Corde pulsum tangite

Last night, I worked late, stayed in my flat and attempted to fix a code bug while watching Euro 2012. This would probably have been less galling had I actually fixed the bug, but despite a late-night-shower inspiration, I failed in my attempt. I went to bed feeling wasted, and woke too early to head back into the office.

I vowed not to repeat the mistake tonight. It’s actually a hard one not to repeat, since my customers and colleagues are just revving up for the day when I need to boot down. The nice part about UK work is that you have this lovely, uninterrupted morning to do things that require concentration. The down side is that it is hard to tear oneself away at 5.

But tonight! I would not do so! I confess that part of my ill-choice was that it is intimidating to venture into London alone, and not appealing to return to the flat. My planned collegial outing is for Thursday. So what to do with myself? Today I scoured teh intarwebs for appealing events in walking distance: compline services, plays, concerts, bands. Whateva.

I found that in the Barbican, not a block from the flat, a concert was planned. Sold. I rushed some tickets (you can get really good tickets when you’re one person by yourself), grabbed an excellent dinner expedited for me by a local restaurant and presented myself literally front-row-center.

The Barbican is a very interesting place. One expects age, marble and crystal for the home of the London Symphony Orchestra, and a cultural center of a cultural center. But the Barbican is a carpted, paneled, non-linear space with curves and corners and carpet that needs replacing. The concert hall looked more at home in Scandinavia than London. It was small – it can’t seat more than 300. It was dedicated – there was really no room for staging or a curtain or a pit orchestra. It is clearly intended for the symphony and only the symphony. There was a complete dearth of gilding or chandeliers. The back-panels were all carved wood, the floor the butt end of 2x4s, and the upholstery in mixed colors.

The crowd, for a symphony in London, was similarly un-hoighty-toighty. I mean, I watched a man in full evening dress walk by as I ate my dinner. You would expect that man’s destination might be the symphony. But I saw children, jeans and t-shirts in abundance, and not a single monocle. Even the musicians were a touch underdressed – one of the key soloists would not have been out of place in any pub in London.

But ah! The music! The evening started with a world premier, Galgenhumoresque by Martyn Harry. It was extremely rhythmically complicated – the kind of piece where you’re never actually sure if the orchestra is playing it correctly because it’s written so it doesn’t sound quite “on”, which is actually devilishly difficult to perform. I enjoyed it. The composer took a bow during the applause, which is always fun.

The next piece was Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A. I’m very familiar with the first movement. I had a CD with it when I was a young girl, and I vividly remember listening to that particular concerto while writing letters to the concert master of our orchestra from my front porch. (What can I say? He’s now a successful musician in California, and I often think fondly of our correspondence.) You will understand when I say “not a swank crowd” when I tell you that they applauded after the first movement. I mean, Seattle definitely knows better. (Seattle, I think, feels as though it has a lot more to prove.) Anyway, the soloist was about 12 years old (ok, maybe 22 but I still felt old). It was a tremendous performance, and a joy to listen to. A guy in a suit gave him an award afterwards, there was much applause, and he gave us a lovely encore.

After intermission was Carmina Burana. All the classical music cred I just earned for being penpals with our concertmaster will disappear when I tell you I’ve never heard Carmina Burana before. It is a piece perfect for a 21st century audience. Although it takes a while to perform, each piece is very snappy and interesting, but yet simple enough that you can immediately understand what you’re listening to. I promise that you, dear reader, no matter how classical-music-averse, have heard at least some of Carmina Burana, probably O Fortuna. Carmina Burana requires a huge set of performers. There’s the full symphony orchestra, two grand pianos, extended percussion, a huge choir, a children’s choir, and three soloists. (Pity the poor contratenor who has to sit up front the entire time and only sings one short song!) I’m pretty sure there was about a 2 to 1 ratio of audience to performers tonight. (Foley – have you ever sung it?)

I also found Carmina Burana a lovely combination of mysterious and funny. On the mysterious front, in the middle of a song, the language switches abruptly from Latin to German – the German repeating the refrain originally started in the Latin. Then without warning we switch back again a few songs later. The children’s choir, meanwhile, only sings things that are completely inappropriate to children. They are present doing the wooing section, and sing a lovely bit during the winning section, “Oh! Oh! Oh! I am bursting out all over! I am bursting all over with first love! (iam amore virginali). New, new love is what I am dying of!” And of course, they were serious-faced British children. It was great. You hope no one explained the words to them. The baritone also did an excellent drunken abbott impression, giving you the feeling that he has done some opera.

Anyway, I was pretty much in tears by the time it was over. It was awesome.

Tomorrow night? I’m not sure. Maybe a long linger in a pub? Perhaps an after-work walk of the Thames? Guess we’ll find out! I can feel the pull back to the states – I will not linger much longer here.

A New England maid up to London has strayed

Imagine a scene:

A woman in a London flat. The flat is near the center of the city – between Moorgate and the Barbican. The flat is a nice one – it has a private porch, two bedrooms, a vast number of switches (including some she can’t find), a very large tv with cable and a well-stocked kitchen. She arrived early in the morning. She was met by a colleague who showed her the key attributes of the apartment, took her grocery shopping for perishables, showed her where she should present herself Monday and after assuring himself she was well established – bid her have a great weekend.

Yeah, it seems pretty unreal to me too, but here I am on a very European leather settee watching Germany vs Portugal on the BBC. There are even tea lights people. Tea lights.

The number one reason my husband wishes he were with me
The number one reason my husband wishes he were with me

A few months ago, my vp announced that he wanted to strengthen the ties between the UK office and the Boston office and called for volunteers for an exchange program. I wasted little time putting my name into the ring. Then I blinked, and all of a sudden it was time for me to go. I hastily shoved some clothing into a bag, verified that my passport was up to date, worked a full day Friday and flew out. That seems like a million years ago now, but in truth I haven’t slept since then.

I figured that as long as I had a free room (corporate apartment), and the company was paying for my airfare, it made sense to go a little early and grab a weekend in London. By myself. Doing stuff I want to do. (The hard part being, of course, winnowing it down to the the handful of things I would like to do well instead of the million things I could be doing.) So today I landed in Heathrow at 6:30 am local time… 1:30 in the morning according to my body. I’d grabbed a catnap on the plane, so didn’t feel too awful. However, when I went to get some cash out, I got re-jected!!! So I used my credit card at one of those currency places to get cash instead (it took forever – the guy was a trainee and had his manager standing over his shoulder and talking him through ever button click) and proceeded into Paddington station. Fast forward through a very lost cabbie (I thought they were supposed to take a really hard test? But then again, I suppose London has changed a lot since the Blitz, which is clearly when this guy started driving.) Then there was the aforementioned being-shown-around. I had just said farewell to my guide (who has spent the previous night in our flat) and went to Starbucks to buy some caffeine to keep me going.

“Hmm.” I thought. “Where’s my Visa?” Oh dear. I had left it on the counter at the currency place. Now, I have three credit cards: a Visa I use for everything, my debit card, and an American Express I have mostly for shopping at Costco. Well, my Visa was back in Heathrow and my debit card was being blocked. And you know those adds about, “But they don’t take American Express”? They were talking about London. I got back to the flat and attempted to reach my bank, someone. It took me 20 minutes to figure out why Google talk and Skype weren’t working (see also: hadn’t slept). When I finally could call out, everything was closed. At home it was 6 am on a Saturday. (Because of course my cell phone doesn’t work at all in the UK.) I finally managed to figure out how to call the currency place and verify that they do have my credit card, and they have put it aside for me. But now I have this, uh, creative tension. In some places, I have money. If they take Amex, I’m golden. I have money on my Starbucks card, which works here. And if I actually got in any sort of bind, I could call one of my UK colleagues and they would rescue me. On Monday the bank should unfreeze my account. But for tomorrow, unless its Amex or Starbucks, I have 20 pounds to my name (and a nicely stocked kitchen). Creative tension.

So what did I do with my day in London? Well, to my everlasting delight Shakespeare’s Globe takes American Express (for ticketing only, not for the gift shop). It was 11:30 by the time I was ready to leave the apartment and there was a 2 pm matinee of King Henry V – my favorite of the histories. I walked about a mile and a half across the Millennium bridge to the theater, walked up to the box office and asked if they had any tickets left. Sadly, the only tickets they had were the best in the house! So I ended up getting a front row, top balcony seat. With an hour and a half to to spend until it was time to be seated and the Tate Museum next door, I decided to check it out. My neighbor, a graphic designer, had abjured me in the strongest language to go see it. So I did. I decided to focus on one gallery instead of walking quickly through all of them, and found myself in a surrealist exhibit of dreamscapes. I liked some, didn’t like others, thought some were fascinating and others more about the artist statement than the art. But it was fun. I rarely go to art museums, and I enjoyed the experience.

My illicit picture of a cornettist
My illicit picture of a cornettist

Then – bliss! There was a renaissance wind band playing in prep for the show! Haut instruments! Cornetto and sackbutt, as well as recorders and lute. Huzzah! I got one illicit picture before being notified “no photography”. Then the play. This was the opening performance, I believe. There were a few moments when that became clear – one or two lines less expertly delivered than others. But it was a find production. The limitations of the Elizabethan in daytime are interesting. Many of the tricks of modern theater were unavailable. They did use some of the tricks of ancient theater, with smoke bombs for cannons. The only other note I had was how unbelievably distracting the helicopters that hover over the Thames like locusts are. One nice thing about Ashland is the town quiets down for the theater. The same cannot be asked of London.

I took the long way back, although fatigue was catching up to me after two and a half hours of Shakespeare. (Crispin Crispian day! If only you didn’t fall in the middle of October I would celebrate it as one of my fake holidays!) I walked the Thames down to London Bridge and crossed over there, stopping at the lovely Liverpool Station for Cornish Pasties for dinner.

Snapped on my walk home using my phone, which is currently only a camera and Bejeweled device
Snapped on my walk home using my phone, which is currently only a camera and Bejeweled device

And now, to bring things full circle, I’m watching Portugal vs. Germany and telling you about what I’m doing! I’m pretty sure this would be a better blog post if I had slept more than 3 hours in the last 30 or so, but I figure bad is better than none at all.