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Posts Tagged 'doing crazy big things for your spouse'

Nice ways to spend Valentine’s Day or, things I’ll probably only ever be able to pull of once, part VII

Monday was our last day in England. We had an early flight out of Heathrow on Tuesday, so we had to make the day count as much as possible.

First order of business was food and real coffee. (Did I say that I don’t understand this Nescafé nonsense?) Megan wanted to try a full English breakfast, so off we went. Several restaurants within a few blocks of our hotel advertised a full English breakfast, but upon closer inspection of menus all were missing a vital ingredient — that being, of course, black pudding. In fact, black pudding seemed to be nowhere to be found anywhere, with it being replaced wholesale by tomatoes. That being the case, we finally settled on a café in Leicester Square called Fiori Corner. It was good food despite a lack of blood sausage, and I can recommend it, but do be aware that they are cash only, and they will charge for coffee refills.

Following breakfast, we headed for the British Museum. Let me tell you, if you’ve never seen it before, the British Museum is huge — so huge that if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you might very well assume that what you’re looking at isn’t the British Museum, because no museum would ever be that big. (By the way, the British Museum is right across from a thoroughfare called Coptic Street, and about the history of which I would be fascinated to learn more.) Oh, and by the way, while the entrance is free, everything else is not. You’ll pay, I think, £6 or so for a reasonably basic guidebook and map, and more depending on how detailed and complete you want it.

Hey -- eyes up here, pal.

Hey -- eyes up here, pal.

The British Museum is also so big that there’s just no way you’re going to see everything in a day, or even in a week, maybe. You really have to pick a specific area of interest and spend time there. We decided on Anglo-Saxon England and Medieval Europe, while quickly walking through some other areas on our way to find the Rosetta Stone. Among other things, we saw the Sutton Hoo exhibit, which while having a rather high percentage of replicas and reconstructions is still fascinating — particularly since I took a class a few years ago where the professor had worked on the site in her grad school days and incorporate the material into her lectures.

Following the British Museum, we went to the Royal Academy of Arts for their Byzantium exhibit with a stop at a place called Rendezvous in Leicester Square for gelato. It was good and hit the spot, but it was definitely expensive. I’ll also point out that the sign they had posted to let people know they can’t sleep in doorways is a bit odd. It looks like the caption should be, “No sensual reclining in doorways.”

From Leicester Square, it’s maybe a ten minute walk tops to RAA; it looks a lot farther on the map than it actually is. Piccadilly Circus, by the way, is somewhat Blade Runner-esque; if I had been there at night it would have seemed even moreso.

RAA, unlike the British Museum, is not free; bring a student ID if you have one — it’ll save you a few pounds on the entrance fee. You also pay for a specific exhibit, not general admission to the museum. Also, unlike the British Museum, there is no photography allowed.

The Byzantium exhibit is stunning; the examples of iconography are really breathtaking  and leave you wanting to venerate them, even though there are ropes that quite handily keep you from doing so. There was also a 13th-century Syriac Gospel lectionary on display; that was pretty darn cool. Something that rankled a bit was the caption on the wall about church life that talked about how the iconostasis was to keep the unholy masses from even being able to see the altar and how the chanting was done by all-male voices, words that seemed specifically chosen to play up how backwards these Byzantines with their alien form of Christianity were, but I suppose the real question is, what should I have expected?

A humorous moment was at an icon depicting St. Thomas with the Risen Christ; while looking at it, I heard a woman’s voice say, “There’s Thomas, doubting away.” I glanced at the person who said this, and it was a woman who looked to be of Indian descent, prompting me to think, “Hey, he’s your patron saint, lady.”

One of the big takeaways for me from the Byzantium exhibit was how Orthodox Christianity didn’t engage Byzantine culture; it was the culture, in a way that I don’t know Christianity can ever be again, anywhere. I’m not sure what that means in the long run; that may be a blog post for another time.

A leisurely walk from RAA to Westminster Cathedral for Sung Mass took us through Green Park and past Buckingham Palace. We bought some tea and some other gifts from one of the many Buckingham Palace gift shops; Megan hoped to find a tea cozy, but those turned out to be as hard to find as black pudding, for some reason. Finally we had coffee at the Costa across the street from the Cathedral, and then it was time for Mass.

The boys, alas, were not in residence, and neither was Martin Baker, so it was just the lay clerks serving as the choir. Nonetheless, it was quite beautiful, as beautiful as I’ve ever seen a Mass in the Ordinary Form. Very much worthwhile.

We walked back to the hotel afterwards, with me pausing to be amused by a sign from the Considerate Builders Scheme, and started packing things up. We decided to go to the Sherlock Holmes Pub and Restaurant for dinner; please let me caution you against making the same mistake. It is a tourist trap with a capital T, capital TR. The food is expensive and not good enough to merit the price (although now I know what “Toad in the Hole” is, and it would be curious to try it again someplace better), and overall it is just not worth it at all.

The next morning, breakfast was at one of the Starbucks locations in Heathrow; seemed like it was time to start re-acclimating to the American world. At long last, around 10:30pm, reluctant to wake from the dream, we stumbled across the threshhold of our little house in Bloomington, with our once-in-a-lifetime long Valentine’s Day weekend adventure completed, and the real world now calling us back.

Having the story to tell, and the memories we have of there with each other, is worth it.

Pictures can be found here.

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Nice ways to spend Valentine’s Day or, things I’ll probably only ever be able to pull off once, part VI

oxford-ticket-2Back to happier things.

My initial thought had been that we could go to Hagia Sophia Cathedral in London for Liturgy on Sunday; I had only been able to quickly walk through there back in ’07, and thought it would be awesome to actually go for a service and perhaps see the folks I had met who attended there.

Turned out that the Sunday we were going to be in England was the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, however, and given the role of that day in preparing for Great Lent, it seemed preferable to attend a service in English. The Cathedral does a Divine Liturgy in English on the first and third Saturdays of the month; otherwise, they do everything in Greek. (“We’re the patriarchal cathedral for the Greeks in London,” the choir director there told me when I met him. “Our services are in Greek or else.”) Alas, we were there for the second Saturday.

Plus, as Dr. Lingas had told us on Friday, it was a Sunday for Byzantine chant in English up in Oxford.

Liturgy started at 10:30; the earliest train to Oxford we could catch was at approximately 8:30am, and that got us up there around 9:50. It was about a twenty minute walk from the Oxford train station to the Holy Octagon, and I remembered where it was easily enough.

This was the first time I had seen the interior of the Oxford church; while humble in a lot of respects — it is a very simple brick building — they have done a lot with what they have. Also, while somewhat smaller than All Saints, I’d say they packed in about 30-40 more people than we typically do — it was filled to the gills. On the other hand, it was 2 February on the Old Calendar (the Meeting of the Lord, or Candlemas as doubtless some of the English converts might call it), so it being a major feast might well have accounted for the attendance.

The celebrant was Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware); the homilist Fr. Ian Graham; the cantor Dr. Lingas. Talk about a delightful treat of a morning. Metropolitan Kallistos served with a great deal of enthusiasm and verve; I’ve said before that recordings really do not capture how animated he is, and I would like to reiterate that point. Fr. Ian’s homiletics are very different from what we were used to, but not in a bad way, and it was very valuable to hear on this particular Sunday. Dr. Lingas — with one other person — sang essentially a stripped down version of The Divine Liturgy in English; what was interesting was that many of the same, shall we say, pastoral realities were present as I run into at All Saints. For example, the “Dynamis” of the Trisagion was, as is the case for us, merely a repeat of the first iteration rather than a separate, longer, melismatic comp0sition. Also, as with Bloomington, as soon as the Liturgy was over — time to start chatting! In all fairness, they actually have to go to a separate building entirely for their coffee hour, so there’s no hallway into which they may just quietly slip. It was nonetheless comforting to see that such issues are not geographically limited, shall we say. One fascinating difference is that at All Saints, more or less everybody in the congregation tries to sing everything; in Oxford, the people were largely silent.

The Oxford church is on the property of something called Ss. Gregory and Macrina House; it’s a house that exists as a center for non-liturgical Orthodox activity at Oxford, including some accommodations for students and the occasional visitor. It also appears to be where the offices for the Fellowship of Ss. Alban and Sergius are presently located, and is also where the coffee hour occurs. I hope to have some occasion to spend more time there in the future.

Following Liturgy, we ate lunch at the Eagle and Child; alas, it was full enough that the Rabbit Room was inaccessible, but the bangers and mash — and the fish and chips, and the beer — were still quite tasty regardless.

The rest of the day was spent strolling around the town and the campus, and it was a gorgeous, if chilly, day for it. In some respects, it was good we were there on a Sunday — most places where we might have been tempted to spend lots of money were closed. That said, Blackwell’s is an exceedingly pleasant place to spend several hours (and perhaps hundreds of pounds). They have shelves and shelves of things which have to be special ordered here — Greek New Testaments and Septuagints, English-Norwegian dictionaries, and so on. On the other hand, Oxford is certainly a place where people with those kinds of interests are concentrated, so that shouldn’t be a surprise. One more reason to contrive a reason to move there someday. Alternately, it’s a great reason to have a little notebook in which one can write down ISBN numbers and look online for better deals in US dollars.

We attended Evensong at Queen’s College; it was almost entirely at the other end of the spectrum of liturgical practice and singing from Metropolitan Kallistos and Dr. Lingas, but it was a nice reminder of what good liturgical singing can sound like in the Western tradition. I forget how much I like a pointed psalm sung antiphonally.

Finally, it was time to go back into the city. We got good sausage rolls from a bakery called La Croissanterie, and boarded the train.

Tips: It is reasonably common to encounter cash-only locations in Oxford. The bakery was cash-only, a coffee chain called Caffè Nero, and admission to the Saxon tower of St. Michael’s at the North Gate (“the oldest building in Oxford”) was cash only. (Megan went up; I didn’t. Again, something about paying to see part of a church just doesn’t sit well.)

Evidently, if the Orthodox visitor to Oxford were to contact the Ss. Gregory and Macrina House well enough in advance, they might find that they would be able to stay there. I don’t have any other details, and they don’t have a website or an e-mail address I am able to find, so the easiest way to contact them appears to be by phone — 01865 513117.

Yeah, Oxford is still my favorite place in the universe. What can I say?

Coming soon: how we actually got to bum around, y’know, London for day, and why the Sherlock Holmes Pub and Restaurant should be avoided at all costs.

Nice ways to spend Valentine’s Day or, things I’ll probably only ever be able to pull off once, part V

magic-flute-ticket1Word to the wise: programs are £4 apiece at ENO, and cash only.

Thus it was that all I had for Emily to sign at the end of the evening was my considerably-large ticket stub.

Thus it was, too, that I kept thinking to myself throughout the production, “Man, I wonder who that Sarastro is? It sounds a lot like Robert Lloyd,” and had to ask Emily afterward, “Who was Sarastro?”

“Robert Lloyd,” she answered.

“Oh. Well, that explains everything.”

Flute was, well, Flute. I’ve seen it probably more than any other opera, and as a piece of theatre, it just doesn’t wear terribly well for me. The dramatic impetus is silly, the reversal in terms of who the bad guys are is extraordinarily abstract, and the more people try to explain how deep it actually is the more it sounds like Wolfie and Manny just pouring a bunch of pretentious nonsense onto the page. I’ve never seen a great staging of it; because it is so ridiculous, there’s not really staging so much as there is performers moving around whatever the director’s concept is. This concept involved Tamino fighting off a bear attack with the flute.

Let me say that again: there was a bear attack, which Tamino fought off with the flute.

As Frank put it, “I was not prepared for the bear attack.”

That said, as a piece of music, it is incontrovertibly wonderful. When it’s well-sung, you don’t worry too much about the ridiculousness, and luckily, this production was well-sung. It was a reasonably young cast, save for Lloyd, and everybody brought a lot of energy and musicality to the table. Emily held her own very well and sounded like a million bucks; she has always been a perfectionist in the five years I’ve known her, so I expected no less. Her overall approach struck me as being very similar to that of Kurt Streit‘s; there’s a very similar slender, shimmery, laser-pointer-accurate approach that blossoms when she’s darn good and ready for it to blossom. Like Streit, it’s a bit early music-y in that regard, and it allows a lot of musical artistry to be displayed that might otherwise get lost in the blast of a vocal firehose.

Following the show, Megan, I, Frank, Emily, and Ayla, an old schoolfriend of hers, and her boyfriend went to a bar called The Marquis for a drink. (“I’d like a Booker’s Manhattan and some nachos.” “I’m sorry sir, but we aren’t serving cocktails or food any longer this evening.” “So what can I order?” “Beer.”) Just about the entire cast and the conductor were there, too. You know, in high school, we went to Denny’s after shows for coffee and cheesesticks. In Seattle, a place called McMenamin’s provided the post-performance libation and nourishment. It’s nice to know that, even amongst seasoned professionals at a very high professional level in a different country, the initial impulse after a performance is to go out and drink something bad for you.

Afterward, it was becoming imperative that we Feed the Megan, so there was a Parting of the Couples. Frank and Emily had an early morning trip to Scotland for an audition and also needed to eat something; we hugged goodbye, affirmed that we hoped it wouldn’t be three and a half years before we saw them again, and that was that. Thanks for making time to see us, guys — it was awesome.

We had a light dinner at a restaurant called Browns. Good pasta, good wine, decent service, not obnoxiously expensive. At the request of Megan’s father and mother-in-law, we toasted them in absentia; I managed to get the cuff of my brand new white shirt in the marinara sauce.

It was Valentine’s Day, we were together, we were in England, we had seen friends, we had seen one of those friends in an opera, and Megan had given me daisies.

Doesn’t get much better than that.

Then it was off to bed; we had to get up early to make it up to Oxford in the morning.

Nice ways to spend Valentine’s Day or, things I’ll probably only ever be able to pull off once, part IV

“I get really nervous about anniversaries and holidays,” Megan told about a month and a half ago. “You always come up with these big, extravagant, amazing things and I feel like all I have to offer is just some dumb little daisy.”

“That may be how you see it,” I said, “but to me it’s the most beautiful daisy I’ve ever seen.”

Thus it was that, on our Valentine’s Day in England, Megan was on a quest for daisies.

We finally found ourselves up and about around 11:30am; we were to meet Emily and her husband Frank at 3:30pm, so we had some time to kill. We set to finding real coffee (since the room was outfitted only with Nescafé and an electric kettle) and food; thankfully, we found both at the Caffé Strand just around the corner from our hotel. There we had excellent coffee, in fact, as well as terrific grilled croissants. I think we got out of there for around £11 — do note that they are cash only, if you are inspired to go. Also, I hadn’t realized before that if you’re just ordering coffee (rather than an espresso drink), the convention is to specify black or “white” (with cream added). If you just ask for coffee, they’ll ask you what kind.

We still had about three hours to kill and breakfast to walk off, so off we went.

It was a chilly but clear day; chilly enough that when we walked by the street vendor selling fresh roasted chestnuts that we got some, and nice enough for the obligatory hi-we’re-tourists-let’s-pose-with-Lord-Nelson’s-lions photos. (By the way, it’s a little harder to climb up there, as well as a farther jump down, than it immediately appears.)

From Trafalgar Square we walked to Westminster Abbey, passing a demonstration in the vicinity of Downing Street regarding an issue in Sri Lanka. I have to plead ignorance on what the exact issue was; a group called the Tamil Tigers was being protested as terrorists, with the British government having some involvement. For some reason I am not sure I can explain, I found the whole thing fascinating and am curious to know more.

From Westminster Abbey (we didn’t go in; I have something of an aversion to paying to go into churches) we walked to Westminster Cathedral. Now, when I was here a year and a half ago, I had no idea where I was going and walked from Victoria Station to Westminster Cathedral back to Victoria Station via a route so convoluted I don’t think I could reproduce it even if stinking drunk, blindfolded, and forced to walk backwards. Turns out it’s a straight shot along Victoria Street. That made me feel quite dumb.

Anyway — every time I’m in Westminster Cathedral I think to myself, “You know, you’re not actually using all of these beautiful Byzantine chapels… can I just take one back with me for my church?” There was a wedding going on while we were there; I suppose having one’s wedding at a landmark like that necessarily entails the presence of tourists. The one time I’ve been in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York there was also a wedding going on. We spent probably about an hour there; Megan’s souvenir was a bottle of holy water which she is going to send to her father.

We strolled back in the direction of Leicester Square, and met Frank and Emily at the Pret A Manger (“Ready to Eat”) in Leicester Square. “The Pret”‘s concept is, more or or less, organic and healthy fast food; it’s very good and more-or-less reasonably priced (although if somebody can explain to me the logic behind London’s quirk of charging extra sales tax if something is eaten in, that’d be most appreciated). We caught up for awhile, then decided to go to the National Portrait Gallery for a bit before Emily’s 5pm call.

Beforehand, however, Emily decided to drop some things off in her dressing room at the theatre, so we all followed her backstage. Virtually every backstage area of every theatre I’ve ever been in has been identical; this managed to cause my stomach to clench up a bit walking around back there, but I just reminded myself it wasn’t IU’s Musical Arts Center and I was fine. One way or the other, it was worth it to get to see, um, “Madam”.

“Bride of Frankenstein?” I asked. “You’re not the first person to say that,” said Emily.

The Gallery was cool to see, but as Megan and I both noted, it’s very odd when anything after 1400 A.D. just strikes you as too modern for your interests. On the other hand, the banter between Frank and me about some of the individuals depicted, such as a person named “Alcock,” reminded me that I have actually missed the two of them a good deal.

Then Emily was off to her call; Frank followed Megan and me back to the hotel so we could change into our opera clothes; then it was a full-on hunt for daisies.

See, we had seen a number places throughout the day where daisies might be procured, but each time Megan had deferred, not wanting to carry them around all day or just have to take them back to the hotel. We figured, what the heck, surely there’s an obvious place to get flowers in the theatre district?

Well, eventually, yes, there was — initially, however, there was not a florist as far as the eye could see. I even stopped somebody I saw carrying flowers and asked where they had bought them; “Nowhere near here, sorry,” was the answer. Finally we noticed the grocery store Tesco, which is where Megan was able to find her Valentine’s Day daisies to give to me at long last.

Then it was off to the opera.

Nice ways to spend Valentine’s Day or, things I’ll probably only ever be able to pull off once, part III

oxford-ticket-13-feb-2009I got some news on Friday that I’m thrilled to have received, to say the very least. It’s one part of a triple threat, a trifecta even, of excellent possibilities, and it is seeming rather possible right now that by this time next week, I will have found out that the other two, and thus all three, have occurred.

My only gripe is that I was hoping that I might have heard this before we went to England, so that celebrating these bits of news might be yet another pretense for the trip.

That’s okay; it just means we’ll have to go again.

But you were waiting to hear something about Oxford. Warning: this is perhaps going to be the most academically dense installment of this account. Apologies.

A couple of weeks before we left, I e-mailed my friend and Anglophile Mark Powell to see if he had any suggestions for things to do and see. E-mail Alexander Lingas, he said. He’s there.

Dr. Lingas let me know that, Friday evening, he would be delivering a lecture at Oxford’s Ioannou Centre for Classical and Byzantine Studies on Byzantine chant in Late Byzantium, and that we would certainly be welcome to come if we wanted.

I was of two minds about this, truthfully. I thought to myself, wow, what a neat opportunity to sample, even on a small scale, the academic life while we’re there, on a topic which is near and dear to our hearts, and discussed by somebody whose work we respect and have been influenced by, even.

On the other hand, that’s the same day on which we will have just concluded roughly seventeen hours of travel, and it will most certainly mean that we’ll be taking two trips to Oxford, since I was really hoping to show Megan around there (and convince her that it’s someplace we want to live and do postdoctoral work someday, but never mind that now).

Oh well. Guess we’re going.

Thus, after refreshing ourselves with showers and fresh clothes, we took the Tube to Paddington Station from Charing Cross (this is a lot easier than it initially looks on the Tube map, by the way; you just push the waste all the way in so that the door can close… uh, wait — what I meant to say was, just take the Bakerloo line north from Charing Cross to Paddington — it looks like this shouldn’t work on the map, at least at first glance, but it in fact does), and off we went. An hour later we were getting off at Oxford station.

I took us right to the Ioannou Centre (alas, the Cock and Camel, where I had a nice breakfast a year and a half ago, has been replaced by an Italian restaurant); it’s a rather new building, and I remember walking past it a year and a half ago thinking, “Hey, I need to figure out a way to visit this place next time I’m here.” (This is not the accomplishment of memory it sounds like; you go down the main drag from the train station till you get to the other main drag which is perpendicular to the one you’re on, go left, and after a block or two there it is on your left.)

We got to the hall a half hour early or so, which gave us an excellent opportunity to look like American tourists who obviously didn’t belong there, awkwardly standing outside a darkened lecture hall doing nothing while students and faculty were quite well-occupied around us. Still, people showed up soon enough to provide us fish out of water with a little bit of a pond.

The lecture, “Cathedral and Monastic Psalmody in Late Byzantium: Towards a Final Synthesis?”, was intended as an introduction to the issues surrounding the late medieval Byzantine repertoire for scholars who are in fact Byzantinists but not music specialists. Since I’ve read his dissertation, many of the broad strokes of what he discussed were not new to me, but it was very interesting to hear him sing off of the medieval manuscripts, as well as talk about some of the transmission issues with the medieval repertoire. What was great about hearing somebody like him talk about these things is that he was able to make clear that this is a part of a greater body of living tradition and practice; this is not just What Those People Back Then Used To Do.

A point which I very much appreciated: Dr. Lingas said that chant scholars such as Egon Wellesz have tended to discuss the Paleologean repertoire in the context of a narrative of overall cultural and political decline in Constantinople; of course, I’m reading The Fall of Constantinople: 1453 right now, and Runciman very pointedly observes (perhaps with people like Wellesz in mind) that culturally, Byzantium was quite alive and well even as the Empire was in its death throes. Anyway, as this particular narrative of decline has gone away, it’s been replaced by a narrative of specifically religious decline, bizarrely (at least to me) represented by a disappearance of congregational singing and the rise of professional-level, melismatic chant. “The end result is the same [in both narratives,]” Dr. Lingas said. “The cantor has hijacked the liturgy.” He took great pains to disabuse the audience of these notions, demonstrating that a great deal of continuity (but not stasis, he stressed) can be seen between the Paleologean material and the received tradition of the present day, and that by no means has the cantor hijacked anything. Since I have been the cantor getting accused of doing the hijacking, the defense to a general audience was most appreciated.

Following the lecture, we hung out for a bit at a reception for Dr. Lingas, talked with him briefly, had a lovely chat with a DPhil student there who is writing his dissertation on Galen (“I guess I specialize in pain,” he said), and then we needed some real food. We told Dr. Lingas we would see him at church on Sunday (“Great — it’s the day for Byzantine chant in English,” he said), and then hunted down a meal.

We found ourselves at an Irish pub chain restaurant called O’Neill’s; chain it may have been, but it was tasty and reasonably inexpensive, and a good place for a beer and some stew.

We were ready to head back — we’d be in Oxford again on Sunday, anyway. By this point, we had been up for close to thirty hours (give or take), and we were nodding off on the train back to London to say the least. Back in the hotel room, we were asleep before our heads even hit their respective pillows.

Travel tip: having an international flight arrive in the morning and then tiring yourself out so that go to bed at a normal hour is a great way to beat jet lag.

Next installment: When Your Definition of Modern Is Anything After 1400 or, How Emily Hindrichs Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Her Wig

Nice ways to spend Valentine’s Day or, things I’ll probably only ever be able to pull off once, part II

Now, just because it was now out in the open we were going to London, it did not precisely follow that the jig was entirely up. When asked where we were staying, what we were doing, so on and so forth, I just put on my best clueless expression (see photo at right for one of my many options) and said, “Hopefully whoever planned this will make it clear what we’re supposed to do by the time we make it to Heathrow.”

It’s a wonder I made it over the Atlantic alive.

The Minneapolis airport (where we had a four hour layover), by the way, is a shopping mall where planes happen to land. There is no seating anywhere where it is quiet and peaceful; all public seating is near either shopping or a loud TV screen. I assume this is because if you had a quiet place to sit, you’d be sitting quietly rather than consuming the advertising on TV or out and about spending money. Oh well. I will say that, at an airport like Minneapolis, you could arrive with absolutely no baggage and make it to your destination with everything you could possibly need having been bought once you’re through security (including a suitcase); I suppose this is a convenience.

Then there was the trash can over by where we were sitting while eating lunch; it was automated so that, if a sensor detected that somehow somebody’s garbage hadn’t been deposited well enough, it would tell you, in a very crisp, rhythmical voice: “Push the waste all the way in so that door can close.” Actually, it was more like this:

airport-trash-can1

The reason why I am able to notate it so precisely is because the mechanism had been broken, and the message was being repeated over and over and over again. This went on for several minutes until somebody mercifully decided to unplug the thing.

Anyway, it was an overnight flight to Heathrow, and we landed at 7:30am. By then, a note from the aforementioned Guido had magically shown up addressed to Megan (not, as I pointed out, in my handwriting), providing instructions about what Tube line to take, where to get off, where to walk, etc. “I want the next note to be from you,” I was told, but she went with it.

We took the Tube (“This is a Picadilly line train to… Cockfosters!” — cracks me up every time) to South Ealing, minded the gap, stood clear of the doors, walked a bit, and found ourselves in a neighborhood looking very much like the one pictured here. At 9:10am, ten feet from the prescribed door, it opened and out stepped Emily, with coffee (well, Nescafé, but I’ll talk about that later), tea, and breakfast all ready for us.

Perhaps you already know this, but if you’re able to have a familiar and friendly face greet you when you’re traveling very far from home, it makes all the difference in the world.

At this point, the charade was basically over. There were a couple of particulars I couldn’t talk about till later, but most of my plotting and planning came out over the pâté, toast, and eggs Emily had prepared for us.

It was a nice morning. Catching up with Emily was great, and much of the time I was thinking to myself, “You know, I’m glad it’s you who is pursuing this life, and not I.” I found myself to be much more envious of some of what she’s done with her doctoral dissertation than her being able to work as an international opera singer. It was also gratifying to hear that she’s working as steadily as she is and getting the response she’s getting — four years ago she fretted that she was too tall to work as a coloratura in anything other than early music repertoire. She has easily established that this is not the case, and it’s great to see that sometimes cool people get someplace.

We toddled away (as all averred) after a couple of hours to check in at our hotel. We quickly checked e-mail, peeled off the rags in which we had been traveling for close to 24 hours by this point, showered, put on fresh clothes, and felt like brand new human beings.

And it was off to Oxford for the evening, for… oh, dangit, I have someplace I have to be. I’ll have to tell you about why we went to Oxford a little later.

Nice ways to spend Valentine’s Day or, things I’ll probably only ever be able to pull off once, part I

So, late last summer, my friend Emily Hindrichs told me she would be singing the Queen of the Night in English National Opera‘s winter production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. I checked airfares to London; they were prohibitive, to say the least.

Around the same time, I got bumped on a flight back from Seattle (to first class on a direct flight which got back to Indianapolis earlier — really tough break), and got a Northwest Airlines travel voucher in return.

In October, I became aware of the Royal Academy of Arts’ Byzantium exhibit. This plus Flute prompted me to check airfares again. They had come down quite a bit, and with the voucher, it was going to be significantly more doable. Valentine’s Day in London looked like a really nice plan. Better yet, I decided to make it a surprise. With all the unpleasantness surrounding the health of Megan’s father, it seemed like it would be fitting to do something big and crazy.

I booked the plane tickets and got opera tickets for Valentine’s Day. The snag was lodging; my friend with whom I had stayed before and who had extended a more-or-less open invitation wasn’t able to commit to being in town that weekend, and made it clear it would be better for me to make other arrangements. Inexpensive hotels in London were nowhere I particularly wanted to be and all sounded disgusting. Still, when I accepted that it was going to be more expensive than I had hoped, it got a lot easier. I found a hotel just off Trafalgar Square that wasn’t cheap, to say the least, but with a particular discount to which I had access, it was only an arm and some toes rather than the full-on leg. Next time we go, hopefully Egeria Orthodox Home Exchange will be up and running, but the Grand was within walking distance of ENO’s theatre and a Tube station, so I can’t complain too much.

Then it was just waiting to spring everything.

Last Wednesday (one week ago today, as it happens), Megan got a dozen roses delivered with a card that said, “You and Richard pack a carry-on suitcase each and be ready to leave at 9am Thursday morning. You’ll want:  – Walking clothes/shoes – Smth. nice to wear – Smth. for church – Reading material & laptop – iPod – Toiletries.  Be ready.” (I deliberately left off “passport” so as to give her as little information as possible.) My original plan had been to pack her suitcase suitcase myself and tell her maybe fifteen minutes before we were being picked up, but I decided at the last minute that I wasn’t brave enough to try to pack for five days for a woman. This was probably a very wise decision on my part.

Maintaining the subterfuge once the cards had been delivered was obviously highly superficial on my part, but it was very entertaining nonetheless. It was a lot of fun to watch my wife flit and fret about the house nervously saying, “Now, whoever sent those flowers didn’t say whether I’d need a parka or a bikini. Can you help at all there?” I could only smile and say, “Sorry, I’m just as in the dark as you are.” She would then groan and flit and fret some more; I quietly slipped both of our passports and UK power adapters into my shoulder bag.

At 8am the next morning, she asked, “So, what do you suppose we’re looking for at 9 o’clock, anyway?” I professed ignorance. “I really don’t know,” I said. “Could be a limousine, could be a helicopter, could be a flock of lambs.”

As it worked out, it was none of these, and our friend Laura Willms arrived at 8:50am. She helpfully said that “Guido” had told her she couldn’t tell us anything, that we just needed to get in the car. She dropped us off at the Indy airport an hour later, and told us that Guido said we were to check in at the Northwest ticket counter.

When the ticket kiosk showed “London/Heathrow” as our destination, I said, “Oh. Well, I guess it’s a good thing that I brought these,” and pulled out our passports. The look on her face was priceless.

More to come.


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