Our main interest in going to London was, quite honestly, to visit the Harry Potter Studio Tour outside the city. I wish I could tell you that it was for a higher cultural purpose than that, that we were going to see the great historical sites, Westminster Abbey, the Tower, the Palace, the stolen treasures of colonized cultures. But I’d be lying.
London was also fun because of all the people we met up with while we were there, some old friend who we hadn’t seen in years, and some relatively new ones we’d only spent a little time with.
Our first full day in London, Eric went to find his pool and the kids and strolled through London before our tour in the evening. We were staying just next to the London Eye, and while this was a handy location, the constant crush of tourists was claustrophobia inducing. Squeezing our way over the Westminster Bridge, we strolled through St. George’s park, sidling up to tour guides to “accidentally overhear” their patter about the variety of ducks and coots in the lake, until we reached our first destination : the playground. While the kids were playing among wooden spiders and rope bridges, I suddenly heard a loud commotion in the street – tubas and other brass instruments, and wide swaths of tourists with phones moving along from spot to spot along the street like a bee swarm finding a new nest. A parade? I supposed, and gave it no more mind. As it turns out, this was the changing of the guards. I had never understood the appeal of this, as I thought it was literally two guards swapping places, like late night security detail at a bank, and didn’t realize there was all this ceremony about it. We still skipped it in favor of the playground, but I guess I get why it’s interesting. Maybe.
A quick stop at a small street that is said to be the inspiration for Diagon Alley, but here I must question the advertisement, as there are several streets in Edinburgh that claim the same, and given that that is where Rowling wrote the first novel, it seems far more likely. A visit to King’s Cross, of course, where we waited in line for the official picture going through the wall. While we waited, a chirpy employee asked “Who would like to answer some trivia questions?” The kids began to bounce up and down, waving their arms in the air in a close approximation of Hermione and handily answered all questions, winning some free Hogwarts Express tickets for their efforts.
A small confession here, I suppose. I don’t actually like any of the Harry Potter movies. I find them rather dull in general, with the storylines plodding along in slavish need to mirror the books line by line, particularly the earlier ones. Good books don’t always make good movies without good screenwriting, but this was hampered (in my opinion) by a strong fan base who insisted on seeing page by page renderings of the text. That said, a visit to the studio tour is, as Ron would say, brilliant. Even if you’re not a fan of these movies, chances are you’re a fan of SOME movies and the site is a dedicated tour in learning about movie making in general.
I learned, for example, about how most of the actors wore wigs and even facial hairpieces throughout filming to maintain consistency. Since the scenes aren’t filmed in order, it would have been too jarring if the hair looked different from scene to scene. The level of detail given to background objects – the green tiles in the ministry of magic are cardboard, hand painted with a seven step process to look like gleaming ceramic. How many ideas were worked on for months and then discarded because they didn’t work, such as using actors on stilts for the werewolves.And then some, like the inferi, which were worked on for years for less than seven minutes of screen time.
My favorites were the physical set pieces that were created for illusion. Hallways that seemed to stretch on for miles but in reality are less than ten feet in length. The famous bridge is only a short stretch for filming, then was digitally extended for the film. Half the time you see Hagrid on screen, it’s not even a human face, but a highly detailed animatronic mask worn by a very tall actor. My other favorites were the physical set pieces WITHOUT illusion – many of the mechanical workings of the film actually worked as such – the snake door, Gringotts vaults, the rising staircase to Dumbledore’s office. Some of the reviews say that for little kids, seeing these things takes away from the magic of the film, but for us it enhanced it, to see how these objects were brought to life and the care with which it was done.
Our following day, we went to the Tate modern partly to go but mostly to meet up with an old friend, Elaine. Elaine was a British exchange student who lived with me and others my sophomore year, and we travelled for a bit afterwards to the East Coast and Chicago. A favorite anecdote is when we visited my uncle in Chicago, and Elaine asked for a glass of water without ice. My uncle seemed overly surprised by this and went to fetch it, while Elaine and I looked at each other with puzzled glances. Was water such an unusual request? She accepted the glass and began to sip at it, then leaned over to me and whispered, “I think…your uncle just gave me a glass of vodka,” which indeed he had, misunderstanding her accent. Elaine, of course, did the proper thing and drank the glass handily without complaint.
My children, of course, chose this exact hour to engage in a prolonged bickering session, belying all the lovely ways I try to depict them in this blog. Despite that, it was fantastic to see her again & reconnect.
A stop at the Globe theater to see Romeo and Juliet, which was surprising to say the least. I’d expected traditional Elizabethan staging at the Globe, and instead was shown a rock/hiphop version of the play, complete with an emo Romeo, female Mercutio, Indian priest, and more surprisingly, an execution of the parents by gunpoint at the end. “Did that happen in the play?” Asked the girl.
I enjoyed the production and found it entertaining, with the exception of the decision to release crinkly shiny plastic streamers into the audience, which my kids and others found irresistible to pick up and crunch. “Stop it!” I found myself hissing repeatedly, and silently cursed whoever made this foolhardy decision. My purist son and husband however, were dismayed at the alternative staging and would have preferred more heaving bodices I suppose. Fun fact, the priest was chanting in Marathi so I could understand what he was saying for filler in his scenes, which was just “we are going, we are going.”
After this we met up with friends we made in Portugal, Betty and John, both involved in recruiting students for study abroad in London, and just very, very cool people overall. We started chatting in a microbrewery in Lisbon, and so they found a tasty one to visit in London. Unfortunately, no children were allowed inside. I have to say, this is a pet peeve of mine in the UK & Ireland in general – Kids aren’t welcome in pubs really at all. Some family friendly ones will serve dinner and you can bring kids, but then you’re relegated to a small sad cordoned off area at the back. I completely understand having a time after which no kids are allowed, say 9 or 10 pm, but for the travelling family who would like to try a microbrew it can be rather difficult for places that don’t allow children at all, and such a change from everywhere else where we generally felt welcomed as a family. We found one around the corner that let us in, and next door was a tea shop.
Upon hearing of the kids’ love for tea, Betty popped out and returned with some bags for them to take home, which was so sweet. While we sat and chatted, the boy sipped on his tea and worked with his new quill pen, as 11 year olds do. We ended up later at a delicious ceviche place in Soho and then a stroll through Chinatown, the night filled with discussion of travel and politics.
On our last day in London, we were again besieged with requests for a playground, and made our way to Hyde Park as it’s noted to be a good one. The reviews tell you to get there early else you may have to queue. (Yes, queue) A large space filled with structures and hideaways based on Peter Pan, the children scampered about happily until it was time to head out for lunch.
Here we met up with Nick, who we’d met about two years earlier at my house. He’d come to my music birthday party at my house as a guest of of other friends. He borrowed a saxophone and picked up a pair of drumsticks, and then stayed on even as the friends he’d come in with had to leave to get home to their kids. After all the other guests had left, Nick, Eric, Sapana (who’d flew in) and I were sitting on our back porch in the warm June night air. Nick was busy gobbling down brownies in rapid succession, when Sapana furrowed her brow, turned to him, and said, “Now, wait, WHO are you exactly?” in that way of hers where she will just bluntly blurt out a question. [Side note: one of my favorite of these is from one of the first times she’d met Eric, when she looked at him intently and queried, “Eric, will you ever go bald?” To which he took the question seriously and replied “No, Sapana, I will never go bald.” And thus far he’s kept up with his promise.] Nick proceeded to tell us about himself, his time in the foreign service spent in Iraq, a return to London and changing careers to psychology and providing group support for PTSD survivors, and turned out to just be a very interesting person overall.
The last meetup of the trip was getting together with Ellen, who is the daughter of one of Eric’s best friends John. Eric knew Ellen as an infant, so seeing her as a grown woman with her boyfriend Jon was emotional. Catching up on lives and talking about plans at an Indian tapas restaurant, which I must say is a wonderful concept that should be replicated everywhere. Basically, you get small plates of various dishes to taste and share and get fresh poli (roti, like a tortilla) to eat it all up with as you wish. Amazing. They had a blood orange lassi that kicks a mango lassi butt anyday.