Sunday, March 30, 2014

Digging Up Centuries of History

There is a noticeable construction boom going on at the moment in London. Every day when I walk to work down Goswell toward St Paul's, I pass four or five build sites for new high rise apartments, and there are plenty more on the developing East End.

Even right in the thick of the city, there are huge projects underway. When we first moved here, our corporate apartment was right underneath the massive construction site at 20 Fenchurch Street, known as the "Walkie Talkie". Last summer, the building became notorious as its curved facade made headlines for reflecting intense sunlight onto the street below and scorching storefronts and parked cars.

The biggest construction project underway at the moment is definitely Crossrail. It's a new Underground line that will cut straight across the center of the city, requiring miles of new tunnels and plenty of dig sites. Recently the construction hit its halfway point, yet there's a long way to go before it is due to open in 2018.

It's not uncommon to hear about construction work abruptly coming to a halt because of the discovery of ancient artifacts, which then turns the site into an archaeological dig. This week, it was announced that skeletons found during a Crossrail excavation were those of 14th Century Black Death plague victims.

Present-day London feels very modern, since it has had to rebuild itself many times following fires and wars. But it's interesting how much history can still be found just by digging below the surface.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Exploring London's Theatre Scene

Probably one of the neatest things about being in a city as big as London as that there is truly something for everyone, even when it comes to an activity like going to the theatre. You want to see a production starring some of the most famous actors and actresses of our time? Try going to see a play or musical in the West End, which is home to over 40 different theatres.

You want to see something a bit more contemporary? How about venturing out to one of the 40+ smaller theatres in London that aren't located in the West End. Oh, you want to see something truly historic? Well then, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre is the ticket for you.

Over the past year, Ryan and I have managed to see the following productions in London:

The Cripple of Inishmaan, Noel Coward Theatre (Starring Daniel Radcliffe)
Once, Phoenix Theatre
Much Ado About Nothing, The Old Vic (Starring James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave)
Henry V, Noel Coward Theatre (Starring Jude Law)
The Drowned Man, Temple Studios

Obviously, looking at the list, we tend to see productions that star the bigger names or are more famous shows. In fact, we likely would have gone to see the Book of Mormon, Jersey Boys, The Lion King, Phantom of the Opera, and Wicked (all currently playing in London) if we hadn't already seen them previously!

The most 'interesting' show on the list, however, is definitely the most recent show, The Drowned Man. I say 'interesting' because I'm not quite sure if I think it is the best of the bunch, but it was definitely the most memorable and unique show I have been to in quite some time. First off, the style of the production is completely different. Instead of sitting in a seat watching the action unfold in front of you, you are wearing a mask and walking around the set (and by set, I mean gigantic warehouse of at least 3 levels and numerous rooms) and the action is unfolding all around you. In some cases, the actors might even ask you to become part of the show, even if it is just by handing them a prop or answering a question. 

The other unique thing about it is that you inevitably get separated from those you came with, as it's up to you whether you want to follow a particular actor from one room to another, or if you just want to wander the set and see what scenes play out in the space you've decided to occupy. Therefore, the end of the evening is spent discussing various scenes with your friends and trying to piece together the entire story, as chances are you only saw about a tenth (or less) of everything that was going on. 

I think over the next few months, we will try to sneak in a production of Les Miserables, We Will Rock You (Queen Themed musical), or something at the Globe, but I will definitely be looking forward to our next chance to see something a bit off the beaten path as well. 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Premier League, the FA Cup, and Champions League Football

Football (ahem, soccer) is by far the number one sport in England. It dominates the back pages of the newspapers and it's always a topic for conversation at work on Mondays. I'd never really followed it in the US aside from during the World Cup, so I was at square one with understanding the English league system when I moved here.

The Premier League is made up of twenty clubs and is the top tier of football competition in England. Unlike professional leagues in the US, there is truly a tiered system, and teams can move up or down based on how they perform during a season. This is known as promotion and relegation, and I think it's a fantastic concept.

At the end of the season, the three last place teams are booted from the Premier League down to the lower level Football League Championship. Taking their place are the two top finishers from the Football League Championship, as well as the winner of a playoff between the third through sixth teams. Honestly, imagine if the NFL was able to relegate the Texans, Rams, and Jaguars and replace them with FSU, Auburn, and maybe the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

Clearly there's incentive for Premier League clubs to stay afloat, and the end of the season becomes very interesting at both the top and bottom of the standings. The overall Premier League champion is the club with the most points - there isn't a playoff to determine the champion.

But, the top four teams are also entered into the next year's UEFA Champions League tournament, which brings together the top clubs from all over Europe.

England also has the FA Cup which is a tournament made up of teams from the top eight English leagues. So in a given week, you're likely to catch a match every three or four days if you follow one of the clubs competing in each competition.

We are supporters of Arsenal, known as the Gunners. Arsenal plays its home games in North London at Emirates Stadium, which is not far at all from where we live. We went to an FA Cup match against Liverpool several weeks ago and felt right at home. I wouldn't exactly call us diehards, but like with any sport it's fun having a specific team to follow.

I'm very excited that we'll be here during the World Cup, since everyone will be following it very closely for the entire month, and we can show our own national pride alongside everyone else. Just as long as the US can make it out of the Group of Death!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Collecting Passport Stamps

While on our way to Moscow this past weekend, we noticed this article in the travel magazine. Apparently, even though Brits are quite close (comparatively) to a whole host of different countries, the average Brit has only been to seven countries outside of the U.K.

Since moving  to London, Ryan and I have traveled together to Sweden, Czech Republic, Croatia, France, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, and Russia. We've also been to Wales and Scotland, but since they are part of the U.K., they can't count towards our tally. Thus, in less than a year, we've managed to overtake the average British citizen in terms of number of countries visited. And just to make sure we don't let them catch up, we already have trips to Spain, Greece and Italy planned before June.

It made me start wondering whether Americans were more or less traveled than Brits, so I started doing a bit of research. According to the article above, 2/3 of British people have traveled abroad at least once in the past 12 months. Comparing that to a study of Americans conducted in 2011, and you'll find that only about 8% of Americans traveled abroad that year. Obviously, this is most likely explained by the large distance between the US and other countries compared to the UK and other countries, not to mention the fact that if each State were its own country, we'd probably be much closer to the British figure.

Other interesting facts in the American study that stuck out to me were the average cost of taking an overseas trip. Per visitor, it appears in the 2011 study that the average cost for an American to go abroad is about $3000. Little wonder that those people taking trips have an average household income of over $100,000! However, I found stats that say if you are travelling from the UK, the average cost for a family of four to travel is 1,488 pounds, or around $600 per person. I believe it based on how cheap we've been able to fly around Europe. Just to put it in perspective, our tourist visa to get into Russia cost more than the flight did!

This article also summarizes the issues pretty well, and was written after a similar study of American travel habits came out in 2009. After reading the various statistics, I must admit, I feel amazingly blessed to have my travel map look as full as it does. It also reinforces the desire to see as many places as possible while it is all so close and so much more affordable!