist madness and strolled towards Trafalgar Square. It wasn’t exactly on our way, but I insisted. I had an urge to see it.

I read a book three years ago called Blackout by Connie Willis, a well-known British sci-fi author. The book and its sequel, All Clear, centered on a group of time traveling historians stuck in London during the Blitz. For some reason or another, the people and places of the books have stuck in my mind, especially one place: Trafalgar Square.

VE Day Celebrations in London, England, UK, 8 May 1945 D24586.” Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

I forget the exact roll it played in the plot, but I do remember it being important for at least being the sight of the VE celebrations. I remember the lions in particular. You see, in the center of the plaza is a memorial to Admiral Nelson (who died in the Battle of Trafalgar during the Napoleonic Wars) and surrounding a grandiose pillar and statue of the man are four, bigger-than-life, bronze lions.

When we got to the square and saw the lions, I freaked. I mean literally jumping up and down, squealing with excitement. My friends looked at me, trying to understand my sudden and intense burst of enthusiasm. They had never heard of the place before now, and they couldn’t understand why I was reacting the way I was.

Big Ben stands in the distance from Trafalgar Square. © Violet Acevedo
Big Ben stands in the distance from Trafalgar Square. © Violet Acevedo

I didn’t respond this way when I first saw Big Ben or the London Eye the second day I was here. (Seeing them from the plane was different.) But that’s because they didn’t feel the same to me. Unlike those famous landmarks, the lions felt more real. I’ve seen the other sights so many times in photos and movies that they didn’t seem like they could possibly live outside the world of fiction. Trafalgar Square and its lions, however, were just on this side of reality for me to believe my eyes when I saw them. Having them in front of me, really brought home the fact that I was in London, and I was ecstatic.

We eventually made it to Soho, but I’ll never forget seeing Trafalgar Square for the first time. The lights of Piccadilly Circle were nothing to the quiet grace of the lions guarding Admiral Nelson.