Sunday, June 29, 2008

Monterroso and beyond


Wow, its been an eventful few days since we jumped off the boat in Bari, Italy last week. It started off with a train ride to Rome, melting for the next couple of days, a stopover in Florence for a night and now a coupe of days on the beach. Italy has been a blast. I understand the people better than I did in Greece, but so does everyone else. It is a bit of a tourist trap. The place is packed with tour groups taking pictures, and here I'm just one of them. It seemed like in Greece there were less Americans wandering the streets and more Greeks. Every other word you hear is English. I guess that means I've made it to the best places. Rome itself was an awesome place to visit for a day; to see all the sights you've heard about for so long. We spent most of the morning in Rome at the Vatican, walking through the museum and the Basilica. The next day we spent on a treck to the ancient city of Pompeii at the bottom of Mt. Vesuvius. Again, it was an unbearably hot day and walking through baking ruins didn't cool things off. Nevertheless, it was still pretty dang cool to wander the streets, and peak into the houses. The day after we left for Florence on an express train. The is jsut what you think it would be; almost untouched by time. We saw the necessary sites like the David and Il Duomo and spent the rest of the day on tour bus that took us throughout the city. This morning we attended one of the local branch meetings in Florence. I had to concentrate to understand the members, but I understood about 60% of what they said. The church really is true wherever you go, and the Spirit transcends languages. This is the first time I've attended church in a place that I didn't know the language. I guess there are firsts for everything. After church we caught another train bound for Monterosso, one of the five villages that make up the Cinque Terre region south of Genoa. These five villages are built into the cliffside and form a protected National Park. That means there is little growth and the streets remain mostly the same as they have for centuries. The water is clear and calm, and the food is fresh. What else could you ask for? We've walked through most of the village we are staying at and will spend the rest of tomorrow on the beach being lazy.

Beard Update: As soon as my program wrapped up last week, I decided I would not shave until after I arrived home. I've never gone for more than a week with a beard so its a new and inchy experience for me. I've been tempted to shave it from time to time, especially when it gets hot but my Dad of all people keeps encouraging me to keep it. I've noticed that all it does it help me fit in with some of the Italians. I'm getting a nice tan, I have a large romanesque nose, a nice beard and I like to wear Aviator sunglasses which is the norm for 75% of Italian guys. I've even been asked stuff in Italian by some people in the street. Obviousley they thought I could respond. All thats left to complete the Italian image is a speedo and a cigarette.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

SUPERFAST!

Greece is falling behind me faster than I ever wanted it to. My parents and myself are on a Superfast ferry taking us to the port of Bari on the Italian coast. The ship is pretty large, with a couple of restaurants and a Disco that I'm sure will be rockin. It's sad to be leaving Greece so quickly. Yesterday we took a ferry called the Flying Dolphin to the island of Hydra which is about an hour away from the port of Athens. It is unique in that they don't allow any cars or bikes on the streets, only donkey. The streets are small and narrow, the houses painted white and blue, and the ouzo is plentiful (not that I would know). Our day consisted of a Greek meal of fresh salad and fish, some swimming off the rocky coast in crystal clear water, a little shopping, and one more Greek meal before riding the flying dolphin back to Athens. It was easy to succomb to the relaxed Island lifestyle. All I needed was some good food, a quick dip in the ocean and a nice breeze and I was set. Our time in Greece was too short, but it will be nice to get to a place where I can semi understand the language. I've wanted to go to Italy and Greece since I was kid. I was fascinated by both Greek and Roman mythology. I remember one time for Christmas I asked for a book about the volcanic eruption in Pompeii in 79 a.d. and now I'll see it for myself. There is something about the Mediterranean life that just gets to you. You stop worrying about the unimportant things, like whether or not my chest hair is showing (haha). I guess pretty soon real life will slap me in the face and I'll have to button up, but until it does I'm gonna savor every moment.
(The trade off for blogging on ship in the Aegean is the internet is slow and there is no way to upload pics from the trip. Lets hope Italy is better)

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Kilt!

Here comes the sun


I don't know if its possible to fall in love after a few hours, but man I sure feel something for Greece. We've spent the day walking around the old part of the city and visiting its most recognizable landmark, the Acropolis. There are Olive trees everywhere. The is quiet because its Sunday, but it the stamp of place dominated by the heat and the sun. Everything is open air, and their is a breeze blowing in from the sea. The scooters are plentiful, as are bare shoulders and flip flops. So far the food has been what we could have hoped for. Lots of fresh vegetables and fruit, Feta cheese and olive oil. It has been kind of a trip trying to figure out the language (impossible so far) but most people I talk to speak English. I wish I could describe it better than I have. The Acropolis is overwhelming with humanity. So much of what we believe in as a Western Society game from this area of the World. I think I was made for a place like this. Low-key and warm, with fresh food and friendly faces. So far Athens has been a blast, and we have only seen a part of it. Tomorrow we are heading to the beach for some Mediterranean sun and from there we'll see how it goes.

Britania!

Well Blogosphere, its been awhile hasn't it? How about we make up and I can leave an update? I couldn't be happier. I'm sitting in an Internet Cafe in Northeast Athens, a Diet Coke next to me, Europop music over the loud speakers, and the Mediterranean heat blowing in from the door. It has been a crazy week to get to this point. On Wednesday I waved goodbye to my stay at the London Centre at least for a little while (also to shaving). My parents flew in that afternoon and I picked them up via tube system and led them to our hotel in Camden. That first day they were quite tired, so we took it easy. My mom (should I say mum now?) stayed at the hotel while I took my Dad to visit the centre and take care of some last minute business before I officially checked out. That first day was pretty low-key. We ate at the hotel and got ready for the next couple of days.
On Thursday we woke up kind of late, and took the tube to the West end for the day. Breakfast that morning was something else. We ate near my swimming pool at a family-run Turkish restaurant. The food was cheap and filling, and only got us more excited for the Mediterranean. We spent the day on a tour bus that took you through the city and allowed you to hop-on and hop-off. One of our stops was St. Pauls Cathedral and I took my Dad part way up the Dome. For lunch we had some British food, which is not much more than meat pies and chips(french fries) with everything. My parents weren't too impressed with British cuisine, and neither am I. It is very hearty and filling, but isn't much to experience of even look at. Even you can't imagine what it is, think of baking everything in a flaky pastry and add some mushy peas on the side. The highlight of the tour was probably a boat tour that took us up the Thames from Tower Hill to Westminster Palace. Our guide on the tour was a typical Brit, with a biting sense of humour and full of witty observations. I couldn't really ask for more to end my British experience. Even the accent was spot on. That evening we saw Les Miserables in the West End. I have to say it was a pretty good show.
On Friday we were a bit tired of the city, so we headed to the countryside for a trip to Windsor Castle, the Queen's favorite residence. To get there we had to catch a train from Waterloo station. Our train shared a platform with the one heading to Ascot for the day of horse races. Royal Ascot is a chance for the London elite to show off their most outrageous hats and mingle amongst each other. It really threw myself and my parents for a loop to see all these people dressed in huge hats, and long coattails. On the way to Windsor we passed by a town called Whitton, which is pretty similar to my last name Whetten. Supposedly both last names come from the same place. I guess at least part of me is British to the core? Windsor was an awesome place. It is still a fully functional palace. Just days before it was closed for a state visit by President Bush, and Prince William was made a Knight in the Order of the Garter. While we there the Queen was too, because her flag was flying from one of the towers. That evening we didn't have too much to do, so we hit up another show. This time it was the musical adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. I was skeptical when we bought the tickets because I had heard it wasn't too good. However, it closes in July so I figured I at least could be one of the people that had seen it before it disappeared into musical oblivion. I've been to a few musicals now, so I consider myself an apt critic (haha) and given some bad acting, and a poor storyline, it was pretty good. The set was incredible as were the costumes. Parts of the stage would rotate and rise up to mimic the mountains and the battle scenes. Actors were dropping from the ceiling, and in between acts they would come out and interact with the audience. The Hobbits would hop from chair to chair making jokes, and the Orcs would creep in the aisles scaring the occasional tourist. It was great fun.
Saturday was a day lost. We didn't have much planned because our flight left in the middle of the day. When we got there, Olympic Airlines told us we were delayed until 9:00 pm so we spent the afternoon touring Heathrow. There isn't much to see, haha. We made it into Athens last night (or should I say this morning). I'll save my love for Greece for the next post.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

view from the top

video

camden, st. paul's and a little more football


It has been a packed last few days. On Monday I finished my English class with a final in the morning, and I finished drawing today with a presentation of my final project. So the weekend was pretty stressful, getting ready to wrap up the program. In between studying, we still managed to get some fun stuff done. Yesterday we spent the afternoon in Camden Town in north London. It's famous for being a counter-cultureish hotspot, which also served up cheap Asian food for lunch. Naturally, we went the lunch. The food market is combined with the clothing market, which sells mostly vintage stuff and some clubwear. The food vendors are housed in stalls, and as you pass them they hold out free samples and compliment you in their limited English. The signs say the food is Indonesian, or Thai but every vendor had the same stuff, hence the word asian food. Granted, it was really cheap and filling and we were even given free drinks. I've never haggled over food before, but in Camden anything goes. The area around the food market is a maze of clothes and various tobacco smoking products. What is pretty cool is that a lot of the store fronts have these 3D signs in front.
From Camden it was a short bus ride to Swiss Cottage, also in North London. We stopped at Abbey Road studios for a gander and so we could recreate the iconic Beatles album cover. The crosswalk is still a crosswalk today, so it was tough to get the same shot. I'm not a Beatles fan so I gave up and settled for a picture in the crosswalk.
Today my buddy James and I spent the afternoon walking the legal area of London towards St. Paul's Cathedral. The inside is incredible, much more so than Westminster Abbey is. There are stairs that you take to the top of the dome for an awesome view of London. Then in the evening we had a goodbye social as a group, and tomorrow people will start to leave the centre.
Tomorrow will be my last time blogging as a student at the BYU London Centre, before I pick up my parents at Heathrow in the afternoon. Then I will only be blogging as an unshaved party animal.

Friday, June 13, 2008

a little bit of this, a little bit of that




Wednesday was packed. Early in the morning we left for Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, the current home of the 11th Duke of Marlborough. The most historic parts of the Palace are open to the public, including the birthplace and childhood home of Winston Churchill. The palace itself is huge, with expansive grounds and lots of room for some privileged sheep to graze. Inside, we took a tour of some of the more elaborate state rooms. All of the historic palaces in England forbid photography, so I don't have any cool pictures of the inside. Just imagine the hugest, stuffiest and ornate rooms and you will be spot on.
From Blenheim it was a short coach ride to the city of Oxford and its famous university. Like Cambridge, Oxford is made up of small colleges where students live, study and eat together, kind of like Hogwarts (the first of many Harry Potter references in this post). You can study a variety of subjects in each college, and some are more prestigious than others. We chose to go into Christchurch College, which is arguably the most famous. The first two Harry Potter movies were filmed in the college's great hall. If you don't believe me, watch the first one again when the first years arrive and Prof. McGonagall is giving them instructions. Thats the same staircase where I'm sitting at. Pretty dang cool, huh? After lots of pictures, we continued our walk across Oxford, including ascending a 13th century church tower for some great shots of the university.
Thursday was spent in class and some more wandering around London. I also spent some time preparing a trip to Italy and Greece when my parents fly into the UK next week. Should be a blast!
Today myself and some friends spent the afternoon in Greenwich, where the prime Meridian line lies. I have to say the line was pretty anti-climatic, it really is just a line. The best part of Greenwich was the view from the hill next to the observatory. The buildings in the background form Canary Wharf, a sort of modern financial center built on former docklands. To get there we take an elevated light rail train that gives you a great view of the glass and steel canyons of modern London as zips through them. I think London has got it figured out; you keep the historical, atmospheric part of the city preserved, while developing underused areas for the modern skyscraper area that I love so much. I'm a total modernist, who enjoys human progress in action. I guess its ironic I chose a major where I study the philosophies and musings of authors that have been dead for centuries. Somehow I'll find a happy median between the two.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

a little hairspray, and a swim


I hopped on the tube (hopped is the correct word, sometimes you have to jump from the tracks to make it before the doors shut) early this morning at about 8:30. I've been swimming whenever I get a chance to. My day goes a lot better when I get a few laps in, and I mingle a bit with the local swim talent. There are two pools, one indoors that is mostly used for school groups and another outside. Most of my fellow swimmers are old duffers in speedos, or older women out for a leisurely lap or two. They are all pretty polite and will let you pass if you are faster. I'm thinking I should go back to my speedo days from the swim team just so I can fit in a little more. It has been great weather in London, so I swam under the blue sky for the morning and headed back to the center for the afternoon.
Across the street from the pool is the Shaftesbury Theatre which last year was the home for the musical Rent, and now hosts the West End production of Hairspray. A group of us went to see it on Monday evening and I can say that I really enjoyed it, once you get past the dude in drag playing Tracy's mom. I was surprised that they were even able to fake decent American accents. I have to say that it was probably the best show I've since I've been here, and I would recommend it to anyone.
After swimming I went on one of our scheduled walks to the Mayfair area of London, south of the shopping district of Oxford street. This area is home to some of the priciest stores like Cartier and Chanel, and there are Bentleys up the wazoo.
From there I walked towards Palace Court via Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. As soon as the sun peaks out from behind the clouds for longer than an hour, all of London heads to the parks for some sun. Part of my walk took me past the Serpentine Lake with boat peddlers, ducks, and kids diving in and out. The next warm day we have I'll be joining them. Tonight we have a meeting with Bro. Chittok, a local member who remembers the Blitz of WWII, and tomorrow we spend the day at Oxford and Blenheim Palace.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Bath, Stourhead, Stonehenge etc,


The London extravaganza is winding to a close but I'm still going full steam ahead. Friday was spent entirely in the Georgian tourist city of Bath. By Georgian, I'm referring to the time period under three King Georges of Great Britain in the 18th century. The city was popular during the Roman times for its thermal pool, down through the medieval ages (where both sexes bathed nude in public, ewwww) continuing in Georgian times, to today. It became a hot destination for the British fashionable in the 18th century, so the entire city follows that neo-classical style; with Roman columns and stone buildings. Jane Austen lived here for four years and is the setting for her novels, Persuasion and Northumberland Abbey; so the 30+ girls in our group were thrilled to be there. We spent the day on a walking tour of the city, which has become my favorite destination so far outside of London. To round everything thing off, we stopped to drink some of the famous Bath medicinal water that is supposed to clear out your digestive system (Think opening scenes of Amazing Grace). I have to say it tasted thick and warm, like Jacuzzi water.
The next morning we headed to Stourhead, which was an estate famous for its large gardens. Keeping with the Jane Austen theme, some scenes of Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley were filmed there to the continued THRILL of the girls in the group. So many Elizabeths without a Mr. Darcy. The gardens were pretty cool, as was the manor house which looks much like you would think; full of paintings and dust.
After Stourhead we drove to Stonehenge for a walk around the site before we headed home. There really isn't much to Stonehenge that you can't already deduce from a detailed Wikipedia article or this month's issue of National Geographic, but it still was worth it to see it in person. Before you used to be able to walk right up to the ancient stones, but now you can only see them behind a rope.
The rest of the weekend was spent recovering from the week's travel; England and her pollen has stirred up my allergies. This week is the final week of classed. On the agenda: Jack the Ripper tour, Oxford and Blenheim Palace and a huge ceremony with the Queen on Saturday. Should be packed!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Mr. Speaker...


My friend and I spent the morning navigating the area around Westminster Palace right next to Big Ben, preparing ourselves for the Questions with the prime minister in the House of Commons. The UK is a Parliamentary system, consisting of two houses; the House of Lords and the House of Commons, the second of which is the most powerful. Every Wednesday the MPs (Members of Parliament) have a chance to ask the prime minister questions for half an hour. In the back sits the Speaker of the House who moderates the discussion and decides who will speak. The chamber where they sit is green, and divided along party affiliation. The government in power, currently the Labour party, sit on the left while the opposition, currently the Conservatives, sit on the right. In the front of each side sit the main leaders of the party. For the Labour party this is Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his cabinet, and for the conservatives it is David Cameron who might be the next prime minister. When one MP answers a comment by the other, they never refer to the other MP directly, but in the third person and all comments must be addressed to the Speaker of the House. So whenever they are called on they first say, Thank You Mr. Speaker.
We made it in five minutes late and stayed until the debates became tiresome. The mood inside the House of Commons is, well, common. You can tell this is the people's branch of government. There are shouts and jeers when bad comments are made, and even some witty insults. No real work gets done on the chamber floor; most of that is done in committees, but it still the most fun I've had so far. Living, breathing London.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

muddy football

Bad London weather + the desire for some football on a Tuesday night=Muddy Football.
'nuff said.

gray London


Originally I had planned to head off to Paris for the day tomorrow with some other members of my group. Instead I opted to have a free day in London which includes a trip to the House of Commons to witness a question and answer session with the Prime Minister Gordon Brown. So this morning my buddy James and I headed to the American Embassy to pick up our tickets for tomorrow, and then we went to the Tower of London for the rest of the afternoon. The weather was rainy and gray, typical of what you would expect London to be like.
The Tower was a lot of fun. For those who don't know, the complex itself is not one large tower, but a fortress that used to be a castle, prison and execution grounds. In the center stands a large tower called the White Tower where that armory was held, and surrounding it are various smaller towers that held prisoners and residences for the guards. We were guided the first hour by one of the famous Yeoman Beefeaters who showed where various historical celebrities were executed and where their severed heads were displayed. In the picture on the right you can see where Ann Boleyn, Katherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey were executed. The tower is also home to the British Crown Jewels which are spectacular to look at but must be incredibly heavy and tedious to wear. Among other royal jewelery in the tower are lots of gold plated dishes and cups including a massive thing called the grand punch-bowl.
Around the grounds are tons of ravens, hopping on and off benches and creeping out the tourists. Legend has it that if you remove the ravens, then the nation will fall. Therefore they are kept on the grounds, with their wings clipped so they don't fly away. It was funny to watch these huge ravens, walking around the tower grounds as if they owned the place.
I'm very excited for the question and answer session with the prime minister tomorrow. Those who know me can attest that I am fascinated by politics and the chance to sit in the House of Commons is pretty cool. I guess that is what excites me the most about London; not just the great historical sights but the history that is being made today. I'll have to write a detailed entry tomorrow to let you all in the blogosphere know how it all went.

Monday, June 2, 2008

cheers Mate!


I've made it back to London. Well, actually it was a few days ago, but I've been a slacker with the blog. The more I get used to London, the less I want to update my blog but I have an obligation to all those living through my study abroad experience, so I kind of have no choice. To make things easier I'll go back to Dublin and work my way to today.
Saturday in Dublin was great. The weather online predicted rain for both days while we there, but it turned out to be sunny and even a little warm. During the day I met up with my friend Claire for lunch at a food market in the Temple Bar area. We had some Japanese dumplings and fried noodles, found a spot in the shade, and settled in for some reminiscing about middle school life in Ecuador and the tragedy of being English majors. She guided me on a mini tour of Trinity College, where she goes to school and showed me among other things the room where Bam Stroker wrote Dracula. Comparing Trinity to Cambridge, I prefer the first. It has an awesome atmosphere, like the rest of the city. Ireland has produced some of modern literature's greatest writers, like James Joyce, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde to name a few. Considering how small the country is, thats a good proportion of geniuses. Dublin seemed to ooze culture. The city isn't very picturesque, but it has a cool vibe that is uniquely Irish. After hanging out with Claire, my friends and I met back up and we explored the area around Dublin Castle. When Ireland became a Republic, they transformed the palace into a government facility which is its primary function today. One of its purposes is for the inauguration of the President every seven years, which takes place in the room at the right.
We left Dublin that evening bound for London and got home around 21'00 and headed back on the tube for Palace Court. On May 1st London elected a new mayor, a conservative named Boris Johnson who vowed to clean up the tube system by banning alcohol and smoking, to take affect on the 1st of June. As Saturday was the last day to drink, thousands of people descended on the tube system for a huge party and we happened to be in the middle of it. We made it home alright but it really was a night of chaos. Heres a link to read about it, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/7429638.stm.
Today we had English class in the morning and we discussed a man named Samuel Johnson, famous for his Johnson's Dictionary, and in the afternoon we descended upon his house near the Fleet street area (of Sweeney Todd fame). Before then my bud James and I ate at a pub named the Cheshire Cheese which has been around since the reign of Charles II (15 monarchs ago or since the late 17th century). We had some traditional steak pie with some mushy peas and chips ( a picture of Samuel Johnson is behind me at the right).The house is at the end of Gough Square and was the only building around to survive the Blitz bombings of WWII. It still has a lot of the original walls and floors, which means no right angles. Samuel Johnson was a large, rather unattractive man with a biting wit who would take in homeless people and other dregs of society. He also was a genius who we owe the relative uniformity of the English language to. He had this to say about London, "Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."
Across the square from the house is a statue of Johnson's cat named Hodge, who showed up in some
of his writings as his favorite cat. He even has an entire Wikipedia page on him.
For the rest of week I have some catchup to do on some of my assignments before we head out to Bath on Friday and Stonehenge on Saturday. The trip is wrapping up, just when I feel like I can call London my own.