Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Benedict's Birthday

Erika is off to Bath again today, this time by train for an academic conference where she is delivering a paper. She'll return Saturday. Meanwhile Benedict and I will manage to carry on.

Yesterday, however, we celebrated Benedict's 12th birthday. He was very excited. He'd anticipated the day for quite a while as he had now and then picked out what he wanted when we traipsed through the various shops and gift stores on our almost daily journeys through London. He opened up a gift in the morning before Erika left to teach, a book which he promptly began to read. Later, after Erika left to teach, he opened another present. This time it was a mysterious UFO craft that we had seen an employee at Harrods demonstrate on our first visit there. He made this UFO hover and fly, performing a variety of stunts seemingly without physically supporting it. I was mystified, although Benedict thought he had figured out how the Harrods employee did it. After he opened the box Benedict discovered his deduction was correct. With a little practice he became rather adept at making the UFO hover and fly around his body. It was magic! When we get back to Georgetown, perhaps he'll demonstrate it to his friends.

And, with remarkable good timing, two packages arrived in the mail--a package from Oma and Opa in Oberkochen, and a package from Benedict's Aunt Claudia and her family Albrecht in Aalen. Benedict chose to wait until that evening to open them.

Ealing Town Hall
After breakfast we took a bus to downtown Ealing to deliver a document to the school authorities proving that we now live in Ealing. Without proof of residence, Benedict won't be able to go to school here. Not going to school, of course, would be the best birthday present of all, at least according to Benedict.

We had a little extra time so we walked around Ealing Broadway, which is what the downtown area is called. There are dozens of shops and restaurants and many people bustling about. We briefly visited a book store, which seems to be part of a chain called Waterstone, and then we had lunch at MacDonald's. This was my first time eating a Big Mac outside of the US. I would call it Big Mac Lite because it's smaller than the stateside version. A far more sensible size for those of us whose caloric needs have declined.

Eros at Piccadilly Circus
We hopped on a District Line train at the tube station. The Piccadilly Line doesn't go out to Ealing Broadway, but the District Line underground does and it took us to the Gloucester Road station near Erika's place of work. We met her at CAPA and then jumped on a Piccadilly Line train (incredibly packed this afternoon, people crushed into every cranny of space) and got off a couple of stops or so later at Piccadilly Circus. Piccadilly Circus is rather like Times Square in New York, and is a favorite meeting place around the statue of Eros. Like Times Square, there are huge screens advertising Coca Cola and Sanyo and other consumer products on nearby buildings. Last week we were here to see the play The Thirty-nine Steps at the Criterion Theatre, which is only a few steps from the Eros. The stage of the Criterion is several stories underground, and every few minutes we could hear the dull rumble of underground trains, sounding like muffled bowling balls that never knock over their pins. It didn't deter from our enjoyment of the play, which was very, very funny. Four actors played all the parts, of which there were many, and they did it with energy and verve.
The Criterion Theatre 

A rather large throne.
Admiring the Tower Bridge made of matchsticks.

But we didn't come to Piccadilly Circus to see the play again. When asked where he would like to go on his birthday, Benedict said he wanted to go to Ripley's Believe It or Not! Ripley's is right across the street from Eros, prime real estate for an attraction like that. There seem to be numerous Ripley's locations around the world, including the one in San Antonio near the Alamo. We saw dozens of items on display and a few videos of the odd and exotic. It's a place of fantastic pieces of art (Da Vinci's Last Supper painted on a grain of rice, portraits made of used postage stamps; portrait of John Kennedy made of gum balls), crafts (accurate models of the Tower Bridge and Titanic built using nothing but match sticks), history (original letters by various heads of state; a Winston Churchill exhibit; a gallery devoted to Marilyn Monroe(????)), descriptions of strange (to us) cultural practices (head shrinking, coned heads, women with elongated necks), quirky personal accomplishments (hammering nails through nostrils; swallowing a half dozen swords at once; being able to cover one's nose with the lower lip is called 'girning', and you are only able to do that if you have the right genes), everything unusual and gross, even philosophy (a small display of moral philosopher Jeremy Bentham). A really lovely way to spend a bright and sunny afternoon in London.

Although all of it was fascinating, the most fun we had was trying to get out of the Mirror Maze. We spent about 15 minutes or so playing around inside the maze, bumping into mirrors, being startled by the sudden appearances of people just as confused as I was, and finding ourselves at the entrance of the maze instead of the exit.

By the time we finished seeing and doing everything, it was rush hour. We had a bite to eat and decided to take a bus part of the way home. The bus we took was an old-fashion double decker, smaller than the new double deckers now common around London. The bus took us west past Hyde Park, Kensington Park, the Royal Albert Hall, and, of all things, a Whole Foods store. The bus ended at the Hammersmith Bus and Underground Station, and we took the tube back the rest of the way home.

At home Benedict opened up the rest of his presents, we ate some birthday cake, and we played Uno, one of the gifts he received from his aunt Claudia. It turned out to be a wonderful day, though it would have been even more fun to have shared it with friends and more family.

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