Saturday, February 26, 2011

Leeds Castle and Canturbury

One of the funny things about living in a country that has had the system of a Monarchy so long is that you can visit the institutions of that system. One of those institutions is Leeds Castle. Since it is usually a king ruling over the country, when they die, their son becomes king. Of course the son will want to move into Buckingham palace with his wife (now queen) which means the old queen needs to find a new home and has also had any money striped of her that is part of the crown. A tradition started up of giving Leeds castle to the Queen as a wedding present in her own name. So once the king dies, she lives out her life then leaves the castle to her son in the will so the castle stays in the family. Apparently this castle went through quite a few generations of this happening.
The castle itself had all the proper romantically stereotypical castle traits like a mote, archer slits, and the sawtooth roof-line. Hence, it being the tourist attraction it is. Inside of the castle there is the castle side of castle and home side of castle. The castle side of the castle dates back to the 1300's because they never felt the need to remodel the whole thing. The home side seems the same as Hearst Castle or the Rockefeller Mansion.
The part that I found the coolest though was the castle maze. It had a real hedge maze that was circular with the goal being a large rock in the middle. I was not expecting the large rock to actually have a set of stairs leading down to a grotto under the maze. It was like the prize for solving the maze. Everything was decorated in shells and set in the motif of under the sea. It must have taken someone years to have glued all the shells all over the walls into these patterns. It makes me wonder if they did it out of boredom. The people I was with came to the realization that anyone rich enough to build their own private zoo has crossed the line between real life and eccentric loss of reality.

Part of the bus (coach) trip also included stopping off in Canterbury. Of course I had to read Canterbury tales in high school so I couldn't help feeling like I was making my own pilgrimage to cathedral since I studied the cathedral in Art class. (It's a very good example of British Gothic.)
Besides fame from the book the cathedral is also famous as the seat of the head of the church of England, so basically the U.K.'s own personal Vatican City. The reason why this is so important is the idea that the Monarchy receives their power from God. This basically gives the arch bishop of Canterbury some real power. So it was cool to see the one of the few pieces of British history that I knew before coming here: where Thomas Becket was murdered. (The kings knights did it since he wasn't giving his support to the king, and it is such a big deal since they killed him in the church.) And by one of the "few pieces I knew" that I mean is he was murdered in 1170 and they presented it on a plaque giving the day of the week. I'm not used to building standing since 1170 much less written records accurate enough to know the day of the week it happened.
It was nice seeing all the art in the church but I felt a little like a tour guide to my group of friends I was with since I was explaining the symbolism. (dogs at the feet of tombs represented fidelity - hence the name Fido for a dog's name.) to the technique of how to create stained glass windows (glass powder is mixed with water then baked until it melts into glass again.)

Friday, February 11, 2011

British Comedy Show

When I visited London five years ago as a tourist I went to a comedy show and spent half the time with a blank stare because I didn't understand the jokes about British TV shows or celebrities. So with a little hesitation I tagged along with friends to a local comedy show. I have to say I was able to get a lot more of the jokes.
The host comedian warmed up the audience by asking where everyone was from and cracking jokes about that area of the U.K. or Europe. I know where most of the major cities are now in the U.K. and exports from most of the areas so I laughed right along.
British humor is always known as being self-deprecating and dry and that was true but there is also not the hang up about political correctness there were a lot more jokes about race. (However I didn't feel they crossed the line over to racial jokes.)
The next comic played songs on a guitar. It was funny, but had to keep rhythm to the song so there were not as many jokes. It did sound realistic when he did his own accompaniment with his mouth that sounded like a trumpet.
The last comic was a guy from Idaho. His observations about British pub culture seemed to hit a chord with what I had said to friends. Every punchline one of my friends would look at me to see my reaction. I just nodded my head and kept laughing. The comic noted that normal behavior on a sunny day would be to go into a dark pub to talk about how rare it is sunny, and when he went outside to puke because he didn't have as high of a alcohol tolerance as his friends they remarked "Oh good, you're making room for more."

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Chinese New Year

There is a large push to try to get the Chinese students to integrate with others in the student village. To this end a Chinese new years party was thrown, only no Chinese students wanted to help plan it so we had to drag some along. The first thing that is a big tradition is making dumplings. With Chinese students supervising, I took two huge cleavers and chopped leaks on a large plate. Everything seemed to need to be minced with the cleavers, even the ground pork. once it was all mixed chopsticks were used to put a small blob into a dough wrapper which was then sealed up with a wet finger.
We then turned to decorating. With a watchful with someone who could read all the decorations were hung with the writing pointing the right way. But it was so windy that the tent broke one of its main supports. Extra ropes were added to tie down the tent but all the lanterns swaying back and forth made me feel more like I was on a ship.
Chinese beer was supplied for the party so that all the British students wouldn't complain, and they had planned karaoke but the screen didn't work so to sing to the music people would search on their iPhone as soon as the song started to pull up the lyrics. I would have tried to sing along but without the phonetic help for the Chinese characters I was at a loss.
One thing that was cool was that they had hired a dance group to a traditional Lion Dance (think dragon looking thing) complete with drummer and extra sets of legs so about every minute or so the lion would switch dancers holding it so it could keep up the crazy pace without anyone getting tired. The climax was the lion eating a cabbage hanging from the top of the tent then spitting out over the crowd. Apparently since I was showed in ripped up lettuce I will have good luck.
Of course it was important for everyone to wear red to the party but the only thing I had was the undersized t-shirt I wore under my ripped up Halloween costume. I wore a cardigan over it so it looked fine but at the end of the night they wanted a picture with everyone in red so I took off the cardigan. With the tight shirt and my arm around the guy next to me everyone said my pose looked like me (and the guy on the other side of the group picture) were both doing modeling poses. (followed up by plenty of references to Zoolander.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

American Party

A friend of a friend was moving from London to Amsterdam. He is American and wanted to have an American party so I was invited to help add to the ambiance (Now there is a first). I wasn't really sure how different it would be to all the British parties I've been to. I mean college parties seem to center around drinking, with the only difference is British pub culture makes it more acceptable here.
Well I was wrong. The first thing I noticed walking in were all the people wearing baseball caps. It hit me it was the first time I had seen anyone wearing one for a while since I really only regularly talk to one other American and she doesn't wear them. The guy throwing the party had brought back a large pack of the red solo cups from the last trip to the U.S. for authenticity. Apparently Beer Pong is a very American game since no non-American had ever played. The red cups were used for Beer Pong and Flip Cup but buying a keg was more expensive than cans so everyone just emptied one can into two cups to keep the ambiance. (Yet another example of the difference between a British and American Pint.)
I spent my time just talking so the main thing I noticed was the lack of accents; at least in my eyes. Being in London has made me acute to the different British accents (I now can recognize the difference between a Birmingham and Manchester) It took me a half hour or so to go back to recognizing the Connecticut accent from North Dakota. (Texas was different enough it hit me right away).


Only about an hour away by train, Oxford is a pretty easy place to visit from London. This meant that the British people that I went with had been there previously and only wanted to visit pubs. (Their view of Oxford is also that it is the school you go to if you want to go to a bunch of formal dinners and live out in the middle of nowhere. Since the school I am at is at the same level so no one complains about admittance, instead it funny that I guess I ended up at the "party school")
The meaning of Oxford apparently is the best place to get your oxen to ford the Thames river. To this end they have a large ox statue at the train station. Or course in keeping with tradition, I needed to climb on top and take my picture.
I didn't realize before we got there but there were multiple universities in Oxford. (I had been to busy to look up where I wanted to go around town, hence just tagging along with people familiar with the city.) In reality we only saw Trinity College, and Oxford University but apparently there are three others. Each department of the university has its own crest that we saw all over the city.
The thing about oxford is that it has been there for a while, so a lot of the buildings look very much the same. They all use the yellow stone, and I really like it, but when block after block looks the same it makes it easy to get lost. My favorite piece of architecture was the "Bridge of Sighs". It looked the same as the one in Venice except in yellow stone instead of white marble.
The high point of the trip was going to the Museum of Natural History. It seemed like they had as much stuff as the New York museum of natural history but only had one level to display it. Display cases would group similar looking things together even if they were from half way across the globe. I guess it is because the museum is from a time when they organized things differently.