Saturday, June 27, 2015

A Date with Her Majesty the Queen at Royal Ascot

When we were in London in 2011, we happened to be at the train station one day during the week of Royal Ascot, sort of a British Kentucky Derby (though they'd be horrified to hear me refer to it that way).  After seeing all of the people in their race day finery, I declared then and there that the next time we were here for study abroad, we were going.
Here are photos of some of the people headed to Ascot that I saw at Waterloo Station in 2011.
They look smashing, don't you think?

Each June, Royal Ascot takes place near Windsor Palace, and, since the Queen just happens to love racing and even owns horses, Her Majesty is always in attendance.  In fact, she hasn't missed since 1955.  Other races are run throughout the season at the Ascot racecourse, but only one series is known as Royal Ascot.

Before securing our tickets online, I went to the Ascot website to check things out.  Unlike the Kentucky Derby, they have a strict dress code and videos that they make each year detailing what's OK and what's not.  I also consulted a Trip Advisor forum and related blog post written in 2014 by an American first-time Ascot-goer to try to get the real scoop about what to expect.  (Some of the respondents to the forum wrote things that made me want to punch them in the throat, but I digress.)

Josh and I attended the Kentucky Derby with Daddy in 2014, and we had a wonderful experience.  The only drawback was that tickets were $800 each.  That included two days of racing, food, and drinks, but it was still a hefty price tag.  And we certainly weren't going to shell out that kind of cash to take our kids.  So when we started researching Ascot, we assumed it would be a similarly priced.
I'm so glad I have the fond memory of our day at the Kentucky Derby with Daddy in 2014.

But after considerable digging to find out about tickets, we learned that kids under 18 are free!!!!!  And even better, there was a discounted rate if you bought your tickets before March 31.  For £116 (about $183) , we could all go together!  These tickets would allow us access to the Grandstand area which is not as posh as the Ascot-members-and guests-only Royal Enclosure but better than the pack-a-picnic-and-sit-on-the-ground Silver Ring or Heath Enclosure.  (For more about the seating areas, click here.)

Now, the Grandstand is, quite literally, a Grandstand.  There are tiered levels with railings but no seats.  I had read that there would be some benches scattered around but not nearly enough for the throngs of stiletto-shod ladies vying for a spot to rest their aching feet.  We knew that the Queen was due to arrive at 2:00 and that racing began at 2:30 but that the gates opened at 10:30.  We thought that if we got there early enough, maybe we could stake out a bench to use for the whole day. But did we really want to get there four hours early?  In our dressy clothes and heels?  (Well, not the guys, of course.)  In the end, we decided to take the 10:40 train from our neighborhood which would get us to Ascot at about noon.  We'd hope for the best.  

Now for the what-to-wear question.  I decided that I wanted to get another use out of my awesome, one-of-a-kind Derby hat made by Luminata, so we shipped it over ahead of time.  I bought a new dress and shoes to go with it, and Josh and the kids packed dress-code-appropriate options as well.  If we had petitioned the American Embassy for the right to buy tickets in the Royal Enclosure, Josh would have had to have rented a morning suit (grey or black) and top hat.  As it was, Ascot protocol insisted that his coat and trousers had to be the same color and of the same fabric.  I'm not kidding.  It's serious stuff.

                            Here we are in our Ascot finery!

We took the London Overground train to Ascot station which involved changing trains once.  We assumed that the trains would be really crowded with race goers, so I was relieved that some gentleman gave up his seat to spare my high-heeled feet.   ( I did feel a little bit guilty as he was a senior citizen - or a pensioner as they call them here - but he insisted.  Don't judge.  Gotta love British chivalry.)

                                           Kinley doesn't look too upset about having to stand the entire journey.

The racecourse is a festive seven-minute walk from the station with loads of other people dressed to the nines.  

                                              I could decorate my entire life with Union Jack banners.  I truly could.

When we arrived at the Grandstand, we were shocked to see that there were still unclaimed benches right beside the rail of the track! We snagged one (and spent the rest of the day shamelessly guarding it like pitbulls). 

Kinley and Knox stake our claim.  Notice how few people have arrived at noon compared to later pictures below.

Since we had two hours to kill before the Queen arrived, we decided to grab something to eat.  Many people come to Ascot and eat at one of the completely-out-of-our-price-range dining rooms, but I had read that there were less expensive options (notice I didn't say cheap) near the bandstand.  We found a place I had read about that sells what is basically a designer open-faced grilled cheese sandwich and got some fish and chips to share.

Like at sporting events in the US, the food is pricey.

As the day progressed, I managed to embarrass my daughter over and over by stopping people to ask if I could take their pictures using my best British syntax and vocabulary.  "Oooh!  You look just smashing!  Could I take your picture for my blog?!"   Once I even threw Kinley under the bus and told the lady, "My daughter thinks you look simply lovely.  Could I take your picture for her?!"  Kinley was appalled, but she deep down inside she really did want me to take the picture.  I promise.

Some of the lovely fashions at Royal Ascot.  The girl in red, lower center is the one Kinley admired.

After looking around and having a snack, we decided to try to figure out the betting process since it differs from the process at US tracks we've been to such as Keeneland and Churchill Downs.  At Ascot, you place your bets with an actual bookie, and there are many different bookies trying to get your attention.  We decided to make a practice run before the races by betting on the color of hat the a Queen would be wearing when she arrived.  She had worn pink the day before, so I bet on yellow while Kinley had me place her money on peach/apricot and Knox had me place his on turquoise.

Knox makes his choice at one of the many bookies' stands.  The odds are shown in the white boxes beside each option.
Finally, it was time for the arrival of the Queen.  People showed up out of nowhere, and suddenly our lovely view from our track-side bench was obstructed.  So now we had a dilemma.  Do we give up our bench to get closer to the rail to see the Queen or resign ourselves to a view only of heads and fascinators but keep the bench?  Once again, I decided to throw a kid under the bus.  Knox stood on the bench to guard it (he couldn't see standing on the ground anyway since the rail was right at his eye level), while the rest of us got as close as we could.  This, my friends, is why we humans procreate.

Knox took this picture from the bench.

Josh took this one of Her Majesty who rode by right in front of us!  Her blue hat meant that we all lost money, but it made her easy to spot for the rest of the day.

We only got a glimpse of  her as she rode by, but we were thrilled to learn that this hale and hearty octogenarian spryly trotted back and forth from the royal box to the parade ring between each race so we got to see her repeatedly all day!

The Queen consults her race card in the parade ring before the first race.

Queen Elizabeth II speaks with the jockeys who will be riding her horses just before the last race of the day.

There were six races in all, and we bet on horses who placed each time!  If we hadn't bet on the Queen's hat, we would have come out ahead for the day.  Mind you, a big bet for us would be £5 and normally we just put down £2.50, so our losses weren't very big.

Free Eagle for the win!
Josh had put money on The Grey Gatsby (how could he not with an awesome name like that?) and on Western Hymn, so it was a great way to end the day!

After the last race, there is a long-standing tradition of singing 'round the bandstand, so we joined in.  They passed out Union Jacks and little song books, so we waved the flags with vigor and enthusiastically sang (oddly American) songs like "Sweet Caroline," "New York, New York," and "Take Me Home Country Roads" with 50,000 drunken Brits.  It was probably exactly what you're picturing.

And, of course, there had to be a round of "Rule, Britannia."  Even the locals with their songbooks in hand didn't try to sing along with the verse.  But when they got to the chorus, it was English patriotism (is that an oxymoron?) all the way.  If you can't begin to picture it, here's a look.

Before the last song ended, we wearily began our walk back to the train station since we were worried that waiting until the bitter end would mean standing all the way back to London.  We had purchased our return tickets online in advance which turned out to be a good idea since we avoided a long queue and meant we got on early enough to get seats.

We returned to our flat exhausted but it was a perfectly wonderful day and one I hope to repeat in the future.  But next time, I am totally writing the Embassy and Josh is so going to have to wear a top hat.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

There's No Business Like Show Business

One of our favorite things to do in London is to attend shows, so we squeeze in as many as our time and our bank account permit!

This summer we started by making a list of shows we'd like to see, and then we prioritized them as Must See, Hopefully See, and Might See.  I started following Official London Theater on Twitter several months ago so that I would know which shows were on during our stay, and Josh regularly checks the Internet for theater updates as well.  

I had read that Bradley Cooper was planning a short run of The Elephant Man, and Josh read that Jonathan Pryce would be appearing in The Merchant of Venice.  Those quickly shot to the top of the Must See list along with War Horse (which Josh and I saw and loved in 2011), Matilda, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Knox has never seen Wicked, and Kinley wants to see Les Miserables, so those are on the Hopefully See list.  And our Might See list includes The Railway Children, Man of Steal, The Phantom of the Opera, American Buffalo, and Bend It Like Beckham.

Our first experience this trip was Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice at the rebuilt Globe Theater.  We knew that the Iambic Pentameter coupled with the hard bench seats would be difficult for the kids to endure, so we watched a short YouTube synopsis video made for kids before we went and rented seat cushions once we arrived.  The verdict?  We all really enjoyed it!  (And getting to see the High Septon do Shakespeare was pretty awesome.)
Groundling (standing) tickets are only £5, but I wasn't up for standing for three hours.  This is the view from Josh and Kinley's seats. 
Knox and I were seated farther up, but our seats had the bonus of built-in backs whereas Josh and Kinley were just on a bench.  We were all grateful that we had  paid the extra £1 each for seat cushion rental.

Next, we decided to check War Horse off our list.  One of the best-kept secrets in London (or any theater city, really) is that many shows offer cheap tickets the day of the show to the first people who show up to get them.  These are called Day Seats, and not all shows offer them.  I'm not talking about the Half Price Ticket Booth or returned tickets.  Day Seats are often front row seats that the theater sets aside for people willing to wait in line early in the morning to get them. There is even a website that lets you know which shows have Day Seats and what time you probably need to get in line to get them.

We got up early so that we could arrive at the New London Theater by 9:00 since the box office opens at 10:00.  We each took a book to read since we knew we'd be waiting at least an hour.
The girl on the left got there earlier and was first in line.  It was just the four of us in line until about 9:40 when several other people showed up to wait.

We ended up getting second row seats for £15 each instead of the published rate of £65 each.  War Horse didn't disappoint, and both kids loved it.  Knox especially enjoyed it since a recent visit to the Imperial War Museum has sparked his interest in World War I.

Next on the list was Matilda at the Cambridge Theater.  This show doesn't offer Day Seats, so we had to suck it up and pay full price.  We decided to take seats in the very back row to lessen the financial blow, and those were £25 each.  That ended up probably not being the best choice since we had to lean down to see some parts of the show and completely couldn't see a few things.  We wouldn't make that choice again.

The next show we planned to see was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  This is another show that doesn't offer Day Seats.  When we went to the theater to buy tickets a weeks ago, the nice lady there told us that they DO, however, change ticket prices at some point during the week.  For example, if sales are lagging, a ticket that might normally cost £69.50 might be just £49.50.  So we checked back on a Saturday just after they had changed ticket prices.  After our Matilda experience, we knew we didn't want the nosebleed section again, so we sprung for front row.  And they had been marked down to £49.50! 

And what a great experience we had!  At the beginning of the second act, Willy Wonka himself climbed out of the orchestra pit and practically into our laps as he stepped over our feet to walk across the front row!  He even spoke to Knox and me!  Such fun and worth every penny.

Next came three grown-ups-only shows - The Audience with Kristen Scott Thomas, American Buffalo with John Goodman, and The Elephant Man with Bradley Cooper.

The doctor from Downton Abbey played one of the Prime Ministers in The Audience.

John Goodman was who we came to see, but that guy from Homeland and Band of Brothers was in it, too.
The verdict?  The Audience was fabulous!  I know that Helen Mirren just won a a Tony for her performance in this show, but I truly can't imagine how she is better than Kristin Scott Thomas.  This was my favorite performance of the summer so far.  Love. Love. Love.

American Buffalo was not awesome.  There was a prodigious amount of cussing (not surprising since it was a David Mamet play), and nothing really happened other than a lot of talk about a robbery that never actually occurs.  Being on the front row was exciting, but not exciting enough to make the play worth seeing.

The Elephant Man was entertaining and enlightening.  (And, of course, shirtless Bradley Cooper is always a good thing.). The only negative part was that the ending is kind of an anticlimactic downer.  (Plus, Cooper starts wearing clothes in the second act.  Major bummer.)

We only have two weeks left to see anything else we can squeeze in, so Josh and Kinley are going to get in line Tuesday morning for Day Seats for Wicked leaving only Les Mis from our top picks.  On with the show!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Muggles at the Ministry of Magic: Our Day at Warner Brothers StudiosLeavesden

Are you a Harry Potter fan?  Did you stand in line to buy the books the day they came out and buy your movie tickets in advance?  If so (or even if you're too young to have been a fan before the last movie came out in 2011), you would love the tour of the actual place where most of the Harry Potter movies were filmed - Warner Brothers Studios Leavesden and The Making of Harry Potter.

We took two other fun Harry Potter tours when we were here in 2011 since the studio tour wasn't yet available.  The first was a guided day trip on a bus that took us to locations used in the filming of the first two movies.  We enjoyed that very much and saw places we would never have found on our own without a car since several were in Oxford and the tiny village of Lacock.

This room in Lacock Abbey was used to film Snape's class in the first two films, before filming moved to Leavesden Studios.

This poster at Lacock Abbey shows still shots of scenes filmed there
This is the cottage in Lacock that served as Harry's parents' home.
This is the real house outside London that served as Number 4 Privet Drive.  I snapped this picture just moments before a resident of another home on this street came out and yelled at our tour bus driver for bringing hoards of tourists to their peaceful neighborhood.

When we went in 2011, there was much more demand for this tour since The Making of Harry Potter wasn't open yet.  This meant that the tour operated more often and was therefore cheaper.  These days, you have to book a private van so it costs a lot.

The second was a walking tour of London sites used in filming.  It was a different kind of fun, and it had the bonus of getting us to other standard London sites - the Monument, Tower Bridge, the Millennium Bridge, etc.
Our tour guide tests Kinley's Harry Potter knowledge.
Our tour guide shows us the site of filming for the Leaky Cauldron scenes in the first two movies.
Our walking tour took us past a tower built to commemorate the Great Fire, commonly know as The Monument.  The Goblet of Fire was modeled after the sculpture at the top.

But today's adventure bested them both.  We spent several hours at Warner Brothers Studios Leavesden to tour The Making of Harry Potter.  It even outdid The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Orlando, in Josh's opinion.  And here's why.  It was REAL.  Well, as real as a fictional world can be.  Real in that the sets we saw were the actual ones used to film the movies.  We walked through the actual Great Hall.  (Did you know that they used real rock for the floors in there?). We gawked at the multiple levels and shocking detail of Dumbledore's actual office.  And we were blown away by the scale and intricacy of the Ministry of Magic set.  But before we could enjoy our day, we had to do some planning in advance.

First, we booked our tickets online about a month ahead.  This.  Is.  Essential.  Do not come to London thinking you'll just book once you get here.  We bought the Family ticket which is for 2 adults and 2 children and costs £101.  We had to book a specific arrival time, and then we had a half-hour window to enter.  

To get there, we took the Tube to Watford Junction and from there followed the signs in the station to the bus stop for Harry Potter tours.  It costs £2 per person each way, and we had to stand the whole way since so many people crammed on there.  The good thing about this was that we were the first people off the bus once we got to the studios.  Josh and Kinley zipped over to pick up our tickets with our voucher, while I took pictures of Knox in front of the chess pieces used in filming.
Josh and Kinley pick up our tickets.
And Knox poses with the chess pieces.

Once inside, we presented our tickets since we'd arrived just in time for our 12:30 time slot.
We waited for at least a half an hour in the queue to get into the tour even though our tickets were time stamped.
We joined the queue to enter a large room where a brief video was shown and we were given a little speech about what to expect (no food or drinks outside the cafe, there are two soundstages with a backlot in between, average time to see it all is 3 hours, etc.).  From there, we were routed into a theater where we sat to watch a montage of all 8 films before being ushered through the huge doors of Hogwarts.
Josh and Knox enter the doors of Hogwarts!
I don't want to spoil the whole thing for you in case you ever do it yourself, but here are a few pictures from inside.  And my top tip is this:  TRY THE BUTTERBEER.  We tried it and loved it at Universal Orlando Islands of Adventure, so we forked over the £2.95 each for it here.  We opted not to get the souvenir mug since we already have one at home.
The set for Harry Potter's room under the stairs on Privet Drive can be seen while you wait in line to start the tour.

Line up the butterbeers!

Compare the set for Number 4 Privet Drive  (seen on the backlot part of the tour) to the picture above of the London neighborhood home used in the first two movies.

Kinley and Knox hang on for dear life on the Knight Bus!
Two final tips: 
1). It took us 5 1/2 hours to do the tour, but that's because Josh and I wanted to read all of the exhibits and information signs in addition to watching the informative bonus feature videos at many exhibits.  The kids didn't want to read as much and probably would have finished faster without us.  But they also were able to waste a lot of time standing in line for the chance to make a green screen video of themselves riding a Nimbus 2000 while Josh and I read exhibits.  (You can buy the broom flying videos, but they're pricey.)
2). Each child is given a little passport when you pick up your tickets.  There is a spot on each page to get an embossed stamp at locations along the tour.  THE EMBOSSERS ARE NOT BROKEN!  There is not supposed to be ink.  It's a 3D embossed image, so don't freak out when it looks like it's not working.  To get the best image, fold back the covers of the passport and just insert one page to be embossed.  Push down HARD on the lever to get a deep impression.

Have a great time!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

What's For Dinner?

Living in London is expensive.  Like super expensive.  I've already mentioned that our flat is $1000 per week, and today I ran out of the £55 that was on my pass for the bus, train, and Tube.  That means in ten days it has cost me $85 just to get around.

Now, no one would ever use the word frugal to describe Josh and me, but while we're here, we do have to find ways to economize.  One of those ways is by sharing meals when we eat out. Last night, we ate at a place called Tap on the Line at the Kew Gardens Tube stop.  They let Kinley and Knox each order a meal off of the kids' menu for £7.50 including drink and dessert.  (Kinley wasn't insulted since one if her favorite dishes, gnocchi, was only available on the kids' menu.). Josh and I shared a fish and chips for £13.50, bringing our total bill to just over $40.  That's about the cheapest we can eat out without doing fast food.

Our $40 lunch at Tap on the Lone.  Notice the plate that Josh and I are sharing.  It's definitely enough for two.

That's one reason we try to cook as often as we can.  But here's an observation : no one who lives in the city seems to shop for more than one meal at a time.  Our refrigerator is larger than dorm-sized but nowhere close to American-sized, so we can't store too much.  Even the checkout areas at the grocery store don't have space to rest more than one bag of groceries while you check out, and everyone looks super annoyed with you if you have more than about three things.  I've never seen more than two chicken breasts in a package at the grocery store, and the ready-to-eat individual servings of gourmet foods take up at least 60% of the store itself.

Which brings me to our our best tip for eating cheap in London - stalking the grocery store clearance areas at about 6:30 or 7:00 at night.  At about that time each evening, Tesco, Sainsbury's, and Marks & Spencer mark down sandwiches, salads, produce, and even cook-and-serve gourmet entrees for quick sale.  We've scored whole chickens for £2.80 instead of £4.50, cut up carrot sticks with dip for £0.15, and chicken wraps for £0.35.  You never know what's going to be there.  Josh once almost got caught in a stampede of Londoners trying to grab the best mark down deals for dinner!

So that's how we decide what we're having for dinner each night.  The night we got the whole chicken, I roasted it and served it with roasted potatoes, carrots, and onions.  One night we had a hodgepodge of sausage rolls, a steak and ale pie (which came in its own ceramic ramekin for baking!), and salads - all marked down but still yummy!

Tonight, Marks & Spencer had marked down pork meatballs from £2.50 to £1.25.  
So I used some canned tomatoes left in our flat by the last tenants to make a tomato-rosemary-cream sauce to serve with the meatballs and some pasta.  For about £7 (once we bought the pasta, some bread, the cream, and some Parmesan), we had a great dinner!

Tomorrow night will be Piri Piri Chicken nachos.  I think it's supposed to be filling for pita, but we thought we'd make it more Mexican-ish by putting it over tortilla chips and topping it with cheese.  Maybe Josh will make his guacamole, too, if avocados aren't too expensive.

And the meal after that?  Well, it depends on what we find in the clearance aisle.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Pick Up Some Rocket and Aubergines While You're Out!

You all no doubt know that the Brits have a slew of vocabulary terms that differ from their American counterparts despite the fact that we all speak the same language.  I remember my second grade teacher telling me that an American car's trunk is a British car's boot and that a bobby is a British police officer.  I am sure you have heard that a sweater is a jumper, an elevator is a lift, and you ring someone rather than calling them.  Cookies are biscuits, French fries are chips, and chips are crisps.

But it wasn't until I'd spent considerable time in Commonwealth countries that I realized that the produce aisle of the grocery store could be a conundrum.  Care to hazard a guess what ROCKET is?

(I particularly love the way it says WILD rocket.  It sounds so daring!)



Could you understand a menu item containing AUBERGINE?


How about CHICORY?  (And no, my New Orleans loving friends, it's not that stuff in the coffee at Cafe du Monde.)

But the strangest one in my opinion is BEETROOT.

Yes, yes,  know it's almost the same as the word beet, but here's my beef with it.  Why add the root part?  Why not just beet?  I mean, they don't say onionroot or carrotroot or turniproot.  Just beetroot.  And they're crazy about the stuff.  I've frequently seen beetroot soup, beetroot salads, and beetroot juice.  I even saw beetroot as an ingredient on a burger at McDonald's in Australia once (the McOz - seriously).

And when I ask people why they add the root part only on to the word beet, I get the same reaction every time.  They look at me quizzically and admit that the inconsistency has never occurred to them.  They unanimously agree that it doesn't make any sense at all.  One lady even told me today that when they refer to sugar beets, they don't say sugar beetroot. Go figure.  So I guess while I'm here I'll adopt the British names for things.  Because if you can't BEET 'em, join 'em, right?