Victoria & Albert Shoes exhibit, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben

The Victoria & Albert Shoes Exhibit: Pleasure and Pain

Monday, after a morning spent at Westminster Abbey and Borough Market, we took the boys to the Science Museum for some exploration. Near the front of the computer age exhibit floated half of Charles Babbage's brain. Oliver was transfixed. Babbage, as you may know, invented the first 'computer.'

Anyway, after a while at the Science Museum, Tom said he and the boys would stay on and then head to the Natural History Museum so, if I wanted, I could leave them and go to the Victoria & Albert, just across the street, for some alone time in the Shoes special exhibit. Um, yes. I hauled ass over there. 

I love shoes. You probably already know that. Fashion and shoes make my heart sing. I could literally shop for days and feel zero need to eat or drink. The artistry and dazzle in a beautiful pair of heels never ceases to make me gasp.

This show was one repeated gasp. I loved every bit of it and immediately purchased the exhibit book to take home. You entered a darkened room bedecked with lush purple velvet surrounding huge glass cases full of purple pedestals. It looked like a ritzy boudoir.

Atop each pedestal was perched a shoe or pair of shoes. The oldest was circa 500 and was a leather and gold leaf pair from Egypt. Outrageous slides with foot-long and curled toes; ancient leather moccasins; ludicrously tiny silk slippers for women with bound feet...  

There were towering geta, sandals worn by geisha or wealthy Japanese women or girls coming of age. These, called Raven, were the most stunning.

'Raven' geta

'Raven' geta

Stilettos ranging from the most basic to the most serious "fuck me" left me mouth agape in front of the cases. Some were so beautiful I can't imagine ever wearing them, lest stain or scuff mar their perfection. A pair of Louboutins -tragically, these are not featured in the exhibit book or online that I can find- were magical. Red feathers and silk and bows. The closest approximation is this:

There were go go boots and towering wedges, shoes that no one could strut and the purple Vivienne Westwood's in which Naomi Campbell famously fell from the catwalk.

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain runs through January, 2016, so if you are in London and enjoy fashion and/or shoes, GO! There is some great non-shoe fashion outside of the exhibit too.

Westminster Abbey and Big Ben

We also dragged the kids to Westminster Abbey, by way of an exterior tour of Parliament and Big Ben. "Look kids, Big Ben!"

big ben

big ben



I have to say that Big Ben really is beautiful. Twice we made it by on the hour, and it's wonderful to stop for a moment and listen to the deep bells chiming the time. 

Then on to Westminster and all the stained glass, graves and history therein. Newton! Kings! Kipling! Dickens! Queens! It's almost too much to see at some points- it's wildly ornate and old and packed to the gills, and behind every corner is yet another nook, chapel or vestibule. 

Spent the morning at the Science Museum and leave for the airport in an hour; boy are we spent. Great trip but it'll also be nice to be home!

Harry Potter and the Warner Brothers Studio Tour, London

It must have been when Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (#6) was released that T and I gave up trying to share a copy and instead each bought our own. That tactic continued through #7, HP and the Deathly Hallows, and I very clearly remember reading side-by-side in bed, both our noses buried in our respective books, flying through the pages as fast our eyes and brains could carry us. It was thrilling: the story; the fanciful shared flight; the total immersion in a great tale.

When I closed the back cover of the Deathly Hallows, I did so with real sadness. The epilogue was terrible and unnecessary, so certainly I mourned that rare misstep by Rowling, but most of my grief was because there was no more Harry Potter to be read. My maiden voyage with the series was finally over, and I considered that fact fairly awful.

The films, excepting number 4 (the Goblet of Fire which certainly deserved and needed the two-part treatment granted the Deathly Hallows, and was quite miscast) were marvelous and have provided repeat succor. David Yates really finished things off with a directorial bang; films 5, 6 and both parts of 7 were masterfully executed.

Jack was ensorcelled by Harry Potter when he started book 1 several years ago. We told him that as he finished each book, we'd all watch that movie together. (That means that second child Oliver has seen all the movies despite being only halfway through having book 1 read aloud to him. Alas.) J took a hiatus after book 6 but became re-energized early this summer when London started looming, so we encouraged him to read HP 7 so that we could watch the movie before heading here. He finished it a couple weeks ago and was as crushed as I was when he finished. To my delight, he immediately started reading the series again.

 All of us got to come full circle on our Harry Potter fandom yesterday when we trekked out to the Warner Brothers studio where much of each film was shot. There you tour many of the original sets, see thousands of original props, learn about the make-up and costume creations, see the blueprints and variously scaled models of Hogwarts, Hogsmeade, etc, and also about how the creatures and other magical beings were constructed and filmed.

out front!

out front!

It was really an outstanding place that in no way disappointed; I absolutely had as much fun as the kids did. The attention to detail was inspiring: 17,000 wooden wand boxes labelled with hand-written notes; 400 place settings at the students' tables in the Great Hall whose real stone floor added to the grandeur of the set; various animatronic items that made magic come alive. In this case I think pictures say it all, so here you go. 

Harry Potter fans: what do y'all recognize? 

One of my favorite parts of the experience was the enormous range of people there. There were just as many teens as younger children, and adults of all ages were there with their families but also on their own. A number of people were dressed in costume. I heard at least six different languages being spoken and am certain there were many more in the (very well-managed) crowd.

What all that really proves is that Rowling touched a representative sample of everyone with Harry Potter. The series' demonstrations of kindness, hard work, loyalty and courage; portrayal of good and evil and the battle between them; honest take on fairness and justice as something that should be striven for but is often elusive in the real world; respectful treatment of children and the very real capabilities they possess; belief in the power of progressive education; and the wish so many of us have for magic to be real are appealing on multiple levels and in various ways. They are universal themes or goals that we can all understand and desire.

Everyone at the studio was a big fan having fun in the unabashed way children do. At the green screen station where you can "fly" on a broom and "drive" the blue Ford Anglia that Harry and Ron crash into the Whomping Willow, I donned robes (Gryffindor, naturally! The kids chose Slytherin- what?!)  and hopped on that broom as quickly as did the kids. It was such a blast.

Hilariously, Oliver wore a green shirt that exactly matched the green screen color and so on the screen looked invisible except for his head and hands. He said, "It's like I'm wearing the invisibility cloak." The people in line were laughing hysterically!

Tips for if you visit:

Buy your tickets well in advance and get to the studio early. Kids under 4 are free though I don't think this is a great venue for such little ones, and various packages are available. We bought the family package.

The tour is mostly self-guided though you can rent (~£4.99) an audio component for extra information. Tom really enjoyed all he learned via his. The boys and I just roamed and took in plenty that way. We spent about four hours total from lobby back to lobby.

The studio, which is in Watford, is about a 40-minute drive from London. You can take public transportation there but not in a direct fashion. We took an Uber which was easier, faster and not much more expensive than taking the tube and buses you'd need to otherwise.

You can bring your own food and drink which is lovely. If you don't feel like schlepping vitals out to the studio, the two cafes (Studio and Backlot) offer really nice salads, sandwiches, burgers and such at reasonable prices. The food is loads better than anything you'd find at an American studio or theme park. For example, I had a couscous salad with beets and goat cheese, and the boys had a beautiful hamburger on a glistening brioche bun that came with stunning lettuce leaves (NOT iceberg) and gigantic tomato slice. 

The gift shops are pricey though I admit that much (not all but much) of the merchandise is nice. We did a spin before going on the tour so the kids could be thinking about what they might want to spend their money on. I think that was helpful because as they went through the visit, certain things faded or became more beloved in their minds.
We've had the kids saving their own money from gifts and such and have asked them to buy their own souvenirs. It's been meaningful for them and a great lesson on budgeting, and hey, we are treating them to this trip. 

Bring a camera and wear comfortable shoes! 

Try to get a good night's sleep before you go. I hope you do. It's well worth it!

in Ollivander's

in Ollivander's

We made it to London

We powered through our 24-hour delay in leaving for London and got to the airport all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Having been upgraded to first class because of the insane air traffic control outage messing everything up, we checked in and went to the fancy, preboard lounge for snacks. 

The boys were besotted by the Shirley Temples and general fanciness of it all, and we then eagerly boarded the plane to New York. Row 1. Wow.

And then we waited. And waited. And the auxiliary power control broke. And the heat crept up to 88 degrees F in the cabin. And not one person was offered a snack. An hour or two in, the coach customers got a beverage. Nearly three hours after boarding, and after listening to the flight attendants talk rudely about the passengers (oh what you can hear in Row 1) and basically ignore us all, we took off.

I love taking photos from airplane windows.

I love taking photos from airplane windows.

So many people on our flight missed their connections, a number of which were to locales abroad. As it was 9:30pm when we finally deplaned at JFK, I'm sure lots of folks had to wait until the next day to get another flight. Fortunately, we made our connection to London, but I think it goes without saying that that first leg really sucked. I'd have been furious if I'd paid for those first class seats. Damn! Air travel has sure become largely un-fun.

That said, international first class is off-the-hook fabulous. We each had a large, comfortable, massaging seat that reclined fully into a bed. We got pajamas, the option of food at any time, individual TVs/movies/video games/noise-canceling headphones, and two bathrooms for just seven passengers. It's absurdly lovely. The kids were beside themselves. Ol and T fell asleep almost immediately; I wasn't long to follow. J stayed up videogaming with manic glee. 



First class is definitely the way to most enjoy long-haul flights. I told the boys to savor every bit because they will likely never fly this way again. And did I mention that as compensation for the original canceled flights which took a day from our vacation, we got to extend our trip and fly back business class? Mahgah!

Once in London, we moved in to our B&B, part of a gorgeous home in Kensington, and immediately went out to foil jet lag by keeping ourselves occupied. We walked along the Thames, through Belgravia and then to Kensington Park before succumbing to exhaustion and returning home by way of La Cave au Fromage and a separate, non-cheese but very lovely market for other goodies.

albert, in kensington park

albert, in kensington park

I was asleep by 7p, the boys and Tom by eight; Jack and Ol slept for 13 hours, as did I with the kindly assistance of a midnight Ambien. Jet leg is such a bitchy side effect of the otherwise fabulous fortune that is international travel.

Today we met an old friend at the British Museum and roamed its endless galleries: the Rosetta Stone! the Elgin Marbles! an Easter Island bust! elephantine Assyrian gates! Sutton Hoo riches! It's so nice that museum admission here is free of charge; it's especially liberating when traveling with kids because you can come and go as you need to or please. I will say, however, that the BM's complete lack of garbage cans is vexing and odd.

The boys spent a long time wandering the gift shop, deducing how best to spend the first of their saved money. Oliver ultimately decided on a working catapult pencil sharpener, and Jack chose the same sharpener, two small Egyptian scarabs (I love scarabs) and a quill-and-ink set. He feels one step closer to Hogwarts.

Tomorrow: the Warner Brothers studios for a tour of the original Harry Potter sets.