Part 13: France and England

Then it was our very last day of the trip. We had one final day in England so we decided to take a day trip to Cambridge. My husband had never been there. I had gone in 2003 as part of a high school band and chorus trip. I remember that it was a wondrous place.

My number one thing to do there was punting. Basically a punt is a long wooden boat that you maneuver with a giant wooden pole. The river Cam is fairly shallow so you just push off the bottom. When we were there in 2003, we had seen people punting and were keen to try it. Somehow we ran out of time. Since then, I had always wanted to return and remedy that error.  I also read Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome, which is a hilarious Victorian book. Yes, it’s about three men in a boat who are taking a vacation on the Thames. I highly recommend it. Even though they were boating down the Thames, I wanted to have a moment of that experience. So part of the plan was to quote some choice lines from the book as well.

We took the train in from King’s Cross, which was really convenient. We walked about 20 minutes from the station into the center of town. It was really neat to see all the different established colleges. Unfortunately, it was the holiday season so many were closed to the public. When we got near King’s College, we met some people offering punting tours. We decided to get the information about conditions, cost, etc. They were really trying to sell a tour to us. They said that it wasn’t really a good time to punt by oneself (of course, their conception of cold weather is a bit different from ours…). Plus the rains were coming so they suggested now was better than later in the day. We were a bit hesitant since I was hoping to have some time to do it ourselves. In order to seal the deal, they gave us a really good deal for us plus the promise that we could try punting for the last 10 minutes of the tour. Sold.


Back of King’s College from River Cam

We wandered with them to the dock and all packed into the boat with 9 other tourists. We were put next to the boatsman so we could have easy access when it came time for our turn. This did mean we would occasionally get sprinkled but I didn’t care. We were finally doing it!

It was magnificent to cruise on the River Cam, seeing the backs of many of the major colleges. We passed under the various bridges, including the Bridge of Sighs. Two theories about its name: one is that it looks like the Venetian Bridge of Sighs. (Sort of). The second is that students had to pass over it to go to their final exams. The tour was fine, not quite as in depth as I would have liked but it was worth doing. We learned that one of the colleges gives giant rooms with chandeliers to its honors upperclassmen. Some rooms even have grand pianos.  We also saw the Mathematical Bridge at Queen’s College. A bridge held together by physics and math (well, I suppose all bridges technically are). Rumors say that it was built without bolts and nails but it does have them.


Mathematical Bridge, Queen’s College

Then it was our time to try punting ourselves. I tried it first. That pole is really heavy. I think I had a decent hand at it. I could turn the boat and move it in a straight line. Then Scott tried it…he managed to bump into a houseboat nearby. 🙂 I did get a line or two of Three Men in a Boat in as I had planned.

Some day, we’ll come back and do some more punting solo. 🙂 I’m so pleased we were able to do it! 

After some lunch, we went to King’s College to check out the famous chapel. It was as beautiful as I remembered it. It’s a really astonishing building. There’s the beautiful stained glass, the carved wooden organ, and the soaring delicate ceiling. There were still some old symbols of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. We wandered a bit on the grounds afterwards, which was nice. It was so pleasant to walk around, even if it was mildly overcast day. (Thankfully the terrible rains held off until we got back to the train). We wandered a bit into various colleges that were open.


King’s College Chapel

We ended the afternoon at the Fitzwilliam Museum. It’s a bit like the British Museum in that it has a lot of pieces from very different eras and places in the world. They have Ancient Greece and Egypt, beautiful Meissen ceramics, Impressionist paintings, and so much more. In the Ancient Egyptian room, they had a case filled with cigar and other similar boxes from the Victorian era. These were used by archeologists to store artifacts. These boxes showed the kind of products archeologists used at the time. Very fascinating.

Another part of the museum had occupation currency from WWII. Basically, it’s the currency issued by the occupying country. There was the Japanese rupee and Japanese peso. Fascinating! I was also pleased that they had a little exhibit on political cartoons; some were extremely naughty. (Apparently scatological humor was in). In the 19th century section, there was a giant room with a balcony overhead. All along the balcony were tiny paintings. You could climb a wrought iron staircase and walk (carefully) along the balcony to see these tiny paintings. Very neat!


Victorian Artifact Storage



If you go to Cambridge, I highly recommend the museum. Oh yeah, it’s free too.

Then it was time to go back to London for a wonderful performance at St. Martins in the Fields on Trafalgar Square. We had seen advertisements for a candle lit concert of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. So we decided to go to a concert. It was lovely. We sat in the pews surrounded by candles. What a wonderful place to have a concert! They played several pieces from Baroque composers. The second half was the Four Seasons. I realized that I hadn’t really heard the entire piece. I guess I really knew Spring. I adored the Summer movement. Scott was entranced with Winter.

It was a great end to a wonderful trip!
That’s all for now!

Part 12: France and England

January 1st. New Year’s Day.

We decided to check out the Tate Modern since it had been years since I’ve been there. And they were open on New Year’s Day. (British Museum was not). We walked over the Millennium Bridge and got our amazing views of London. (I counted over 50 cranes around me – I know I missed some!).

The Tate Modern has special meaning for me. When it was in it’s old building, I remember that it was where I realized my love for Rene Magritte, my favorite artist to this day. I had also liked how they grouped their works, not chronologically like many museums, but by theme, like self-portraits, still lives, etc. It had been so long since we had been there that the themes had completely changed. “Making Traces” and “Citizens and States” were among the new themes. It was tricky because a lot of the art that I associate with the Tate was not up. The Magrittes seemed to have been hidden from view (Appropriate I suppose). So much of the art wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for, to be completely honest.

But I did discover I really liked Rebecca Horn. I hadn’t really been aware of her work before. They have photos and pieces of costumes that she had used in her performances. Something resonated with me. I appreciated her contemplation of the body and health.


Rebecca Horn

The “Citizens & State” section also appealed with me since politics in art has always been an interest of mine. They had some 1970s Chilean books and photographs which made me very happy. I’m fascinated by the 1970s socialist government of Salvador Allende and the coup that followed him.

I loved loved loved Susan Williamson’s A Few South Africans series. It was a series of prints, each one about a different South African woman fighting for justice and equality in their own way. It crossed class and racial categories, telling the stories of these incredible women who tried to make South Africa a better place for women, workers, indigenous peoples, etc. Each print of a woman kinda made her look like  a saint. I also liked the photography of Simryn Gill who took photos of people but with giant fruit on their head. The work is a commentary of the exoticization of people in Asia (possibly specifically Singapore).


Virginia Mngoma by Susan Williamson

Virginia Mngoma by Sue Williamson

Virginia Mngoma by Sue Williamson

We decided to skip the Calder exhibition, which was simply too expensive. I love Calder, especially his mobiles. I did see an exhibition of his work here at the MCA so I decided that I could stomach skipping this one. 18 pounds is a lot for an exhibition. But the primary collection of the Tate is free.

We decided to do a London Walks tour. We had come across this company a few years (first through its sister company in Paris) and loved it. They were running a Sherlock tour on New Year’s Day so naturally we took it. It was really lovely walking around the West End talking about the places where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would frequent and the places where action happened in the books. I loved mapping the real with the fictional on the actual streets of London. We even had a brief mention of Chicago’s Essanay studios on the tour. A Sherlock Holmes film there was recently found (and recently screened). Hometown pride!

Then we went off to the Winter Wonderland, a yearly tradition for us. In St. James’s Park (I think), there is a carnival for the winter holiday. We like going because they have fantastic rides. Unfortunately, our favorite ride that has you spin round and round was closed. So we had to investigate other rides instead. We settled on two rides. The first was honestly one of the scariest rides I’ve ever been on. It was like the one that spun us upside down but there was three different ways we were spun. You really had no idea where you were going to go next on the ride. I had to close my eyes since it was so terrifying!


Ride of Doom

The next ride was a less scary! It was a bit like an oversized tire swing. We were only upside down at the very end. I love seeing London from upside down!

Afterwards, we decided to get an early dinner and watch the new Sherlock at our hotel. It was a lovely first day of 2016!
That’s all for now!

Part 11: France and England

On the 31st of December, we had a mission. A friend of ours was getting married. In the course of her research, she learned that there is more to the “Something Old” poem.

The full verse is “Something old/ something new/ something borrowed/something blue/ and a silver sixpence in her shoe.” Since we were abroad in England, she asked if we could find a six pence. We first tried calling some antique coin shops around the city. Many were closed for the holiday. The one we could get in contact with did not sell it. BUt they suggested we try the Bank of England Museum.

And so the morning of the 31st, we were off. We got there super early, before it opened. After waiting in line to go through security, we were in. And within moments of getting in, we found what we were looking for. Mission accomplished. I acquired a six pence for my dear friend who was also getting married in 2016. The museum was fun and free. The first room had some interactive displays trying to teach the basics of finance and economics. I liked this balance game where you had a ball that you had to keep in the optimal area for inflation by adjusting interest rates, etc. But the fun part of the museum was the history. They had a section about animals on bank notes. And a small room on the evolution of bank notes. Originally, bank notes were a lot like checks; you’d sign the bill over to someone. Eventually it evolved to the bearer of the note instead of a specific person. Also, I was surprised to find out that the image of the monarchy on the bank note was a later addition, mid-20th century.


Bank of England – Pretty note!

And you can try to pick up a solid bar of gold. It’s extremely heavy with only one hand!

Then we met up with my parents and a family friend at the British Museum. We continued our exploration of the back part of the museum. We hung out in the Meso-American gallery, which has really nice sculptures even if it is small. It was a little weird to see a gallery of Native American art there… I wonder if this is what it is like for Australians to see aboriginal art in other continents…Hmm… We also spent time in the Chinese and Korean pottery galleries. Lots of different pottery from different eras in Chinese history.


Two stories!

Afterwards, we headed up to Covent Garden to see street performers and check out the tourist market. Covent Garden is always a lot of fun because of the street performances. In the past, I’ve heard opera singers, string quintets and more. We watched one man juggle a bowling ball and two apples. Pretty neat.


Covent Garden Performer

Then we did the best thing of all. We found a secret tea shop. In a bar near Covent garden, you can ask to go to the tea shop on the second floor. The barman said “You know the only serve tea up there.” We knew we were in the right place.

Then you are pointed to a flight of stairs behind the bar. Walk up and you’ll find yourself in a wonderful land of tea and homemade cakes. And no, I won’t reveal the name. You’ll have to find it for yourself. Because it will be more satisfying that way.  It was wondrous. The china is all mixed up, which is perfect. The cakes are delicious and the tea is spot on. I can’t wait to go back.


Secret Tea shop

That evening was New Year’s Eve at Sarastro in Drury Lane. We’ve spent the past two years enjoying the evening there. It’s a combination of an opera house and a harem with the most pornographic bathrooms. (Women’s is more graphic than the men’s). The food is Turkish, which is pretty cool. There were masks, Christmas crackers, small poppers, and delicious food. We danced the night away. There was a raffle and we went home with a drone. I haven’t assembled it because the weather in Chicago wasn’t great. But soon, there will be adventures.



That’s all for now!

Presenting: Three Artists; Three Projects; One Chicago


It’s been a busy few weeks. I haven’t been posting quite as regularly due to some projects that I’ve been working on. I was accepted into Vocalo’s Six Week Storytelling Workshop in January and have spent the last 7 weeks producing an 8 minute piece.  The class was sponsored by Chicago Community Trust and the theme of the class was philanthropy but it was about giving back to the community.It’s based on interviews from the oral history project that I’ve talked about previously. I focused on three women, Nora Moore Lloyd, Carron Little, and Meida Teresa McNeal, who are all artists in Chicago who work with community in different ways. I conducted a second interview with them all to get the right tape (and right quality of tape).

I learned a great deal about getting good tape, voicing, editing a piece, and so much more. I’m very fortunate to have been part of this workshop.

So now, I am sharing with you all my piece:

I hope you all enjoy!



France and England: Part 10

That morning, we had about 45 minutes to kill so we decided to spend our time at the British Museum. This time, I suggested that we check out the back part of the museum. I realized that I had never spent much time there and really didn’t know what was there. What treasures I found there! There’s this giant hall that is split between Indian art and Chinese art. At one end, there are pieces from an Indian temple that approaches the grandeur of the Greek temples at the other side of the building. Such beautiful carvings into stone. In the Chinese side of the room, there were these amazing sculptures of immortals. Very cool. I also found a hall of Jade nearby, which decent examples of jade pieces over a period of centuries.


The Indian Temple at the British Museum

After our brief time at the British Museum, we went back to the Middle Temple for a tour of Temple Church. Again, we were astonished by the beauty of the place. In the older part of the church, there are these effigies of famous Templar knights. On the walls surrounding the effigies, there are these incredible grotesques sculptures. A few are having their ear nibbled on by a rat.




Temple Church Grotesque Detail

Afterwards, we headed off to the Victoria & Albert. I used to be rather indifferent to the V&A but I’ve grown much more fond of it in recent years. I don’t know if it’s because I love design a lot more or because they’ve done such a good job reframing the museum. I suspect it’s a bit of both. We spent a wonderful time wandering through the galleries from the Italian terra cotta sculptures to the Ironwork section. I found this crazy sculpture piece that seems to be composed of crushed brass instruments. It’s cool but also very sad. Poor instruments!



The Crushed Instruments at the V&A

Then we took a brief look at the Science Museum nearby. Scott had never been. There was a most excellent exhibition on Churchill and his scientists. It talked about the science that went on around World War II. I loved hearing more about how they figured out the rationing for WWII. The rationing in the first WWI didn’t work so well; people were malnourished. So for the second time around, they had to be more careful. The scientists figured out what worked by experimenting on themselves. They’d try different combinations of foods and then do physically exhausting things like hiking to see how far they could push it before it was too much. Fascinating stuff! They also had a room for Ada B. Lovelace with two of Charles Babbage’s “computers.” That was pretty neat.



Babbage’s Analytical Engine

Before we left South Kensington area, we made a detour to  the Albert Memorial. The things we do for love. My husband loved it; I’m not exactly a fan.  It’s a little much for me.

We headed back once again to the Middle Temple for a nice evening of wine and cheese. We got to try on Barrister robes for fun.

We then headed off to see a play called Mr. Foote’s Other Leg. Unfortunately, it was fairly awful. It varied between being very dull and uncomfortable. And then there would be random occurrences of Benjamin Franklin.  Strange! Oh well. Can’t win them all.
That’s all for now!

France and England: Part 9

It’s been a busy few weeks. I’ve been winding down my piece for the Vocalo Storytelling Workshop and preparing to act as matron of honor at a wedding in a week in a half. So I’ve been a little preoccupied to write blog posts. Now that I have a moment to breathe, I’ll keep talking about our amazing trip.

For the last half of my speech, I talked about tea and Twinings. Tea became fashionable in England when Catherine of Braganza of Portugal was married to Charles II in 1662.She had grown accustomed to the habit and it spread amongst the top ranks of English aristocracy. It was extremely expensive so only the very rich could really afford it. Britain went from shipping 6 tons of it in 1699 to 11,000 tons a century later when it was 1/20th of the price it had been previously! Households would keep tea under lock and key to prevent servants and others from stealing the precious commodity!

East Indian Trading Company rose with the popularity of tea. At one point it was 60% of their trade (and 10% of that went to taxes). Tom Standage of A History of the World in 6 Glasses points out that while Catherine of Braganza made it fashionable, East Indian Trading Company made it possible.

It was a new way to socially distinguish oneself with tea sets, new set of manners and more. Tea gardens began to open in 1730s like Vauxhall Gardens, where you could meet members of the other sex for tea. (How scandalous!)

Thomas Twinings opened Twinings in 1706 in an old coffeehouse. He was a weaver who had learned the tea trade with an East Indian merchant Thomas D’Aeth.  It became exclusively a tea shop in 1717. Later the Twinings family played a crucial role in getting some of the taxes lifted on tea and other items in 1784. People noted that the tea that ended up in the Boston harbor was not Twinings. Earl Grey was supposedly invented on a voyage in 1831. In 1837, Queen Victoria gave the company a royal warrant to supply tea, something they have until this day.

Those are just a few interesting tidbits from my talk. Next year,  I’ll be speaking on the history of the London Underground.

Afterwards, we of course made a stop at the Twinings shop, very close to the Middle Temple where we were doing our talks. It’s a long lean store. I think it was close to being the original shop though I think there was a place before it.

Then we trekked off to the Sir John Soane museum nearby. It’s a free museum of the house of the eccentric architect who liked to collect things. So rooms are filled with precious (and not so precious) treasures. The backroom is an atrium, two levels, covered in marbles and fakes from all over the world. The basement has a giant Egyptian sarcophagus! He has a picture gallery that it is maybe 10 by 10 but it has a 100 paintings it, including HOgarth’s A Rake’s Progress. He built it so walls swing up and out. The basement has a study that he dedicated to a fake monk he created. Yes.

He has a kinda tragic life but it appears of his own doing. He was very disappointed that his sons failed to follow him into architecture. One was a writer and ended up in debtor’s prison. His father did little to assist him. IN revenge, his son wrote a scathing article lambasting his father’s architecture. Allegedly, Sir John Soane’s wife read the article and died 8 days later. Sir Soane blamed his son for his wife’s death. And kept the article as a reminder of his son’s treachery! Later he stipulated in his will that three packages were to be opened on anniversaries of her death. There was a lot of fanfare and anticipation for each one but they were filled with ordinary items: letters, a pair of gloves, an empty ledger. Newspapers called it the greatest practical joke. I think Sir John Soane was very serious about it all.

I’d recommend checking it out!

Then we wandered to the British Library, which was not too far from the Sir John Soane museum. They had a free exhibition on Alice in Wonderland, which I had been keen to see since I heard about it in the summer. And it was everything I could have wanted. It had early texts of Alice in Wonderland, including Alice in the Underground. There were early editions of the book with Tenniel’s illustrations. The book was an instant bestseller and that hasn’t really changed. They had recordings of various performances of the books, including someone singing about the book accompanied by the CHicago Orchestra Symphony! THere was a video game that had been developed for the exhibition. And there were lots of beautifully illustrated books, aligning with the era that they were created. For instance, there were some dark and foreboding ones that were drawn during wartime. Very cool!

The permanent collection is also really neat. It’s so cool to see the handwriting of Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn, James Joyce… And the illustrated manuscripts are breathtaking> I like to tip my hat at the Gutenberg Bible as well. Respect.
That’s all for now!