Roman Forum 2006

Roman Forum 2006
Foro Romano, from the Palatine Hill - a favorite photo from one of my favorite cities

Monday, September 26, 2011

Bloggo Ventisettesimo: ICLC Trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon

On more than one occasion I have felt certain that there was nothing more of interest for me in Stratford-Upon-Avon. I HAVE seen all the sights, every one of the Shakespeare properties, plays in all the theatres, the weekend markets, etc etc. But then I return and find that whether I've missed something interesting or not, I am charmed anew by this lovely Cotswold town.

I first visited Stratford as part of my fortieth birthday present to myself, a trip to London from late December 1986 to early January 1987. I had been stationed in Germany in the 1960s, promised myself that I would return immediately and thereafter often to Europe, but has so often happens, life takes over and time flies by. I left Germany at the ripe old age of 22, and did not fly back across the great pond until nearly 20 years later.

It was cold and damp when I landed in London in December '86, and remained cold and damp for my entire stay in the U.K. But I was so excited to see London, multicultural city, world capital, and one of the greatest theatre centers anywhere on earth, that no weather could dampen my spirits.
 I did all the major museums (National Gallery, Natl Portrait Gallery, The Tate - this was before the era of the Tate Modern, just the Tate thank you in Chelsea - the Courtauld, the British Museum, the Theatre Museum, still in existence back then), others. But I reserved New Year's Eve and New Year's day for Stratford-Upon-Avon, birthplace to the Bard, home to the RSC. I saw three plays in that very short period, Jeremy Irons in two of them, The Winter's Tale and Richard II, both in the large theatre; and Two Noble Kinsmen in the newly opened Swan Theatre. My memories of the productions are slim, Irons better as Richard than as Leontes, Imogen Stubbs wonderful as the Jailer's Daughter in Kinsmen. So wonderful that I attempted to chat her up in the Dirty Duck after, an attempt that failed miserably, I confess. I stayed in that B&B haven/heaven, Evesham Place, took in Shakespeare's birthplace, had roast beef and Yorkshire pudding on New Year's Eve. More even than London, Stratford was the best part of the best birthday present I could have given myself.

I didn't get back to Stratford until fall 2005, though I had been to London several times since my 86-87 sojourn. I was teaching at the London Center that semester and one of the perks of the job is to be taken along on all official trips. I returned to Stratford on my own later in the semester, and spent several days there on a research trip in summer 2007, each time enjoying myself, each time thinking I'd probably not return, as I had seen all I wanted to see in Stratford-Upon-Avon.

This was the case last weekend (23-24 September 2011), when Dottore Gianni took a trip with ICLC that included Warwick Castle, Stratford, and Oxford. These trips are designed to pack as much as possible into a one-overnight trip, and the London Center is very good at providing a full schedule of things to do and see during the short time frame. This trip mirrored the one I took in fall 2005, starting at Warwick Castle. 
Students at Warwick Castle 2011
It was my second visit and I did not change my opinion that is one of the most "theme-parked" castle I have seen. Madame Toussaud's mega-organization has peopled it with wax figures. As you walk through you'll occasionally come across a living human among the waxworks, whose job it is to explain what the room is all about. This is a clever bit, startling for an instant to see a figure rise and begin to chat, from what seem to be all wax, all the time! But once you've experienced it for the first time...well, let's just say that I see Warwick Castle as a one-joke show.

Trebuchet at Warwick Castle
There are other things to do. An archer shoots very well and talks to the tourists at the same time, a rock is launched from a trebuchet, that frightening medieval war machine, an expert handler of birds tells us about birds of prey and demonstrates as they fly just over our heads.

But for myself, I prefer to walk through a ruined castle (Eilean Donan and Castle Conwy, just a bit earlier this trip, for example), than visit a glitzy one. So this trip I ventured into the city of Warwick, a city quite lovely, easily worth an overnight visit, and every bit as interesting as the castle, especially its famous church, The Collegiate Church of St. Mary. 
Collegiate Church of St Mary, Warwick
This beauty is unassuming on the outside, but is a stunner on the inside. It features the remains of Richard de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, one of the men responsible for burning Joan of Arc, as well as the tomb of one of Queen Elizabeth's favorites, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. These are located within the truly beautiful Chapel of Our Lady. Fascinating!

Next stop was the main attraction, Stratford-Upon-Avon. We arrived in time to check into our B&Bs, get dinner (the faculty as usual at the Oppo, Tim Kidd pouring the wine, much merriment ensuing), and then to see A Midsummer Night's Dream in the recently completely transformed Royal Shakespeare Theatre. 
The recently renovated Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Once I got past the "concept" and I'm still not sure what it was, I very much enjoyed the production. It is hardly the finest I've seen, but it was well-spoken and performed, moved along quite nicely, highly physical in places, really quite enjoyable. I didn't take much of it with me, in fact the insubstantial pageant faded almost immediately as I entered the Dirty Duck and bought a pint, but I wasn't sorry I saw it. And it was a treat to see it in the new space, a deep thrust in what had once been a rather stodgy proscenium.

After the pint at the Duck, Bill Sheasgreen and I hoofed it some distance to our B&B. 
Moss Cottage, our B&B
While it is farther out than I've ever stayed in Stratford, Moss Cottage is a thoroughly pleasant place. The rooms were large, comfy and most important, en suite! And breakfast was one of the very finest I've tasted in such a setting. I'm considering returning to Stratford in about a month, and I'm definitely considering staying at Moss Cottage.

The next morning Dr Timothy Kidd took over, first in the yard of Stratford's Holy Trinity Church, famous as the burial place of William Shakespeare. Tim gave, as he has for decades, a 45 minute talk on Shakespeare in Stratford, sharp and witty. We then went into the church for a few minutes' look at famous grave, famously inscribed

"Good friend, for Jesus sake forbeare
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones
And cursed be he that moves my bones."

Shakespeare's own words, apparently. And the carved bust of the bard, which in one critic's words, looks like " a self-satisfied pork butcher."

On then to three or four stops in Stratford, where Tim identified the properties (Hall's Croft, the school Shakespeare attended, New Place (now an archeological site as well as memorial), and talks at a spot opposite Town Hall and The Garrick pub. Then two hours to wander Stratford, grab a bite to eat (easier even than usual as there was a food festival going on in town) and buy souvenirs. Then off to Oxford, our last stop on this trip.

Bill surprised me a bit by taking a detour to see the grave of Winston Churchill. 
Unlike many men less famous than he, Churchill is not ensconced in Westminster Abbey, but in a graveyard of St Martin's Church in Bladon, a small Cotswold town, along with other members of his family, in a dignified plot. It made for a pleasant short break from the bus, and for a moment to pause and think on the second "world" war and Churchill's part in saving England against seeming insurmountable odds, a war shortly after which Dottore Gianni was born.

I may not have conveyed it in my writing, but the weekend was a very busy one, hectic nearly, and for me at least, exhausting. I'm afraid my energy flagged when we arrived in Oxford, a town that I have visited only twice, once in the fall 2005 trip that mirrored the one from which I've just returned, and one for the better part of a week in summer 2007. I didn't enjoy it much the first time, for several reasons. On a Saturday afternoon the city center was packed as usual at that time of a weekend day, and, particularly having to fight the crowds, there wasn't nearly enough time to take in anything like all the sights. Also, for reasons too complicated and dull to delve into, on that trip in 2005 I was the only adult along with the students, so I was in charge of the tour! I called it then and refer to it to this day as the "blind leading the blind" tour, as I had not a clue as to what I was doing, or to do.
All Souls College from University
Church of Mary the Virgin, Oxford

The next trip was much more pleasant for me, as I was on my own, had plenty of time to explore, and even though my B&B was overly expensive for the the unpleasantly cramped room and not very good breakfast, I grew somewhat enamored of Oxford. I climbed to the top of University Church of Mary the Virgin and was treated to panoramic views of the colleges, the Radcliffe Camera, views of the countryside, I walked the lovely grounds of Magdeline College, I visited Christchurch College, had leisurely pub meals watching punters on the river. It was a very nice visit.

I'm afraid that last Saturday's dash through Oxford was disappointing, largely because of the crowds and my exhaustion, and I ended whiling away a good bit of the allotted time there having cream tea with Claire Mokrauer-Madden in the Ashmolean museum. I prefer to remember my idyllic visit in early summer 2011.

That ended the Stratford trip, save for a fairly easy coach ride back to London. While the very end was somewhat less than desired, I had a lovely time, as did many of the students. Meanwhile, Bill Sheasgreen's work never ends, for the next morning he took a group of eight students and me on a Beatles walk, mostly through Soho, ending with the famous street crossing depicted on the Abbey Road album. Great fun! I won't blog about that, but do have a look at my facebook photos of the event.

My next post will probably not come for a few weeks, as I've given up on traveling this coming weekend, and will save energy and money for my fall break trip. Ciao tutti!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Le Blog de Paris: quatrième partie

Place de la Bastille; no fortress
except for the opera maybe,
but still not a pretty place

This morning I awoke still feeling weak, but I knew that I had to rehearse my own French Revolution walking tour. I got some breakfast in me, went back to my room and lounged around until almost ten, then showered, and, feeling better, began my rehearsal. I caught a Metro to Bastille, where I had started the tour in 2005, easily found my way to Rue Beaumarchais, then took a left into the heart of the Marais. I took it slow and easy, knowing that leading students a walk would proceed at a snail's pace anyway, found the Place des Vosges with ease, then the Musée Carnavalet, the excellent museum placed in an imposing seventeenth hôtel (not the kind people check into to spend a night, but a classy townhouse affordable only to the wealthy) that specializes in the history of Paris. I went in and all I can say is that my luck with museums remained poor. The second floor, which houses an amazing variety of artifacts from the French Revolution, was closed! That didn't really phase me, as I wasnt too certain that I was going to bring students into the museum in November anyway, instead just point it out to them in case they wanted to visit later on their own. 
The Carnavalet
Adjacent to the Carnavalet is the Rue Pavée, so named according to one sourse, because it was the first road to be paved in Paris. Just down the Rue Pavée is a historical marker that indicates the former La Force prison, infamous in September 1792, as were all the other prisons in Paris, for the massacre of prisoners. What makes this one stand out for me is that one of those murdered was the Princesse de Lamballe, a close friend of Marie Antoinette. Her murder was particularly gruesome because of that unfortunate acquaintance. I will not go into details, but they are not pretty. It is also the prison in which Charles Darnay was incarcerated in A Tale of Two Cities, which makes it an especially appropriate stop on my tour. 
Plaque locating La Force Prison
Do you see, my friends and readers, how much more detailed, specific and generally brilliant my tour is than the one I spent twelve Euros on? You'll have to admit it, really, at least based on the evidence I'm giving here. From there I proceeded to the Rue de Rivoli, not the most charming of roads, at least in that area, so I got off it quickly and headed to the Hôtel du Ville, which is also a landmark French Revolution site. By the way, I saw a tour group, several actually, tour groups at nearly every turn I made, walking in somewhat the same direction that I was, and noticed in that group a couple that had been part of the French Revolution tour with me the day before. Small world, Paris.
Hotel de Ville
From the Hôtel du Ville I crossed the Seine, halfway, to the Isle de la Cité, heading for Notre Dame, which during the Revolution was reinvented as a Temple of Reason. That's reason enough to include it, and students would not forgive me if I got that close to it and did not let them have a look inside. This late morning it was packed, simply packed! There was a long line which had voluntarily or not curled itself around in a circle in the square in front of the cathedral. Inside the visitors must have felt like sardines! It made me wonder what it might be like in November, as the wait might completely halt the progress of our tour. Another question to be asked. On from there to the Conciergerie, which I discussed and pondered over in part two of this blog, and have not as yet come to a conclusion on the subject. 

Then I crossed the Seine again, this time on the Pont St. Michel, which lands one in the most touristy area of the Rive Gauche. 
Place St Michel
What you probably don't know (and probably don't care either, but I do) is that if you veer to the right vs the left -- one way or the other you have to, anything to get away from that scary statue of St Michael, you end up on a street named Rue Danton, for one of the heroes of the Revolution. You will see not only a street name, but also a commemorative plaque below it.

Rue Danton
And do you know where Rue Danton leads? To the Odéon Metro stop, on the Boulevard St Germain! And of course just opposite is the alley in which is located the Café Procope, etc. I discovered a simple and direct way back to the river, which we will cross and head to the Louvre, ending in the Tuileries Gardens, gazing down at the Place de la Concorde. So I have now pieced together the tour. It's a good one, I think, probably two hours long minimum, but the students will see several areas of Paris, as well as be able to connect parts of Paris to the French Revolution:

The Marais, with its revolutionary landmarks and a great deal of charm

The Isle de la Cite, with Notre Dame and the Conciergerie
The Isle de la Cite, from Pont des Arts

The Latin Quarter, with Rue Danton

The St Germain area, with Le Procope and Marat connections

The Louvre (into which they can go after the tour if they like)
Line at the Louvre on Saturday
The Tuileries Gardens

The Palais Royal, if they'd like

That accomplished, I walked the short distance to the Comedie Francaise and the Palais Royal, the latter also boasting revolutionary resonance, 
Opera Garnier

then on to the Opera Garnier, just because...well, I can't say actually. It's an outlandish building, but somehow every time I'm in Paris I am drawn to it. From there the Metro back to my modest hotel, 
My modest room, Hotel Cambrai

where I discovered that they tidied up the room but forgot towels -- as I say, it's modest -- and except for running out for take-out food (still having a bit of trouble eating, didn't want to try an outrageous meal on a tummy that might have revolted) have been in, planning the Revolution (well, the walk) and of course, blogging. I'm satisfied. I nearly killed myself, but I accomplished a lot in just three days. And I learned that I need to tour in moderation...but will I remember? 

That ends Le Blog de Paris.  I hope you've enjoyed it, and if not my rambles, at least some of the photos. More next weekend, after Stratford-Upon-Avon!

Le Blog de Paris: troisième partie

I am writing on Saturday morning at 9:30 am. I should be out practicing my French Revolution walk, and will be soon, but I must admit that I exhausted myself yesterday to the point where today I must take good care with my health. One day Dottore Gianni will learn that he is closer to 65 than to 64, and that he must learn moderation in tourism, in spite of his enthusiasm as a tourist. Today I hope to take a step in that direction, but taking not so many steps. I will apprise you of today's activities in the fourth part of Le Blog de Paris, but in the third part I will detail yesterday's activities and my increasing exhaustion.

Tuileries Gardens looking towards The Louvre

Tuileries Gardens looking toward the Place de La Concorde
Yesterday morning I felt fine, but began the day by trying to post my blog. I’m not certain what I did, but suddenly the lettering in my post turned black instead of white, and I could not fix it. Well, I DID ultimately, but it meant a late and frustrated start to my day. When I finally got out, the air was chilly and very cloudy, but I got myself to the Louvre again and sure enough the rooms I needed access to in Sully (French eighteenth century paintings) were open. I spent a few hours there, taking notes, then walked down the Tuileries Gardens to what was once called Place Louis XV, then Place de la Revolution, and now Place de la Concorde. 

Between 1793, beginning with the execution of the King following through to 1794, with the execution of Robespierre and his mates this was a bloody mess. Thousands were guillotined during that time, known quite correctly as The Reign of Terror. Now it is a traffic island in one of the busiest parts of the city, but the terror now would return only when pedestrians are foolish enough to not heed the crossing signs. 
The Place de la Concorde
I walked back along Rue St Honoré, which was once the route by which carts filled with victims of the Committee of Public Safety were drawn from the Conciergerie to the Place de la Revolution, where they were guillotined. It is now a street of posh shops and restaurants, a far cry from what it was at the end of the eighteenth century. I stopped momentarily at the Comédie Française and at the Palais Royal. At the former the shop had not yet opened, at the latter there was a stoppage because of construction work. Then, remembering that I had not brought my proof of payment for the tour I was to take later that afternoon, returned to my hotel, bolted a sandwich and headed to les Invalides, where in summer of 1789 the people charged in for weapons. Finding no powder there they next headed toward the Bastille, and the rest as they say is history. This was the starting point of our French Revolution tour.

Stage direction: time passes, again. It is now middle of the afternoon on Saturday, after a much less rushed walk than I had on Friday. I’m going to pick up the narrative where I left off, if you don’t mind, and why should you? Even if you do I don’t care, just letting you know my general plan. 

How can I put this delicately? Their French Revolution tour is not as good a tour as mine. Of course it’s not meant to be the kind of tour that mine is, as my students already have a sense of the primary events of the Revolution. But I found the places chosen, while not terrible, were not nearly as appropriate as mine are. That tour was one of the main reasons for my trip to Paris. It left me, not disappointed really, but I suppose I had hoped for more. 
Travis, our tour guide
Our tour guide, a very young, very bright and very tall American named Travis, was quite well informed, had a big voice, did his job well. I learned a few things from him, and that’s good. There were nine or ten of us, nearly all from the U.S. One thing people who take walking tours together seem to want to know is who you are, where you’re from, what you do. Frankly I’d rather trudge in silence and focus on the subject, as almost always when one is talking, telling what a great job used car sales is, for example, or that s/he works in health services, they inform you just as the tour guide is, or at least may be saying something important, or interesting, or both. God knows what he’s saying, as you can’t hear him when someone else is talking, am I right? Of course I’m right: 

So. Travis, our guide, was better than the tour he was giving. After the Invalides he took us to the Pont Alexandre III, from which we could also seethe Grand Palais and Petit Palais, and also the Place de la Concorde. He gave us long bits of the history of the revolution at each stop, though there weren’t many of those on this tour. In fact there were three more only, a short stop ON the Place de la Concorde, then on the spot where the Tuileries Palace stood, until the Communards destroyed it in 1871, then another in the courtyard of the Louvre, and a final one on the Pont des Arts. Good information, skillfully told, but alas, not as useful for me as I’d hoped. 

Had I gone back to the hotel just after that I would not be recovering today, but I felt the need for more, and instead of catching the Metro I plunged again into the Rive Gauche, thinking I’d sip an aperitif somewhere charming. Instead I just kept walking along, and finding things! I wandered back to Boulevard St Germain and recognized the Odeon metro stop, then to my great and good surprise also found Café Le Procope and that great little alley where Marat printed out his powerful, vicious and ironically named L’Ami du Peuple. 
Cafe Procope located
Instead of claiming victory and going home then, I’d have not been too too exhausted, but I had to push it, and plunged farther into St. Germain, which except for that main avenue itself is a bit of a tangle. Well I did get tangled, and found myself  walking along mostly unknown and every once in a while known streets. After about an hour I found myself on the Rue de Seine, which was a good sign, as I hoped it would lead to the river – it did, right back to the Pont des Arts!

Cafe Procope, first cafe in Paris
By then I was getting very tired. Friday had begun rather chilly and cloudy, but the sun shone in the afternoon and the temperatures were up near 80 Fahrenheit during out walking tour and on my own left bank toor after. I walked to Chatelet, from where I planned to get on Metro ligne 4 and head back to the Gare du Nord and my hotel. But then I spotted the Café Sarah Bernhardt, next to the Théâtre de Ville, a place I eat almost every time I’m in Paris. I thought I’d just get a small beer, and did. It was aperitif time still and and the waiter also placed peanuts on the table, as they do often in Europe – a little nibble to go along with your drink. Very civilized. It was quite sunny and I was seated IN the sun, but was enjoying myself and asked for a menu as well. It was windy as well and noisy, the Paris Friday rush hour in full swing, so I opted to go inside, but just inside, in the glassed in area, but still with a good view of the street. I ordered an entrecote, which was very tasty came with delicious chips and a nice green salad. Delightful! 

But I was also getting hotter and hotter. The waiter brought a large bottle of tap water and I slugged it down, along with the Côtes du Rhône I was drinking. I realized that I was dehydrated and exhaustion, as very possibly in heat exhaustion. I finished the very lovely dinner and finally got on the Metro. I bought more water from a nearby shop and got to my hotel room and crashed – really crashed. I took a cool shower, but was still flushed. I had also bought a pint of Kronenbourg but had no appetite for it; used it instead wrapped in a towel to nurse my hot head. I spent the rest of the evening trying to cool down and replenish my fluids. I did to a point, forced myself to remain awake until ten (but just staring into space, no writing blogs or anything that took concentration, and slept for nearly nine hours, which I am never able to do. And now that I'm quite sure I have you on the edge of your seat, I will leave you in suspense until you read the fourth and last of Le Blog de Paris!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Le Blog de Paris: deuxième partie

I was debating whether to even try to write this evening, as I had a marathon day in Paris and am exhausted. I’ll give it a shot, and if I begin to ramble I’ll just hold off. I accomplished an amazing amount today, so I hope I can focus!

First, the weather was ridiculously beautiful. I am praying to the weather god to let it hold for just a few more days – even one day will do, but please whatever your name is, weather god (reminds me of a line from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: “whichever one of you did this, thanks!”), let’s go for two! 

Stage direction: Time Passes.

Can you feel it? I can. It’s two hours later, I am back from steak/frites along with vin rouge from Bordeaux, now washing it all down with a large bottle of 1664, and I think I’m ready to continue!

After my simple but tasty breakfast of bread, croissant, and coffee, along with yogurt and orange juice, I hoofed it to my nearest metro station, the madhouse that is the Gare du Nord, and caught the number 4 line to Chatelet. There I could have transferred to the number 1 line, but it was so lovely a morning that I decided to walk along the Seine to the Louvre, and I’m glad I did because while it may have taken slightly longer the air was fresh and, oh, did I mention I was walking along the Seine? I did, I know, just testing – in other words, what’s not to like?
Sailboats along the Seine
Have you been to the Louvre? It is enormous. With apologies to the National in London, the Met in NYC, even, dare I say it, the Uffizi in Firenze, this is the mother of all museums. This is true partly because it began as a fortress/palace, built in the twelfth century. It continued as a palace until Louis XIV moved his court lock, stock and highly ornate barrel to Versailles in the late seventeenth century, after which the Louvre housed the royal family’s art collection. In also became home to the Royal Academy for visual arts. As any schoolboy (or girl) knows, at least any of those who have taken my theatre history class, the Royal Academy for the written word was begun earlier, when Cardinal Richelieu decided to unite the nation. In order to unite the nation it made sense to unite the several dialects spoken in the various parts of France into a united, elegant language. It took the French Revolution to re-create the Louvre as a museum open to the public. So it has remained until today, and I daresay for some many days to come. 
A small portion of the sculpture collection at the Louvre
It boasts several impressive collections, from antiquity to the mid-nineteenth century, to just before the advent of impressionism. Its Italian painting collection is vast, although most tourists elbow their way through crowds to see or photograph, point and shoot digitals raised high over their heads, the Mona Lisa. I should probably not comment on this, but I find it highly amusing. I wonder how many know or care that just outside the room that houses Leonardo’s donna with the mysterious smile, there are three equally impressive Leonardos that go almost completely neglected. Well, that’s not completely true. Since Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code there is some interest (and rightly so!) in The Virgin of the Rocks. I always want to say ON the rocks, but that would be improper – “Hey barkeep! Gimme a double virgin on the rocks.”  A double virgin? I think I’ve known a few, and failed to adjust their status, try as I might. 

Mona Lisa Madness at the Louvre

Dottore Gianni confesses: I AM rambling, as my own status has been adjusted by the mega-1664 I have now nearly consumed, but the adjustment is such that I don’t care if I’m rambling and will continue. I am easily cut off, one click of your mouse or whatever tool you use will serve, but you might miss something good...

There are also about five Raffaellos (paintings by the man we call Raphael) down the corridor, along with Caravaggios and many other fine works by other fine painters. To my mind the frenzy to push their way through crowds for one painting behind bullet-proof glass is a bit silly, but then so are most tourists. Frenzied AND a bit silly. 

Whew! Glad that tirade is over. Whatever you think about the Mona Lisa, among the many collections the Louvre houses, they boast a brilliant collection of French paintings. It was my aim to seek out as many as possible from the eighteenth century and revolutionary era. That way if we can work it out in November when we bring students to Paris that we all go to the Louvre I can easily get them from room to another.  I was stymied in this by the Louvre’s nasty habit of shutting down large sections of its collections, partly because of necessary restoration work, partly because they don’t have enough docents to man the rooms necessary. Today it so happened that eighteenth century French paintings were ferme! But I was assured that tomorrow they would be ouvert, so I shall return.

In the meanwhile I was not about to leave the Louvre without racing around to see some of my favorites, and in fact while some works by Jacques-Louis David are placed in a room with nineteenth century French painters, some of his daring neo-classical and also revolutionary paintings were on display in the crowded Denon wing. Crowded because that is the wing that houses the Mona Lisa – but I digress – again. So I caught those, and also only two rooms away the great Delacroix and Gericault canvases, that, post-revolution or not I was happy to see. Three hours passed on my journey for knowledge in the Louvre. And then I admitted to Louvre overkill and got out. Into a gorgeous early afternoon. I was headed next to the Conciergerie, Marie Antoinette’s last residence, along with many others before they were ridden in carts the long distance to the Place de la Revolution (now re-named the Place de la Concorde) and introduced to Mme Guillotine, but was determined to get a fairly inexpensive lunch before I entered. I settled upon a very tasty grilled jambon, tomate, et fromage sandwich from a stand, wolfed it down in front of Notre Dame, and then made my way into that under-visited but fascinating part of the Palais de Justice where the concierge lived, thus the name. I had been before, in fact had taken students when I taught my French Revolution seminar in fall 2005, but I am trying to prune the trip this semester and am debating, still debating even as I sip my last sips of 1664, whether to merely point it out to them or spend the 6 Euros fee for each of them and take them in. 

Tribute to the National Assembly, the Pantheon

From there I took the long-ish and uphill walk to the impressive Pantheon, former church of Paris’s 
patron saint, Ste Genevieve and final resting place to Voltaire (re-buried there during the Revolution, the first to be so honored, along with many others, including Rousseau, Victor Hugo, and Emile Zola. It’s quite an imposing place, and also has French Revolution resonance, as it was turned from a church which was built at the command of Louis XV. When the Revolution came it was recreated as a non-Christian monument to French dead. Rabid revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat was placed there, but after the reaction against the increasing amount of blood shed by Mme Guillotine, his rancid body was exhumed.

Jack & Gelato, Luxembourg Gardens
I left there at about 3 pm and was now feeling the effects of this extraordinary day, but was determined to head (downhill, thank the gods again) to the Luxembourg Gardens and Palace. You ask why? To sit in the gardens and eat an excellent pistachio gelato, which I did and very much enjoyed. But also because during the Revolution the Luxembourg Palace was one of the many places in Paris transformed into a prison. I had been to the edges of the gardens before, but never in, had never enjoyed the pleasant surroundings, the beautiful orangerie, had never downed a gelato, until today.

Finally I made my way the relatively short distance to the Odeon, one of the most important theatres in paris today, then just down the street to the Odeon Metro, in front of which stands a statue of the Revolutionary hero Georges Danton. 
Another revolutionary reference! It's ALL about the Revolution, mes ami, all about my class and the stuents in it. What a [rpfesspr! I then caught the number 4 Metro all the way back to the Gare du Nord, after which I collapsed, after which I started this post, after which I slipped off to a tasty dinner of steak/frites, after which, just now in fact, I bid you all bon nuit!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Le blog de Paris: une part

I have traveled to Paris several times, but get me down along the Seine, crossing as I did this evening from Chatelet to the Isle de la Cité and from there to the rive gauche, and I become a crazy, photo-snapping fool! 
Palais de Justice avec Ste Chappelle
They are the same pics I always take in that area: the Palais de Justice with the spire of Ste Chappelle included (oh, so artsy, dottore Gianni!), Notre Dame inside and out, the exterior from several angles,
Notre dame outside...
and in

a boat laden with tourists cruising down the Seine, a charming little street on the left bank – nothing brilliant, hell, nothing even new, but it’s automatic, de rigueur even. So, while today at least it never drizzled or even sizzled, I suppose I have to say that I love Paris!
tour boat down the Seine

It was not always so. My first trip to Paris was so filled with expectation that it was doomed to be less than a success, though I’d never have believed anyone who might have tried to warn me. I visited Paris as part of a semester-long sabbatical spent traipsing through important theatre centers throughout Europe. The trip was meant in part to build the theatre history slide collection, and in this sense it succeeded, nearly doubling it. At any rate, I saved Paris until April. Why? Obviously because “I never knew the charm of spring, never met it face to face. I never knew my heart could sing, never missed a warm embrace” till…
April in Paris.

Mais non, mes amis.  Paris, at least in the spring of 1999, was pretty rotten in April. Deep down in what passes for my memory I know it must have stopped raining occasionally while I was there, I even have photos that prove it, but my primary memory is rain, rain, rain, not heavy, just constant cold drizzle (drizzle! I should have loved that, right? Mais non encore), Dottore Gianni trudging along the Seine in a double breasted beige trenchcoat, belted, feeling very depressed. My hotel was awful, even though situated in the charming Rue Cler, not far from the Ecole Militaire. I could only afford a room with the facilities down the hall, except that I discovered that only SOME of the facilities were down the hall. Sink and toilet, yes, but in order to take a shower I had to climb two flights of stairs, a climb that on occasion proved fruitless, as someone would have got to the shower just before I did. Waiters treated me like a fool, perhaps because I foolishly decided to grace them with my few French phrases, torturing the pronunciation in a stammering, halting style, and getting mixed up, throwing German and Italian words into an otherwise poorly stated French phrase. Still, they were very mean to me, in fact after a while I was afraid to enter a restaurant, though of course I had to eat. And I caught a bad case of the flu the first full day I was there which did not go away until I left Paris. And then it disappeared immediately.
Dottore Gianni ponders his first trip to Paris
Thank the gods I returned! And thank the same gods that by the time I returned I had learned to not expect too much, to not make myself miserable, to not try out my fractured French, except in brief greetings and thank-yous. I’m fairly certain the weather was better than on the first trip – it could hardly have been worse – but I also learned to take Paris and Parisians much as I take (or leave) New York and New Yorkers. What a relief! And, as I noted at the top of the post, I have been back several times since and grow more enamored of it each time I return.

I had planned in this post to give you just the facts – the Eurostar journey, the easy discovery of my hotel, the hunt for the right café, the return to the area of my hotel for dinner…

instead you got the sad story of Dottore Gianni’s first and so far only April in Paris, and the valuable lessons he learned from it. That’s day one. Who knows what days two, three and four will bring? But I hope you’ll stay tuned.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Bloggo Ventiseisima: ICLC Trip to Bath and the West Country

Bright and early, well, it was early but not very bright, approximately 45 students, plus Bill Sheasgreen, Sarah Davies, visiting professor Linda Heyne and I boarded a coach – in the States we say “bus” but the proper term in the U.K. is “coach” – and headed west, to the beautiful spa city of Bath, with several stops on the way to and one stop on the way back from Bath.

I write that it was not bright. Both days of our journey hovered between foul and fair (with apologies to the Scottish play), and while the sun broke through on a few occasions, I’d describe the weather for most of the trip as overcast and threatening with a cloudy scowl. I’m familiar enough by now with weather in England that I was fairly certain this would be the case. We were drizzled on a few times, mostly in Bath itself, but for the most part the weather was not nearly as bad as it could have been.

Our first stop was to a roadside combination of places to get fast food, to gas up, and to relieve oneself. It was the mecca of this kind of stop, with all sorts of food options, including a tiny Waitrose grocery store, and of course souvenirs for tourists. It was the only such stop we would make on this trip for the express purpose of food, gas and relief, and it was welcome.

But the first real stop was at a place called Avebury. Ever heard of it? No? Ever heard of Stonehenge? Yes? Well, Avebury is not a site as immediately stunning and sculpted as Stonehenge, but it is larger by far (in fact the largest in all of Europe), of a similar age (both sites are nearly 5,000 years old) and around this ancient Neolithic site of worship a village and farms sprang up. 
Both Avebury and Stonehenge have been named World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, but whereas Stonehenge is flooded with tourists, roped off and inaccessible, at Avebury one can walk right up to stones, sit on them, climb a few of the larger ones. The stones also seem part of the greater environment, with sheep grazing around them, a church steeple in sight, the village only a few hundred yards walk away. Avebury was not included on the similar trip I took with ICLC back in fall of 2005, but I’m glad I got to see it this time around. I was impressed by it, not in the same way that I am with Stonehenge, but as an equally historic but markedly less commercialized spot. 
Bill and students at Avebury -
Hannah appears to be holding up the sstone!
In the excellent guide packet for this trip provided by ICLC staff and written by them as well, it is pointed out that John Aubrey, the well-known seventeenth century writer, compared the two thus: “Avebury surpasses Stonehenge as a cathedral doeth a parish church.” While I’m not certain I’d agree wholeheartedly, I can understand why he wrote these words.

From Avebury we headed to another –bury, this time preceded by Glaston. This very hip town is associated with the world famous music festival that happens every year in late June, and that gets doused with rain nearly every year as well. No rain on our trip to Glastonbury, which we visit not for rock ‘n’ roll, but for two purposes: to see the ruined abbey and to climb Glastonbury Tor. There are of course ruined abbeys all over England, thanks to Henry VIII, but while many are picturesque, this one is special as it is associated with the Holy Grail, the mythical Avalon, King Arthur and his knights of the round table, Lancelot and Guinevere. In fact, if you believe the legend, Arthur and Guinevere were buried here. 
Only a partial shell of the abbey remains, but that makes the legend seem to some at least at least somewhat more real. Climbing the 531feet high Glastonbury Tor only enhances this feeling, as it is said that Guinevere was imprisoned on the Tor. Considering the climb it is a tough place from which to rescue a damsel in distress. Thank the gods it wasn’t me that had to do it, as a wheezing, out-of-breath knight errant such as I’d have been could easily have been pushed back down from the height easily. There is a tremendous view of the countryside from the top, as the Tor is an anomaly in the midst of fields and rolling hills well below it. One feels almost giddy on the top, and many of the students began to act in a giddy manner, laughing and screaming and posing for silly pics. All good things come to an end, and down the hill they trod. 
Descending from Glastonbury Tor
We moved on to our next adventure, the cathedral town of Wells. Wells Cathedral is the first in England to have been built in the full Gothic fashion. This thirteenth century beauty is imposing on the outside,

imposing on the inside,
Nave of Wells Cathedral, with scissors arch
above, the exterior of the cathedral
with a few features that make it unique as well. The scissors arch is one of these, an improvised fix to hold up the sinking foundations of the cathedral. The astronomical clock is another, with miniature knights jousting as each hour is rung, a ready audience standing by to watch. Particularly in so small a town, this mighty cathedral towers over the rest of it, but the town itself is a charming and very traditional English place, nothing like multicultural, bustling London. And so a very smart choice to show students on their first trip away from that cosmopolitan center, highlighting the differences between London and much of the rest of the U.K. In 2005 we did not see Wells, so it was another welcome addition for me on this trip.

From Wells we traveled to Bath or Aquae Sulis as the ancient Romans called it, our destination for the evening and the site of many of the next day’s activities. Everyone was pretty exhausted by the rigors of the day. Bill, Sarah, Linda and her friend Joan and I went first to a pub, then to dinner at a restaurant known for its fish, where I had a good bit of wine. Bill then took us on a brief walk of Bath at night, which is quite a beautiful sight. I then went to bed and fell into a deep sleep. Most of the students did the same, but Bill informed me at breakfast that a few who shall remain nameless stayed out until 3 am and came back rowdy and noisy – tsk, tsk. Next morning we toured the Roman Baths. 
Roman and Medieval Bath: the Abbey above, the Baths below 
I have seen them three times now, and they continue to fascinate. Certainly they are one of the main reasons that Bath is a UNESCO World Heritage site. If you go, definitely take the audio guide, as it is excellent and illuminating. Some of the students sped through the baths, others became completely engrossed in them. So it goes, to each his own. Bill also pointed out the primary medieval structure in the city, and another reason for the UNESCO citation, the stunning Abbey Church at Bath (just below), known as “the lantern of the west.” 

Next he took us on a walk of Georgian Bath, designed by John Wood the elder and the younger, and popularized by the likes of Beau Nash, gambler, dandy, icon of high fashion. 
The Royal Crescent, in the rain
Georgian buildings abound, but the two standout areas are the Royal Circus and the Royal Crescent, which clinched the third reason for UNESCO to honor the city. After that about two hours of free time. Some used it to go to the costume museum, others to the Abbey, yet others simply to stroll the elegant streets, others to shop and eat. Then back on the bus and off to the last (but not least) site: Stonehenge.
Amanda Abernathy, Gabriella Napoli &
Sam Gates form a human henge!
This was my second visit to the amazing collection of stones from the Neolithic era, I am returning in January with next semester’s group, and I already look forward to that. One of the students was not as enthralled as I, grudgingly calling it “a fairly impressive collection of large stones.” To me they are a work of art as well as a symbol of ancient religion and of the stubbornness of humans to do that which is seemingly impossible. Like Skara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness (all of which I saw for the first time on this visit to the U.K.!), Stonehenge as well as Avebury are monuments every bit as interesting to me as more recent and sophisticated wonders. When I am in their presence I am overwhelmed, and it’s not often I get such feelings. It’s impossible for me to explain, probably because such awesome and ancient structures are inexplicable. The attempt to explain, to get whatever creative impulse was at work down on paper, is to diminish them in a manner. I prefer to be overwhelmed and awestruck in face of the mystery of such places.

That’s the end of my blog and that was the end of our journey, except for a very smooth coach ride back to South Kensington. More to come. Paris next. Ciao tutti!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

A Strained Neck, a Sore Back: or, How NOT To See Richard III – Un altro kind o’ bloggo

Richard III; The Old Vic; Kevin Spacey in the role, Sam Mendes at the helm. All very exciting, right? So, what could go wrong?

Plenty, if you’re in the seat…sorry, make that on the bench that I was sitting in, er, make that ON. You get what you pay for, and I paid £10. I was ready to pay very good money, or, in my best Italiano, molto poundo for this event, but the show sold out very quickly, I didn’t act very quickly, and I suppose I was lucky to get one of the few seats (and I use the term loosely) available.

Do you know the Old Vic? Built in 1818, it was first called the Royal Coburg. Then in 1834 it came to be under the patronage of Victoria, mother of Princess, soon to be Queen Victoria and, it was renamed the Royal Victoria. The princess and her mother attended only once, but the name stuck. After a period of use as a temperance hall (The Royal Victoria Hall and Coffee Tavern) Lilian Baylis took it over and focused on Shakespearean production beginning in 1914, by which time it had become known as The OLD Vic.

It’s a great theatrical space, and fairly unique among London theatres in that it retains much of what it looked like when it was built. The galleries rise, amphitheatre-like, at the rear, but also wrap around the stalls, ending at the stage (imagine a large “U” shape), and while there are very few boxes, some of which for this production were masked by scenery, others used for technical purposes rather than for seating those members of the audience who could afford them, the auditorium is still very reminiscent of the pit, box and gallery system that had been in vogue in Europe since seventeenth century Venice, when the first public opera houses were built. Lovely.

BUT! On the left and right sides of the auditorium the upper gallery consists not of single seats, but of two rows of benches. Those lucky enough to be seated on the first row of those benches crane their necks somewhat, but can see most of the stage, and have the tremendous benefit of having their feet touch the floor. I, alas, was in the second row of benches (if you see that you are to be seated in row P, think twice or thrice before buying), situated above the first row but sharing the same level of floor. The effect is that of a baby in a high chair. There’s a bar in front on which one can grip one’s hands, and one below that, on which one can place one’s feet, but in doing so one risks jabbing the backs of the residents in the ever so much more comfy first row of benches.

At very best on row P one can see up to two-thirds of the stage. To sit with one’s back supported by the wall backing the bench is to miss everything save the very edge of the down right corner of the stage, so in addition to legs dangling, one needs to lean forward, placing one’s lower back in peril as well, particularly a lower back such as mine, which is prone to spasms that render me helpless in bed for up to a week.

And then there is the matter of the neck. This production of Richard III ran for 3 hours and 25 minutes. The next time you have that amount of time to spare, lean forward and turn your neck so that you can focus on a spot far to the right of you. Remain in that position for that length of time. Then see how your neck feels afterwards. No, please, give it a try!

By now I hope you are beginning to get a picture (if only Dottore Gianni could draw he would depict it as a drawing – in the form of a grotesque cartoon), of the good doctor, legs dangling and only occasionally propped up on the rail in front of him, back aching from an unpleasant and unnatural positioning, and neck first craned, then strained by nearly four hours of eyes (and head) right. Not a pretty sight.

I haven’t mentioned the fellow sitting to my immediate right, a rather large, shaggy-haired fellow who turned to me before the play began and said, “I’ve never seen a play from this position before.” I had, and responded, “Every inch counts.” I didn’t intend the response as an admonition, but in hindsight I should have delivered it in that fashion. He was completely self-absorbed and one of the rudest audience members I’ve ever encountered. He spent most of the play draping his body over as much of the rail in front of him as possible, disregarding me and the two others to my left, who had to strain to see anything. His shaggy locks, which I’d gladly have shorn, hung down, forming a sort of hairy, wavy curtain at the right edge of my line of vision. And he carried with him a bottle of water. Instead of leaving it at his side, which would have been the gentlemanly thing to do, he insisted on holding it in front of him in his hands, which were propped against the bar I described above. I tried to make him understand via silent gesture (we were in a theatre after all and Shakespeare was being spouted. I had no desire to compete with that, nor to disturb other members of the audience. I am after all a gentleman) that it would be better for all of us to his left if he would stop cradling the silly bottle and just put it down. But he either did not understand or did not care, and persisted.

That he carried the bottle was irksome. The manner in which he held it began to fascinate me. He gripped it with one hand, but felt the need to prop it up with his other. This created an effect that I’m sure he did not intend, but which began to intrigue me. When I was a boy my father frequently showed slides of family vacations. I felt it my duty to entertain the family when the screen was slide-less and therefore white, by creating images on it: a duck’s head, a bird in flight, a rabbit. I was very good, and my artful handscapes did amuse some of the family, though not my father, but that’s another bloggo. Anyway, my rude fellow audience member’s left hand (which he used not to hold, but to prop up the bottle) was left mostly free – it was not a heavy bottle after all – and the fingers of his left hand moved nearly constantly, forming images, sometimes with the help of the right hand and the shape of the bottle. I clearly saw a bird, also a rabbit…he would have been quite good in front of a blank slide screen.

The full picture of my view runs something like this: the far left of the stage I could see well, and whenever Spacey or another member of the cast ventured into that area I had a decent view. Panning to the right I could see sections of the full stage picture, blocked by the fingers of left hand of he-who-clutched-the-bottle (or is it “of him-who etc etc?), and occasionally I could catch a distorted picture of an actor through the water bottle (thank the gods water is clear – had he been drinking Coca-Cola I’d have been doomed), then farther right a bit more of the stage, but only briefly, followed by his hairy “curtain.” I was blessed when he took occasional generous slugs of water from the bottle, as he lifted it high, thus opening my view of the stage for fleeting, brief, shining moments. When, at nearly the end of the first act, which ran a full two hours, he finished the bottle and finally placed it on the bench next to him I had a reasonable view considering my unreasonable position – and then the house lights came up for intermission.

Much as I wanted to hector him on his rude behavior, his flitting fingers and his bottled water, his hair, etc, I had ordered and bought intermission drinks before the play for Dr. Timothy Kidd and myself and had to rush down to the dress circle bar to retrieve them.

Hmmmm? What? You want to read about the production? Oh, no, no, I couldn’t tell you about the production! Well, all right. From what I could see, and from my increasingly painful perch, it took me forever to get “into” it. Spacey shouted at what seemed to me odd times in the first great speech, forcing a Richard on me that confused me because of the arbitrary outbursts. And he had a sort of whistle he used that amused the audience, but only because it was a whistle, nothing to do with the play, and a few times read lines as Groucho Marx might have. The play was updated to the twentieth century and in the first scene Richard is watching Edward on tv, so it made sense for him to do his Groucho in that sense, but in that sense only. He got better and better as the play moved forward, and Mendes moved it forward very well, building a momentum and urgency that suited it. The supporting cast was for the most part very good, the women in particular. If everyone had been up to what Margaret and Lady Ann and Elizabeth were doing the production would have been brilliant. Richmond was imposing, but his Americanisms (“fer” instead of “for” fer example) bothered me. (This is the final production of The Bridge Project, which features Brits and North American actors in its production). Buckingham wooed the crowd like a revivalist preacher when he urged them to accept Richard for a King with microphone in hand, then beseeched a huge Spacey head on a tv screen to take the crown, Spacey’s reluctant responses in close-up one of the best bits in the first act. The second act was better than the first, Spacey really coming into his own, particularly after his dream through to his death, Mendes accelerating the pace to near breakneck speed, especially from the prelude to the battle into the battle itself. It was a solid production that much of the audience liked much better than I.

But then much of the audience did not have to sit in a high chair, crane its collective neck, constantly care for an aching back, and put up with a big hairy lug wielding a water bottle and blocking its view. Ah, well, I knew the seat was worth probably even less than the £10 I paid for it from the moment I bought it, and almost convinced myself not to go. But even as I nurse my neck and back, and stew over the jerk who sat next to me the morning after, I’ve decided that all in all it was worth watching. I’ve seen several productions of Richard III, the most memorable of them McKellen’s star turn (on stage – the film was more about the period than the play), and Brian Bedford’s at the Stratford Festival (Ontario, not Upon-Avon). This one will not be memorable (although who knows? I only just saw it – twelve hours ago I was sipping wine at intermission with Tim Kidd), but was, increasingly as the production moved forward, at least respectable and by the end very good indeed. Impressive, as increasingly during the production my physical discomfort intensfied to the point at which several times I simply gave up, leaned back against the wall supporting my bench and “heard” the play.

Two weeks from tomorrow night we see A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Stratford (Upon-Avon, not Ontario). I pray that my seat that night will be better than my bench last night. It could hardly be worse. And if I see my large, hirsute “friend” anywhere near the theatre I will take his water bottle, beat him over the head with it, then slowly pour the water over his wavy hair. Revenge, after all, is a dish (or in this case a bottle) best served cold.