Bucket list item achieved!! Northern lights viewing: Reykjavík, Iceland

To paraphrase my friend who stayed with me for part of this trip, while people may come to Iceland wanting to see all the gorgeous geography, for those of us from more southern climates, what we are most hoping to see is the dancing lights of the Aurora (green lights) Borealis (Northern). In this post I’m sharing what I learned about your options for seeing them, if you’re based in Reykjavík. Firstly, unless you have a proper camera and tripod, you’re going to want to look on line for an app that tricks your smartphone’s camera into taking long exposure photos (I used an app called NorthernLights) unless you own one of the newest phones that already have that function built into them. And then you’re going to want to find a way to get away from the light pollution of Reykjavík at night — if you can’t see most of the night stars, you won’t be able to appreciate the Northern lights.

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Taken with my iPhone on my 2nd time out — during a solar storm

Over the course of my one week stay I went on two different $100 tours to try to see the lights. The first time, my first night in Iceland, was a total bust. This was partially because of partly cloudy skies — the nights before and after all the northern lights tours were cancelled because of rain. But also, and almost more importantly, because there was in fact barely anything to see that night — even if the skies had been clear. No dancing light, no brilliant green stripes. At best all the sun was offering up that night was a bit of light green haze that just lightly lit up part of the northern sky… it was there (enough that the tour company felt no necessity to follow up on their guarantee or a 2nd trip or a full refund if it had not been), but realistically it really wasn’t what anyone would have flown all the way to Iceland in hopes of seeing.

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Look closely, See the slightly greenish spot on the right side of this image? That’s it — taken with my iPhone

In fact, the high price tag we’d paid felt a bit like a rip off. When initially researching the prices for these tours, the prices kind of boggled my mind and initially I’d contemplated that it might just be cheaper to just hail a taxi and ask him to take us someplace dark… but in reality, as the week progressed, and after discovering just how insanely expensive taxis are in Iceland, the $100 round trip on a minibus seemed like a bargain. There’s nothing like Uber or Lyft in Iceland (i.e., more affordable taxis), so your choices are rent a car, take a bus tour (of varying sizes), or hire a taxi — which could easily run you $250 or a lot more by the time you’re done.

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“Go to Joy Iceland” was the name of the first tour company I took

The group shot above was taken of the 17 of us in the minibus on my first trip. I’m posting it as proof that the problem had not been because I was trying to take pictures of the Aurora with my iPhone… that’s me in the front row in the green coat/red hat, my friend who flew up to see Iceland with me is standing next to me wearing the purple coat and scarf … This shot was taken by the tour guide using his TOP of the line camera with a fancy lens, on a tripod, using a long exposure and with about 2 seconds of bright fill lighting flashed at us … see those slightly lit up patches on the right side of the image … seriously, that’s IT! That’s all we got that night. The Driver did his best and went to about 3 different locations, drove us around for about a full hour there and back — headed towards the middle of the island on the Golden Circle road, and we got to see lots of stars as he dogged the cloud cover, but mother nature just wasn’t helping him out with regards to the Aurora lights.

This is why, pretty much EVERY Northern lights tour you sign up for will start with a very LONG and detailed apology from the guide. This includes a lot of trying to explain scientific realities as to why you might not see anything that night and it’s not their fault. Be prepared for the fact that your fellow tourists may or may not grasp said science, and that they’ll end up wasting precious time asking questions that the guide has already explained, but they just didn’t grok it; the smaller the group, the less time wasted on said questions being one of the benefits of not taking a big bus. In fact I think half the job of the tour guide is to … if you get a night like we did that first night … make a really big deal about ANY Northern lights, no matter how pathetic, that might show up that night, just so that the company doesn’t have to take you out a 2nd time as promised in their guarantees.

As such, be prepared for the reality that you MIGHT have to go out more than once during your trip before you see anything. There is a cheaper $40 option, which means taking a huge passenger bus along with 120 other people. The major difference between opting for a minibus (20 passengers) over a full sized one (other than the aforementioned time wasted on explaining science to folks who have difficulty grasping it) seems to be that smaller vehicles are allowed to take dirt roads and take advantage of small concrete parking areas (big enough for about 2 cars max) that the Icelandic government has created for tourists on the sides of the roads. It’s important to remember that in Iceland the ring road wasn’t completed until the early 1970’s and even the ‘heavily’ traveled highway from Reykjavík to the international airport in Keflavík is only ONE lane in each direction… and not even a very wide single lane. AND NONE of these roads have large shoulders built into them to allow for pulling safety to the side. According to one of our tour guides, who spent a lot of time explaining how to drive safely in Iceland to us (while he was driving), the roads are so narrow that if a tourist stops anywhere other than one of these designated areas, trucks might just barrel through and run them off the road — and under the law, its the fault of the person who parked so as to partially block the road.

The big busses (clearly) can NOT take advantage of either dirt roads, or the tiny concrete lots on the sides or roads, and are by necessity relegated to taking you ONLY to locations that have big parking lots AND are out in the middle of nothing… of which there’s only a few within an easy drive of Reykjavík. If the sky is clear of clouds and the solar winds strong enough, the reality is that it doesn’t matter which option you take, you’ll see the show. HOWEVER, if that’s not the case — and the sky in Iceland is rarely clear of cloud cover, the smaller the vehicle you book the better the chance they can find a legal place to park that is both away from any light sources and where there’s a lot of visible stars, i.e., the best place to see the lights.

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That said, while we were waiting for our tour (the first one) this Minibus showed up, which was unlike any other we saw. It’s big wheels, and stood much higher than normal, and clearly was designed for off road travel. For myself, while I could see wanting one of these for a daytime tour, but I’m seriously doubting that the extra expense (I’m guessing it cost a lot more than our ~$100 per person), was going to be worth it… for all the reasons previously discussed.

The first time we went out (my friend and I together) was on the first night of our trip, a Monday night, and like I said … nothing. My friend didn’t stay as long as I did, and left on Friday at around noon. By that evening I found myself to be SO exhausted by the previous three days of tourism that I pretty much collapsed into my bed at around 3pm and couldn’t even go to get food. I survived on what was left in our fridge, some Icelandic yogurts (called Skyr — similar to greek yogurt, but with a milder flavor), and smoked lamb and traditional bread that had been gifted to us by our Airbnb host.

The next morning as I was touring around town, I kept hearing everyone raving about how intense the northern lights had been the night before, that the sky had been cloudless for the first time all week, and how the event had been so intense due to a massive solar storm, that you could have seen it from town if you just walked over to the bay and looked North. Let’s just say I was kicking myself. I went right back to my room and tried to book a tour for that night, but the company I had used the first night was fully booked, as were the next two companies I tried. So I got an idea and walked over the Aurora center (a museum near my rental, where you can see a fake Northern lights display and learn about the phenomena), and with the help of the staff found a ‘good’ (according to them) tour group that still had available seats for that night for about the same price I paid the first time.

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With the 2nd tour, which was led by a company called “BusTravel Iceland” we got picked up, taken to a parking lot, and then transferred to a 2nd bus of the same size (???) — this group killed about an hour of my time for no purpose, which I was not happy about, before finally hitting the road to our destination. Because of how intense the light show was expected to be that night, they only took us on about 15 minutes away from town on the road southwest towards the airport, and then only about three minutes along a dirt road on to the adjacent lava field (so that the headlights of cars wouldn’t bother us). Once there, lets just say that not only did I get to see the massive green stripes I’d been dreaming of, but even dancing lights were seen, where the you can see the strips moving around. We even got to see multiple colors as the lights danced, with bits of purple and pink flickering along the edges (unfortunately this wasn’t something my camera could pick up).

[Time lapse video of the Northern lights found on Youtube]

Initially my camera was failing me and causing me a lot of frustration. It would initially work, but then after a shot or two would stop. There was an Indian woman in our group who’d read something about how the automatic night shift feature in the iPhone interfered with the app’s software, and when we went into settings and turned that off sure enough my phone started working well. I had to restart the app after changing the settings, but then it was working again and continued to … the light show kept coming and going for about a half hour, and then stopped… we waited a bit just to be sure it was done… and then the driver said they probably wouldn’t be back till about 4am

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The next morning my friends who work in the computer industry were all complaining about the interference from the solar storm, and one of them posted this image, which shows what I’d been watching the night before.

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London’s National Theater’s reimagining of the play “Top Girls”

Top Girls is a play in four acts written by Caryl Churchill who is considered by some to be the UK’s leading socialist-feminist playwright. Her works tend to explore topics such as gender construction (a topic that I’ve spent a lot of time teaching), sexual politics (a political theory named after a book that is obligatory reading for anyone studying feminism) and abuses of power. The production I saw was put on the London’s National Theater, and took some research to try to understand because of choices made by the director that resulted in confusion for people (like myself and my cousin) who had no knowledge of the play in advance.

First produced in 1982, and is set in 1980’s Britain, it is the type of show that tends to be done in smaller venues — or in US parlance, it’s the sort of off off broadway type of show that is intentionally NOT intended to be commercial, and as such in general will only appeal to hard core theater aficionados who like their shows to have a political message, and the actors performing the parts.

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Anyone who reads my blog regularly knows I advise everyone to check out the Txts booth in Leicester Square as a matter of course. One of the exceptions to this rule is anything put on by the National Theater. Their tickets should be purchased either online or from their box office, because they’re already government subsidized and are never discounted further.

Sadly, I completely forgot to take any photos for this play or of the theater… not even my obligatory one of me holding the ticket. There are however no shortage of press release images of the production on google (follow this link). In my defense, at the time I was suffering a serious case of the dizzies, was staying at my cousin’s (from my dad’s side) place way out the suburbs, when a cousin from my mom’s side informed me she was in London and suggested I buy tickets for this play and we could meet up there. I knew NOTHING about the show going in. Because of the dizzies, going there alone from his place out in the suburbs was not in the cards, so I convinced him to come along and he drove. As luck would have it, my other cousin was nowhere to be seen, and didn’t bother returning any of my txts till well after the show when we were well on our way back home.

The first scene of the play I found quite compelling. It involves the central character of the play — a modern British woman, Marlene, who’s just been promoted to the head of her office at a job placement agency, who is throwing herself a celebratory dinner party and has invited as her guests famous women of antiquity. (One is forced to wonder if maybe she has no real life friends to turn to because she’s been so focused on her work.) So not only did the play delve into issues of gender construction and feminist issues, but did so on a backdrop of women from different points of history, and different cultures… so RIGHT up my alley so to speak.

Her first guest to arrive is Isabella Bird, a woman out of history that would be familiar to most of Churchill’s British audience members, as they’re most likely the sort of highly cultured and educated sort who watch history shows on the BBC and probably attended University (like I said, off off broadway). This second character in effect is setting the scene for all of the following characters that might be less familiar to the show’s audience. For those who don’t know her (lord knows I did not, but my British cousin claimed he sort of remembered who she was) Bird was an independent woman traveller, writer and photographer from 18th century England. She was a prolific travel writer with 28 titles to her name, which include: The Englishwoman in America (1856) — her first hit book which was based on all of the letters she’d written home about her travels, and was followed by other like works such as Unbeaten Tracks in Japan: Travels of a Lady in the Interior of Japan (1879), and Among the Tibetans (1894) — that were again based on her letters home. Most of Bird’s titles are still in print, and her A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains is even available as an Audiobook! This tells you relevant her works still are. Since her death, she’s had numerous biographies written about her, and has even has a series of Japanese manga about her called Isabella Bird in Wonderland, which focuses on her visit to Japan.

Her arrival in the play is shortly followed by the arrival of another historical figure, who is much more obscure, Lady Nijo, one of the Japanese Emperor’s concubines from 1271 to 1283, who later became a nun and wrote her autobiography. The book wasn’t a hit but had historical value, and as such one remaining copy (a 17th century printing) was discovered in the Emperor’s family library in 1940 and then republished under the titles The Confessions of Lady Nijo and also Lady Nijo’s own story; the candid diary of a thirteenth-century Japanese imperial concubine.  I searched Amazon and found these both of these titles still available for sale there, but no one biography.

The third guest was one I HAD heard of, Pope Joan. YES, you heard me, Pope JOAN (we don’t know what her actual name was)…  While the church denies that she ever existed, and to this day many historians discount her as myth, her story is well known and her possible existence helps to explain some weird things. Such as, there’s a VERY odd part of the Pope’s swearing in process — the existence of which makes no sense whatsoever, UNLESS she had existed. The story is that a woman fell in love with a priest, and was convinced by him to dress as a man and to join the church during the Middle Ages, so that they could stay together. Apparently she was so smart and capable, that she managed to rise to the top position (top girls anyone?), but had the bad luck to go into labor in the middle of religious procession. According to the character in the play, the robes helped hide her condition and folks just assumed she/he’d gotten fat. Her gender now discovered she either died in labor or was put to death, the play opted for killed. As a result, the whole path of that procession has been changed to avoid the street where she supposedly went into labor (one thing explained).  But the oh so odd part of the popes ritual swearing it helps explain, is that he has to sit on a contraption like a toilet seat with no bowl underneath, while he has his genitals inspected, to make sure they’re there… and more importantly, are of the right sort. Many people believe she was Pope John XX, which explains why this title is sometimes referred to as the missing pope (there’s nothing about that pope in the books, but the church has come up with a rationalization for the discrepancy)…

The fourth guest to arrive is, Dull Gret (also known as Mad Meg), a woman from Flemish folklore, who doesn’t have much to say, which makes sense as she’s a character from a 1563 oil-on-panel painting by Pieter Bruegel (the elder). In fact his painting of her, Dulle Griet, is one of his most famous works. Here she is depicted as a woman who is leading an army of other women in an attack on hell itself.

The final guest is another character from European folklore, Patient Griselda.  She was first written about by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) in his famous and influential work (I had to read it for a history class, it actually helped to spark a revolution) The Decameron. The story is by our perspective horrific. All British audience member should be somewhat familiar with her tale as one of the books Boccaccio’s work helped to influence was Chaucer‘s famous work, The Canterbury Tales, where she also appears. The basic story is that she’s a lower class woman married to an upper class man, attracted to her beauty, who over the years puts her through a series of horrific and mentally abusive tests of her patience and devotion to him… all of which she passes. At the end, her sufferings are rewarded. (It’s enough to make a modern woman gag.)

Once the dinner is over we are taken to the employment agency where Marlene works, and we meet her co-workers and some of the girls who are there applying for jobs. This scene is so incredibly different that it seemed like we were almost in a completely different play. It felt VERY disconnected. Later, after me and my cousin got home, I started researching the play and learned that in the original version, all the new characters that are introduced were SUPPOSED to have been played by the same actresses who had done the previous characters.

At this point the curtain comes down and the audience is released for an intermission. When we returned the next act, which at first seems to have nothing to do with what came before, and as such feels utterly disjointed. It’s two girls talking. And therein lays the problem with this production… Initially it was written so that the women who played the historical characters are then ‘re-cast’ into the modern day as other characters, and the fact that it’s the same actresses playing them helps to link the characters of the women we met before into these new modern day characters… Marlene is the only character that stays the same through the play.

In the later scenes we learn she is completely disconnected from her family. She and her sister no longer speak, and her sister’s child is biologically Marlene’s, who she had abandoned in order to become a “Top Girl.” All of which helps to explain the focused determination that got her there, but how that success had a cost in her personal relationships… which may be why when it was time to celebrate her achievement, her only companions were women from books and history.

However, because this production chose to expand the number of actors used, all of that subtext got lost. Both my cousin and I, who had never seen the original productions and knew nothing about the show going in, left the theater more than a bit confused. We debated it’s meaning the whole trek home to his place, and the next morning again over our breakfast. So if the point was to make us think, it was successful… but we both found ourselves independently going on to the internet to try to comprehend what we had just seen, because it was FAR from self evident based on the production.

To that end, while doing additional research for this article I found a BBC online University video that includes not just the entire play, but a preamble discussing it and an interview with the playwright. The downside of this video is that you don’t really get to enjoy the play and then hear a discussion of it, rather the ‘instructor’ inserts commentary right over the actors speeches…. which are hard enough to make out as one of Churchill’s favorite techniques is to use over-speaking…  multiple actors talking at once (the fact that she has the Japanese character doing this as well shows how little she understood Japanese culture, in my opinion).

I then found THIS 2nd rendition of it on Youtube, put on by a theater group in Seoul South Korea made up entirely of English speaking expats, of the ENTIRE play… all two hours of it.

But in this case it was recorded in a very low tech manner, so that you’ll need to strain to hear the actors … again.

Theater in London’s West End, The production of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner, “Sweat” and accessibility issues in the Gielgud Theatre

I love London. My dad grew up there and my family spent so much time there during summer vacations — not to mention my semester at London’s Royal College of Art — that I feel it’s my second home. So, growing up we did most of the MAIN tourist things… so when I go there I tend not to aim towards those sorts of things any more than I would in home Chicago. For me, London is and always has been about theater! (My mom loved theater so much that she often took us to two shows a day, and occasionally crammed in three). One of the many shows I saw this year was, Sweat (2017, Pulitzer Prize Winner) staring Martha Plimpton of the Carradine theatrical royalty family (getting to see your favorite actors live on stage is always an added treat).

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So… I’ve said this before and I’m going to say it again … first rule of London theater is, as taught to me by my parents… unless there’s a specific show for which you’re willing to pay full price, you’ll want to start out by going to the Tkts Booth in Leicester Square…. London has a very competitive theater scene, just like New York, so anything showing in a major theater is most likely very good. On the way there you’ll pass any number of store front ticket booths advertising them as THE half price ticket booth… keep walking. None of them are. Their What’s on Sale screen, behind me in the picture above, will tell you what tickets they have that is on deep discounts (usually 30 to 50% off). You can also buy tickets for two days out… so tonight, tomorrow and the next day… but not farther out than that. You can check their website to see what’s available, but you can only buy the tickets at their booth. Half price tickets for the top shows are ONLY available either at the box office doors of each individual theater, where you stand in line on the day of up to time of seating, but with no assurance of actually getting a seat … or here at the TXTS booth. (How do you want to spend your vacation time?) Personally I haven’t got that much time. This way is easier, and profits from the ticket sales at this venue rather (than ending up in corporate or private pockets) go towards the Society Of London Theatre, which supports the theater community in a myriad of ways. (So you can feel good about your purchase). This show for instance had great reviews, but I was able to get the tickets at a discounted price, even buying them 2 days in advance.

Sweat: The Play — GREAT play, but in a bad theater space for anyone with mobility or hearing impairments 

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2f27.jpgSweat, the winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, was my first non-musical this trip. Its a fictional play based around economic dynamics in the town of Reading, Pennsylvania in 2011, when the United States Census Bureau, declared that because of the loss of heavy industry to offshoring, it had become one of the poorest cities in America. It is a show that is both funny, and highly disturbing.

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I was looking forward to seeing it in large part because it was a chance to see Martha Plimpton, live on stage. I’d had the good luck to meet her (as in have an actual conversation with, back in 2006 while sitting on a tram at Disneyland waiting to go back to the parking structure — YUP, once again at a Disney park, there’s a trend here), and seriously enjoyed a lot of her large and small screen roles, but this was going to be the first time to see her on stage. That said, she did NOT let me down… granted, its the sort of role she tends to get cast into fairly regularly, a course working class girl or woman — so she’s had plenty of practice. This typecasting is ironic as she’s third generation acting royalty; her paternal grandfather was one of the best known character actors in Hollywood starting back in the 1930’s, the GREAT John Carradine. He was one of John Ford‘s go to actors, but was also in classics like the Grapes of Wrath and the Ten Commandments). Her dad is Keith Carradine (whose IMDB of roles in major films is as long as your arm) even those she chooses to go by the less known last name of her mother,  Shelley Plimpton (who is also a well respected actress in her own right) — probably to be better able to try to stand on her own merits. And, even her uncles, Robert Carradine, who was best known for his  Revenge of the Nerds series of movies, and the late David Carradine, who was best known for his lead role in the 1970’s TV classic Kung Fu, (and his ignominious death by autoerotic asphyxiation in a Bangkok hotel room’s closet in 2009) are/were both well known working actors. Even her aunt, Ever Carradine, is one of those actresses you instantly recognize even if you can not name her, and currently can be seen in Hulu’s major hit, The Handmaid’s TaleSo, like I said, Acting royalty.

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I won’t spoil the play for you other than to say its got the kind of juicy roles in it actors love, and even though I tend to prefer comedies or musicals over serious plays with a political message, and a really disturbing ending.  I genuinely enjoyed and was moved by the performances. I was lucky because the play (which has bounced around a bit) was in the middle of a six week scheduled run at the Gielgud Theatre in London’s West End. Even though it was was very well reviewed, I suppose its serious nature turned away most London tourists, and as such I was able to get pretty good tickets at a discount. HOWEVER when I got there I found that the salesperson had screwed up a bit… I’m always clear about wanting to be in the stalls in FRONT of the balcony-overhang. When I got there I found I was well behind it, towards the back of the stalls. I HATE this because there’s almost always a slight reverb effect as the actors voices bounce off the walls, and you often end up listening to sound from speakers in addition to the actual sound from them… so I complained (the advantage of arriving to the theater early). I was HOPING they’d move me up in the stalls (there were plenty of better empty seats) but the Manager said if I wanted I could move to the balcony where they had some open first row tickets (at same price point), so I did that.

Two things about the theater the play was being shown in … Firstly… like a lot of old things in London, while the Gielgud is very beautiful, it’s also a complete disaster for anyone with severe mobility issues. While the UK has disability rights legislation on the books, implementing them has been a major issue as a result of the historic nature of most of the buildings. This one, for instance, was built back in 1906. It was originally called the Hicks theater, and then the Globe, before receiving its current name in 1994.

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There are stairs everywhere, not an elevator in sight (there might be some backstage)… and they’ve NOT installed ANY ramps — not even where they reasonably could have, and GET THIS… the disabled bathroom is just through the doorway in the picture above, and you have to negotiate THREE steps to get to it… like I said, NO RAMPS … While there is a ground level door off to the side of the theater… even if you in through those side doors you STILL have to negotiate stairs to get to the handicapped bathroom!!! It’s absolutely imbecilic, and handicapped are relegated to the balcony as the stalls demand you negotiate a lot of stairs. The most recent refurbishment … when I assume the aforementioned bathroom was installed was in 2008, so you would THINK they’d have come up with a better work around for the disabled, but I guess not.

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That said, while the theater offered a sound system for those with hearing issues, the sound coming out of it was actually WORSE than the sound from the stage. The Actors in the show aren’t wearing microphones, so they’ve got those hidden around the stage, and by the time the actors voices reach them, they’re distorted by reverb far worse than what you hear live.

Come From Away: The Musical based on the happier events of 9/11 … LOVED IT!!!!

I love London. My dad grew up there and my family spent so much time there during summer vacations — not to mention my semester at London’s Royal College of Art — that I feel it’s my second home. So, growing up we did most of the MAIN tourist things… so when I go there I tend not to aim towards those sorts of things any more than I would in home Chicago. For me, London is and always has been about theater! (My mom loved theater so much that she often took us to two shows a day, and occasionally crammed in three). The third show I saw was possibly my favorite. I LOVED Come from Away!!! Honestly I saw a LOT of theater during this trip and this was my favorite show so far. I loved it so much that I not only bought the entire album (and listened to it a few times) but I went on to  social media and told all my friends they HAD to see it, and am considering seeing it a second time.

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If I can’t see it again in London I MIGHT even try see it in Toronto (where it’s also showing as an extended stay because — well how many hit musicals are about Canadians?) if I can swing a trip up there. The show was originally a conceived of by the Associate Dean of Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario. He contacted a husband and wife writing team who had already done a show he knew of, and sent them to Gander, Newfoundland, where a ten year reunion was about to take place for the 7,000 airline passengers — who had been diverted there during the events of 9/11 (because US airspace had been closed to all commercial traffic) — and the locals who hosted them on a moments notice.

The intent was to interview them, collect their real life stories and from it to construct a show about the what happened during 9/11 from a different point of view, a more uplifting one. (The above video is the writing team and the Dean talking about what they created and why.) The show was first produced as a college production, but then was quickly picked up various small but influential theater groups, working up the food chain so to speak. However, before it opened on Broadway on March 12, 2017, and became a critical and box office success, the cast and crew brought the show to Gander itself.

Come from Away came to the London stage in February of 2019… and I saw it in July of that year.

With only a few exceptions all the actors in the above performance were the same ones that I saw. As this next video shows, the show which only won one Tony award, after being nominated for seven, including Best Musical in New York, the show went on to win FOUR Olivier Awards for its London production.

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My ticket, which was purchased the day of show was pretty spectacular… I was in fact almost sitting TOO close, but it was wonderful. As luck would have it two Canadians were sitting besides me, and since I’ve spent more than few months in Canada at this point, we were able to jointly laugh at a lot of insider jokes that you won’t quite get if you don’t know Canada.

While I loved pretty much every song in the show, although hands down my favorite one was this one (again the video shows same actress I saw perform it)

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So… I’ve said this before, but in case you’ve not read that post… first rule of London theater, as taught to me by my parents…  is, unless there’s a specific show for which you’re willing to pay full price, you’ll want to start out by going to the Tkts Booth in Leicester Square…. London has a very competitive theater scene, just like New York, so anything showing in a major theater is most likely very good. On the way there you’ll pass any number of store front ticket booths advertising them as THE half price ticket booth… keep walking. None of them are. Their What’s on Sale screen, behind me in the picture above, will tell you what tickets they have that is on deep discounts (usually 30 to 50% off). You can also buy tickets for two days out… so tonight, tomorrow and the next day… but not farther out than that. You can check their website to see what’s available, but you can only buy the tickets at their booth. Half price tickets for the top shows are ONLY available either at the box office doors of each individual theater, where you stand in line on the day of up to time of seating, but with no assurance of actually getting a seat … or here at the TXTS booth. (How do you want to spend your vacation time?) Personally I haven’t got that much time. This way is easier, and profits from the ticket sales at this venue rather (than ending up in corporate or private pockets) go towards the Society Of London Theatre, which supports the theater community in a myriad of ways. (So you can feel good about your purchase).

London West End’s production of: Matilda, the Musical – not my favorite

I love London. My dad grew up there and my family spent so much time there during summer vacations — not to mention my semester at London’s Royal College of Art — that I feel it’s my second home. So, growing up we did most of the MAIN tourist things… so when I go there I tend not to aim towards those sorts of things any more than I would in home Chicago. For me, London is and always has been about theater! (My mom loved theater so much that she often took us to two shows a day, and occasionally crammed in three). Matilda is a show I’ve been wanting to see for a while, so I was excited to see discount tickets available there. Its based on the Ron Dahl classic children’s novel, I’ve read it more than once, and the songs were written Tim Minchin who I’m a huge fan of and have actually written about before, AND its award nominations and wins are as long as your arm… so I was seriously looking forward to this…. but … not so much, sadly.

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So… I’ve said this before, but in case you’ve not read that post… first rule of London theater, as taught to me by my parents…  is, unless there’s a specific show for which you’re willing to pay full price, you’ll want to start out by going to the Tkts Booth in Leicester Square…. London has a very competitive theater scene, just like New York, so anything showing in a major theater is most likely very good. On the way there you’ll pass any number of store front ticket booths advertising them as THE half price ticket booth… keep walking. None of them are. Their What’s on Sale screen, behind me in the picture above, will tell you what tickets they have that is on deep discounts (usually 30 to 50% off). You can also buy tickets for two days out… so tonight, tomorrow and the next day… but not farther out than that. You can check their website to see what’s available, but you can only buy the tickets at their booth. Half price tickets for the top shows are ONLY available either at the box office doors of each individual theater, where you stand in line on the day of up to time of seating, but with no assurance of actually getting a seat … or here at the TXTS booth. (How do you want to spend your vacation time?) Personally I haven’t got that much time. This way is easier, and profits from the ticket sales at this venue rather (than ending up in corporate or private pockets) go towards the Society Of London Theatre, which supports the theater community in a myriad of ways. (So you can feel good about your purchase).

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So, like I said, the second show I saw was Matilda, a hit broadway show based on the Ron Dahl story — that was also made into a movie — of a scary brilliant little girl born into a family that that places no value on being educated, especially with regards to women. Matilda not only has taught herself to read by the time she’s able to walk and talk, but by the time she’s old enough to attend school she’s already reading Dickens and Tolstoy in the unabridged versions. I really wanted to see this show because the music was written by one of my favorite comedic singers, Tim Minchin, who wrote the song I referenced in my other post about the Loud Fence in Ballarat (a protest against the Church’s sexual abuse scandal).

All of that said, I none the less found myself getting a bit bored and irritated while watching this show… It does have some VERY good songs… good enough that I downloaded them (the good ones) from iTunes, in particular I loved this song:

but on average I wasn’t thrilled by the rest of the show (quite a let down because like I said, huge Tim Minchin fan). This song for instance really didn’t do it for me, even though it is in fact better (in my opinion) than some of the other ones….

That said what really annoyed me the most was when the show went completely off book, creating a new storyline that didn’t fit and added little to the story — which is kind of a children’s classic. This was a series of vignettes of Matilda making up a story for her favorite librarian. In fact the ONLY justification for it I could think of was that MAYBE they were concerned about the child employment laws and how many minutes the child actors (other than Matilda — I have got to think there’s some special case written into the law for the leading character) would be on stage.

London’s West End production of the “BOOK OF MORMON: The Musical” — Totally worth it!

I love London. My dad grew up there and my family spent so much time there during summer vacations — not to mention my semester at London’s Royal College of Art — that I feel it’s my second home. So, growing up we did most of the MAIN tourist things… so when I go there I tend not to aim towards those sorts of things any more than I would in home Chicago. For me, London is and always has been about theater! (My mom loved theater so much that she often took us to two shows a day, and occasionally crammed in three). The first show I saw this summer was the Book of Mormon, a show I’ve been wanting to see for years and have watched as much of it as I could find on YouTube… not to mention listened to the album.

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So… first rule of London theater, as taught to me by my parents…  is, unless there’s a specific show for which you’re willing to pay full price, you’ll want to start out by going to the Tkts Booth in Leicester Square…. London has a very competitive theater scene, just like New York, so anything showing in a major theater is most likely very good. On the way there you’ll pass any number of store front ticket booths advertising them as THE half price ticket booth… keep walking. None of them are. Their What’s on Sale screen, behind me in the picture above, will tell you what tickets they have that is on deep discounts (usually 30 to 50% off). You can also buy tickets for two days out… so tonight, tomorrow and the next day… but not farther out than that. You can check their website to see what’s available, but you can only buy the tickets at their booth. Half price tickets for the top shows are ONLY available either at the box office doors of each individual theater, where you stand in line on the day of up to time of seating, but with no assurance of actually getting a seat … or here at the TXTS booth. (How do you want to spend your vacation time?) Personally I haven’t got that much time. This way is easier, and profits from the ticket sales at this venue rather (than ending up in corporate or private pockets) go towards the Society Of London Theatre, which supports the theater community in a myriad of ways. (So you can feel good about your purchase).

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The First show I attended this summer was Book of Mormon, a show that I think pretty much everyone has heard of already… its been on stage nonstop since 2011, and was written by the same group of guys who do the cartoon series South Park. This of course was a show that at this point I’d listened to the album a few times and seen so many clips of bits and pieces of the show already… such as the following

… that I knew pretty much what I was paying for well in advance, but… all that said, I STILL wanted the experience of seeing it live on stage (because there’s no substitute to the energy of a live performance.

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MAJOR theater girl SQEEEE! 2017

That and I have (ever so briefly) MET the actor who played one of the lead characters in the original broadway performance of BOM a few years ago…The picture above is me at Epcot in 2017, where I had the mind blowing experience of recognizing these two HUGE stars of the Broadway stage as they walked right past me (oh my G-d! is that? It can’t be… IT IS!!!). On the left is Andrew Rannells, who played one of the aforementioned leads in the original cast of Book of Mormon (the guy singing in the video above), and on my right is Christian Borle.
[Slightly off topic: but if you don’t recognize him, Borle (the guy on my right), is a two-time Tony Award winner and is actually the bigger star by far. He is probably best known to non-Broadway nerds for the TV show Smash … [Note: if you watch the video pay note to Katherine Mcphee, the central girl in this video, as she’ll come up when I discuss the show Waitress]

where he played the long time writing partner of the character played by Debra Messing. Also I have to flex my theater nerd knowledge by mentioning Borle is also the ex-husband of Sutton Foster who is possibly the BIGGEST star on Broadway these days, as well as the lead in her own hit TV show, Youngerwhich was just renewed for its 6th season. (Borle actually had a small part on her show playing a romantic prospect)

Rannells (the other guy in the photo, and more on topic) has been nominated for, but has not yet won his Tony. (I really enjoyed his recent small but pivotal role in the movie A Simple Favor, with fellow theater nerd Anna Kendrick). All that said, Borle only allowed the picture of the three of us to be taken on condition that I didn’t post it to the internet for at least one year. This made me sad, but it was a request I found utterly reasonable as stars have stalkers and people posting real time photos of meeting stars to the internet can lead said wackos right to them. ]

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Returning to the Book of Mormon, in spite of buying the tickets THAT DAY, I managed to swing tickets in the stalls in row F (6th row), just a bit off the center of the stage. And although it wasn’t discounted, it way cheaper than it would have been in the states. I really liked how they made the edges of the stage look a bit like the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake, which I had the pleasure of visiting back when I was in my 30’s (for some reason I don’t have any pics of it). UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2f3b.jpg

One of the funniest things about Book of Mormon is how they are able to mock the Church of Latter Day Saints without having to tell any lies about them. They really do believe this stuff (that said none of it is any more ridiculous than any other religious beliefs, if you really think about it). That said, the show really lived up to my expectations and there were all sorts of nuances to the show I had missed because the record albums and the clips I had seen don’t cover the WHOLE show… bits and pieces are always missing unless you see it live.

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One of the “cool” things about the British Theater, pun intended, is at intermission they ALWAYS bring out little things of ice cream in multiple flavors that you can eat in your seats rather than being forced to finish it down in the lounge. This place also had water in recyclable and resealable cans, which I thought was pretty good.

Hamam al-Basha, i.e., The Old Turkish Bathhouse Museum, Acre, Israel

If you’re ever in the historic town of Acre, Israel (it’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited ones on the planet), I strongly suggest a visit to Turkish Bathhouse Museum. Granted this museum dedicated to the Ottoman Bathhouse tradition (which they inherited from the Romans) is incredibly touristy, but that said, it’s multimedia presentation designed to bring history to life, is in my opinion what makes the Hamam Al-Basha one of the most entertaining and educational tourist attractions in the whole city, and worth at least a full hour’s worth of your time.

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When I first told my Israeli friends I was planning to spend a full 29 days in Acre’s old city, one of them literally blurted out, “WHY?! There’s NOTHING to DO there!” IF what you’re looking for is things like night clubs and theater, then they’re right… however, IF you’re a fan of all things historic… which I am… then they’re entirely wrong.

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The city of Acre is located on the western edge of the Northern district of Israel, just above the modern city of Haifa, and importantly (from the historic perspective) is one the only natural ports along the Holy land’s Mediterranean coastline. That is why it was one of most important port cities in the world during crusader period, when it served as the foothold for the almost all of the Christian Knight’s into the birthplace of their religion during that period. It’s important to remember that while the first Crusade, an attempt to take back the area from Islamic rule, came over land via Turkey, the second and third ones both came over sea, and utilized their heavily defended fortress port city of Acre — which they were able to keep control of the whole time —  as their base).

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As a result of its historically changing ownership, Acre (english)has many different names, in Hebrew it is Akko, while in Arabic it is Akka, and there are a few other names besides. Like I already said, this city is often overlooked by Jewish tourists to the country, because its past is predominantly Muslim and Christian. However, that said, it is also one of the oldest continuously inhabited human settlements on the planet, with most of its pre-crusader heritage still buried under a thousand years of other historically important buildings — and yet to be discovered (although you CAN see some of it if you know where to look).

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That said, the Turkish Bath Museum, also known as Hamam (sweat bath) El Basha (sort of like “The Prince”) in Arabic… (or The Prince’s sweat baths) … can be a bit hard to find in the twisty alley ways of Acre, although you’ll see signs all over town pointing out the way to it.

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The next thing to be aware of is that buying tickets for Acre’s attractions is kind of tricky.

As shown in the photo above, the multi-site ticket includes :
Hospitaller Castle/Knights’ Halls    – the city’s main attraction.
Templar Tunnel – and another, smaller tunnel.
Pasha’s Turkish Bath/Hamam al-BashaOkashi Museum -a small art museum.
Treasures in the Walls Museum
Rosh Hanikra

While these tickets may be purchased at multiple locations, but the main one is the visitor’s center, and if you do it there you get to see a short 15 minute movie on the history of the town.

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Ticket booth at the visitor’s center

The #1 attraction in town is the The Hospitallers‘ Fortress (Aka the Knights’ Halls)… but you can NOT buy a ticket for that which does not includes a mess of other things, the Templar’s tunnel (which it totally worth seeing), the Treasures in the Walls Museum (which is part of the tickets but not mentioned on ANY of the description signs for said tickets… IF you’ve seen everything else and still have time go see it, but if you skip it you won’t have missed out on anything special) … and a pathetic excuse for an art museum displaying all of the lesser pieces of Avshalom Okashi which is a complete waste of time (I graduated from one of the top Art schools in the world, and WHY the city demands you see this collection I don’t know).

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Basically it’s a collection of his works that no museums or collectors wanted (you’re not allowed to take photos while inside the museum, probably because they don’t want word getting out about how bad this collection sucks). Okashi was a painter so influential that while he’s often mentioned alongside other better respected artists, poor Avshalom doesn’t even merit his own Wikipedia page — even though he somehow DID manage to get his own museum. He was a very lessor part of the Ofakim Hadashim or New Horizons art movement in Israel, which helped to develop a distinctively abstract Israeli sensibility to art, which is still highly influential today (Israeli art doesn’t look quite like any other art style, but there is a cohesive feel to most of it). And he chose to live his final years in Acre, so I’m guessing when he died his family were stuck with a bunch of paintings no one wanted, not even them, and they left them to the city.

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To the combined Fortress ticket you can add one to the Baths…. or you can buy a ticket for the baths and the tunnels that does NOT include the #1 attraction… the Fortress… You can NOT however buy a ticket JUST for the #1 attraction, which is Fortress
or a ticket to the #2 attraction: the Templar Tunnels,
Or one for the Baths…
SO, you will HAVE to buy a combo ticket of some sort to see any of those —
And the tickets to the Fortress all include the aforementioned hideous art collection and the Treasures in the Walls Museum (which isn’t bad, but shouldn’t be considered any sort of priority if you’re on a limited schedule).

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With the ticket to the baths comes an audio guide, available in 8 languages

… the good news is it’s good for all of that year (if you buy it Jan 2019 it’s good through Dec 2019… If you buy it at the in Dec 2019 it expires at the end of that month), and it’s fully transferable — you can hand it off to friends or relatives who live in Israel to use whatever bits you haven’t. As such, your best bet is just to buy the either the combined ticket WITH the baths, or IF you intend to go up to Rosh Hanikra anyway (its at the Lebanese border and they do NOT provide transportation to get up there) [However, keep in mind that the ONLY historical attraction in Acre NOT included in any of the combined tickets (which include all the Arab controlled attractions), is the one to the old English Prison, which is controlled by the Israeli military.]

The package of tickets that I had initially bought, to my chagrin as I had SPECIFICALLY told the woman at the counter of the visitor’s center (where the Knight’s hall is) that I wanted to see the baths…

only to find when I arrived to the baths that what she had sold me did not include it!! (Be sure to double check your tickets.) So, when I got there… this guy said as far as he was concerned it wasn’t worth the extra price, and offered to quickly first walk me through the whole thing while explaining to me what was going since they couldn’t give me the headset because I didn’t have a ticket.

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He was more than bit annoyed when after he was done, I decided I wanted go ahead and pay for a combined tunnel and bathhouse ticket… which meant seeing the tunnels a second time.

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After you buy your ticket and get your headphones, you’re led into a outdoor courtyard area, where sit and wait for the next introductory overview film to begin — each film lasts about 15 minute, with a few minutes between to allow the room to clear and for the next group to enter

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While there (I had about 14 minutes to wait upon entering) I met and got friendly with one of the local cats, who seemed a great deal more domesticated than most of the cats of Acre …. the place is TEAMING with feral cats. This guy was following me around and demanding more scratches….

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The above picture is the entry room, just as you enter from the patio area …  Here you take a seat and enjoy a 15 minute movie that is projected onto the one empty wall to the right, which you listen to with your headphones…

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The movie focuses on the history of Acre and the building of bathhouse during the Ottoman empire, and the audio tracks come in eight different languages: Hebrew, Arabic, English, German, French, Spanish, Italian and Russian. (The Chinese and Japanese tourists don’t seem to come here much.)

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In addition to explaining its history, it also explains the cultural importance of the bathhouse to the community (it was much more than just a place to take a bath) up through modern times, when it was it fell into disuse because of the advent of modern plumbing.

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Note the image top right and compare to the tableau below

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After the movie you’re led into a long hallway lined with lithographs that narrate the sorts of things that would take place here…. and if you pay attention you’ll notice that many of the statues arranged throughout the bathhouse (so as to bring the place to life) were based on these drawings.

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After that hallway you turn into what had been another one lined with a series on rooms on either side, but when they converted it into a museum they removed the interior walls  (the ones that would lined the hallway) so that they now serve as the stages for a series of tableaus of what would have occurred within those areas.

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And as you approach some of the rooms, films with dialogue are played on their back walls in order to make the tableaus even more lifelikeUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2c2c.jpg

Notice how this photo (with me in it) is the same room as the one above, only the movie which had triggered upon my first having entered had played out. That said, if you didn’t get to see the little movies, or the sound track was off, I found if you leave the room heading back towards the main film room… and then WAIT for that film to finish for the next group and then reenter this section, you’ll get a second chance to see it all…if you have that time to do that…  the soundtracks and such seem to be timed on how much time they designers believe it will take for people to move through, rather than being triggered by actual movement.

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After you pass through the hallway of small tableaus, you will pass through a doorway into a very large room circular, where the steam bath was located… 7w25W1pASp+%3949t40pgw_thumb_ebae.jpg

… and it has actual steam which is kind of cool. Again in this room there is a sound track that coordinates with a film played on one of the walls, and also from ONE of the statues which a moving face projected onto it, just like the tech you see at Disney world in the Haunted Mansion.

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This larger central room is circular, but sits in a square building… as such at the corners of the square are a series of smaller rooms that you can sort of peer into. I suppose the center of the room was the hottest location, too hot for some, and the side rooms while still steamy brought the temperatures down a bit. All in all I found my visit here highly enjoyable and other people I talked to also said they really enjoyed this museum.

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Sid’s Diner: El Reno, OK

Located on Route 66 in El Reno Oklahoma is a cute little diner called Sid’s, which has been serving up delicious food for over 40 years. Although it doesn’t look like all that much, this restaurant has actually achieved some notoriety on the national level for the quality of it’s cheap eats.

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While it takes advantage of their route 66 address, and has been written up in guidebooks as part of a Route 66 road trip, it’s important for authenticity’s sake (I believe) to remember that Sid’s is NOT technically a historic 66 diner. Sid opened the place in 1989, five years AFTER route 66 had already been decommissioned (in ’84).

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Their claim to fame, isn’t that, but rather the food… specifically their fried onion burgers, which are considered to be so good that the Food Network listed them as among the top 5 burgers in the whole US of A., and the Travel Channel has listed them as one of the must visit road side diners in the country in the cheap eats catagory.

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Note: the french fries here are STILL called Freedom Fries… will get back to this later

Their burger (i.e., the regular) consists of a large number of thinly sliced onions that are then smashed into the raw meat so that they merge with it, but as a solid layer– a bit like what happens with hash-browns. The King is just a larger quantity of beef.

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I watched them making these, and based on the massive amount of fat involved wasn’t going to even try them (as they were completely off of diet). But as I was asking about the sandwich, they insisted I have at least a taste of one for free. (This is a VERY friendly place.) So they made up one and cut me off 1/4 of it so I could try it. Normally the burger includes a huge gob of mayonnaise, but they-made this one without

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The remaining 3/4 were given to this this elderly woman sitting next to me, who was a regular. From what I overheard, she’s apparently in dire economic straits and they’re always adding free add-ons to her meals. I therefore insisted that I pay for the whole of her meal, my 3/4 and everything else she was eating.

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As a result they insisted that we have a picture taken together. I have to say she was a very nice lady, very cheerful and upbeat.

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Like I noted previously, the “French fries” in this restaurant are still referred to as Freedom Fries. That, and the heavy references to American’s armed forces kind of tells you all you need to know about the politics of this town, and the restaurant’s owner.

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This is term that was adopted in 2003, and to this day is still used by the most hardcore Republicans around the country. The renaming (let’s keep in mind that french fries are actually from Belgium and not France) was the idea of a guy who owned a diner in Beaufort, North Carolina by the name of Neal Rowland. This patriotic act was in response to France‘s opposition to America’s proposed invasion of Iraq (which we went ahead and did anyway, without world support). Not long after two Republican politicians picked up the idea and ran with it; the first was Walter B. Jones, who represented Rowland’s district’s in Congress and the second was Bob Ney, a Representative from Ohio who in 2008, was convicted on corruption charges and did jail time — why yes this does make me smile. In 2003, Ney was still the Chairman of the Committee on House Administration, and therefore in charge of managing all the general ‘stuff’ for the members of the house of Representatives. What these “patriots” did was to … as a way of sticking to the French (who are always quick to point out that French Fries are NOT French), insist that the cafeterias that serve politicians in Congress change the name of the fries likewise.

qh96DA2xSCaW7zxlXDfXrQ_thumb_ad7a.jpgAnd, why YES, the locals who El Reno did in fact, in majority, vote for Trump.

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The Templar’s Tunnel, Acre, Israel

In the historic city of Acre, Israel, is a 350 meters/985 feet long tunnel. It is known as the Templar Tunnel, because it is believed to have been built by the Knights Templar during the crusader period (1095 A.D. – 1492), and though lost for over 700 years, it was rediscovered in 1994, and is now one of the city’s major historic tourist attractions.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_e6ee.jpgThe city of Acre  is located on the western edge of the Northern district of Israel, just above the modern city of Haifa, and importantly along her Mediterranean coastline. She has many different names, in Hebrew it is Akko, while in Arabic it is Akka, and with a few other names besides. Often overlooked by Jewish tourists to the country, because its past is predominantly Muslim and Christian, it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited human settlements on the planet.

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While her history is long and varied, for the purposes of this blog I’m interested in the Acre’s role during the Medieval period; when because of its location on one of the very few natural ports in The Holy Land, and hence was of great strategic importance to anyone wishing to take part in a Christian pilgrimage to the area, she served as the capital city of the Crusader states.

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The tunnel had been essentially lost for 700 years, but it’s import had been “rediscovered” in 1994 because a woman living in one of the homes built above it. When they dug down to figure out the problem, they stumbled upon the tunnel, which had been converted into part of the towns sewage system.

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Evidence of its sewage system past is still there

As the saying goes, you can’t dig a hole anywhere in Israel and NOT find something of historical importance. Although converting the tunnel to a sewage pipe probably happened after the time of the Mamluks — slave soldiers, not unlike the unsullied in the Game of Thrones— who during the Mamluk Sultanate kicked the crusaders out of the area, at which point not only had its import probably been already forgotten, but history is written, and as often erased, by the victors.

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A public bathroom located directly across from the eastern entrance to the tunnel, and above the tunnel (kind of funny if you think about it)

Between 1291 when the Mamluks kicked out the crusaders and 1920, when the British were granted the mandate by the League of Nations to take over control of Palestine from the Turks’ collapsing Ottoman Empire, the fact is no one in the area cared about Templars, let alone their tunnel.  All the glory was to the Muslim empire that had taken it back from invading Christians… so turning their tunnel into a sewage pipe was probably seen at the time as fitting and appropriate.

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Once re-discovered The Acre development company, in co-ordination with Israel’s Antiquities Authority, cleared away the dirt and excrement filling the tunnel, and found whatever of historical value there was within it; all the while preparing it to serve as a local tourist attraction whose doors initially opened to the public in 1999… although repairs, rehabilitation, and extension of the tunnel continued through 2007. Today, the water that once carried you-know-what out into the ocean still runs (you can even see where it enters into the now destroyed Templar castle), but now people throw coins into it instead, supposedly for good luck.

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The Knights Templar, or Templars, were a catholic monastic military order that have long served as a focus of fascination and urban myths, both good and bad.  They were founded in 1119 to protect pilgrims who came to see the holy lands from Muslims and highwaymen (being a pilgrim during that period was a very dangerous activity, with dead bodies littered along the paths); initially WILDLY popular with the faithful, once the Crusades were over and the holy land was lost support for them faded, at which point their size and wealth made them a convenient target for a deeply in debt King Philip IV of France, who was deeply in debt to them financially. They were then completely disbanded by Pope Clement V.  If you want to learn more about them I found this GREAT pod cast about them by the guest host Dan Jones, who is an internationally best-selling historian/author of non-fiction works.

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The tunnel runs from what is believed to be the destroyed Templar palace on the western part of the city, on the Mediterranean’s edge, whose remaining walls are now shallowly submerged beneath the water (but still visible)

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The tunnel, according to one of the multiple short movies shown in the tunnel (this one is just towards the eastern end), is thought to have been built to go under another the Pisan quarter (a quarter within the city of Acre that was controlled by people from the Republic of Pisa) who were not friendly with the Templars and tended to charge them taxes to pass through their area…

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and, in addition to that would try to stop the Templars from taking “sacred relics” related to the story of Christ out of the city. [I say sacred relics in quotation marks because one sort of has to, like the 16th century Dutch humanist Erasmus, question their authenticity. To quote his commentary on just how many places claimed to own pieces of the true cross… “if all the fragments were collected together, they would appear to form a fair cargo for a merchant ship.”] The Templars, didn’t take kindly to the Pisan’s interference in their business, and in response built this tunnel…traveling UNDER the Pisan quarter, from their castle to the port

Location map of Akko Port; A) The sea-front of the Pisan quarter (insert Fig.6); B) The Western Basin, (insert Fig. 2b) 
[source of the photo, “New insights on Maritime Acre revealed by Underwater and Coastal Archaeological Research”]
In the image above, the destroyed Templar’s Palace is the Green roundish thing at the bottom left of the town, the Templars tunnel is shown as a line of red dots, the sea-front of the Pisan quarter is marked as A, while the port that the Templars were trying to get to is in the Western Basin, marked B (I’m not sure WHY they couldn’t just park boats alongside their castle, but apparently they couldn’t.

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So of course there are TWO entrances to the tunnel… the EASY one to find is adjacent to the destroyed palace directly adjacent to the big parking lot and the world-renowned Uri Buri restaurant (considered one of the three restaurants in all of Israel, and the country’s best location for seafood). At the bottom of the stairs at this entrance is a set of two buttons, either of which will initiate an audio narration describing the tunnel (no video). However, if a large group is coming through, I strongly suggest waiting till they’ve passed to push it as you won’t hear it otherwise.

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The tunnel’s “Eastern Entrance” is now marked on Google (Feel free to send me chocolate in thanks)

The hard one to find is buried in the alleyways of Acre across the alley from that public bathroom I showed earlier … in fact when I first arrived in town Google maps did NOT have EITHER of the two doors marked!!! (As in all manner of folks can be found wandering around trying to find the bathroom! Not to mention the Eastern entrance to the tunnels) While I was there I submitted a request to Google that they fix that, marking for them exactly where it was located… and if you’re wandering around the town trying to find that entrance using Google maps, you can thank me for the fact that

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Eastern Entrance

By comparison to the easy to find entrance (which is kind of plain and squished) the eastern entrance is actually quite fancy looking on the inside, even though it’s really easy to miss on the outside (especially when the doors are not open for business). And the squishiness is not just at the entrance… At that east end of the tunnel, the ceiling is very low…. [well either that, or (much more likely) the walkway for tourists is placed very high up within the tunnel because that end is close to the Mediterranean, and probably dips down lower than the other side does, and as such is deeply flooded with water.]

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At this end are two narrow tunnels, one in each direction, with ceilings that become progressively taller (or shorter if you’re coming from the other end). That said, from the perspective of the average tourist, it starts out with you having to bend down very low in order to pass (the ceiling was at about the height of my arm pits), and then the further into the tunnel you go (heading east) the higher the ceiling moves (the bottom picture I was JUST able to stand full height to 5’4″ — my travel buddy that day was a few inches taller than I).UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2be6.jpg

At this point in the tunnel (picture upper left) she was just getting to where she could stand tall… and the walkway — which is you look is clearly elevated (there was the equivalent of a little river running under it) is lit up, and had little glass windows embedded into it showing where various archeological finds were discovered — the originals are in a museum, these were just pictures of the objects found. And the ceiling gets taller the further east you go (which supports my elevated walkway theory), until you get to this point in the tunnel, where the ceiling gets REALLY tall and vaulted… and they seem to have found a 2nd layer to it or some such

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all photos of the same location, but from different angles

The above photos are taken of the same location but looking both directions — double tunnels at one side that join at this point into one huge tunnel. As you can see at this point in the tunnel (on the left side of the photo above) there’s yet another movie screen showing more about the history of the place, that once again comes with narration in either Hebrew or English. The movie doesn’t restart, the track being played just switches languages based one which button you press, even if its mid film.

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From that point on, instead of two narrow tunnels it’s one wide one…  but still with the windows in the walkway where they found things…. and the blue wall is where the easter exit/stairwell is located.

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As you can probably tell from the photos (no I did not change my T-shirts while in there) I actually traversed the tunnel twice. The first time was on a temperate day (high of 68 — 70 F) with a new friend who I had met the night before at the Airbnb I was staying at (an American girl doing her post doctoral studies at Tel Aviv University). The 2nd time I went on a hot day (closer to 85 F), and I decided to go there thinking that in the tunnels it would be cooler… I was wrong… while it wasn’t as hot as outdoors it was HUMID down there, because of all the water running under the walkway, and therefore the even less comfortable the outdoor heat which was dry.

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In order to go into the tunnel you’re going to need a ticket… and this is where things get a bit complicated (see above). You COULD buy a ticket to go to the tunnel which includes the Turkish baths (you can’t get one to just the tunnel) … but … The MAIN attraction in Acre is the Hospitallers‘ Fortress (aka Knight’s Halls)… and in order to see it you HAVE to buy the combined ticket. As such, if you have ANY interest in seeing that you’ll want to buy the combo ticket… I strongly suggest including the Turkish Bath… but if you’re in town with no car, do not get the Rosh Hanikra ticket as that is very far away and does not include any sort of shuttle bus to get you there.

In fact the ONLY attraction NOT included in a combined ticket combination (which includes all the Arab controlled attractions), is the ticket to the old English Prison, which is controlled by the Israeli military

Nzar Khoury Guest House & Airbnb, Acre, Israel

If you’re ever in the historic town of Acre, Israel (it’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited ones on the planet) and looking for a place to spend the night that is nothing fancy, but clean and HIGHLY affordable, look no farther than Nazar Khoury’s Guest House. I stayed here for almost a full month, and LOVED IT. If you want to book with him you can either call him directly (see number below), or use Booking.com, Agoda, or Airbnb (like I did — you may need to be signed into your Airbnb account in order to see that link, I’m not sure).  That said, while he has four different rooms available, his place is so much more affordable than the other places in town, that he tends to be full almost continuously (or at least was while I was there). UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_de83

Be warned, this is NOT a fancy hotel, with elevators and bell boys, but rather his family home that he grew up in, which he has converted himself in order to accommodate guests. He runs it himself (the guy in image above) and for the most part does a pretty good job of it … If you stay here you’ll be getting an authentic experience of how the locals live.

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His home, which is located about four floors up, has a patio that overlooks the mediterranean ocean and the old Ottoman built seawallramparts of this historic, and once militarily strategic town.

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The wall is currently being renovated; I was hoping they’d leave this long enough for me to get a shot of the sun setting in the middle of it, but no luck, it was only there for a few hours.

It is an almost idyllic place to sit and enjoy the ocean. While there you can also get to know some of his other guests (I met more than few people that way) as you all watch the setting sun while nibbling on the free munchies he provides.

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This picture (above) was taken at around sunset — as you can tell by the golden color of the stones, and if you look up towards the Nzar Khoury sign, you’ll spot some guests, particularly the guy in the black shirt, talking to each other while enjoying said it from the patio — next to him was in fact his wife (who was distracting him from the view).

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The moon, just moments after the sunset

The great part about having stayed at the Guest House for almost a month was how many different sunsets I was able to watch… no two ever exactly the same

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From his home you can easily see Acre’s famous lighthouse, and Haifa across the bay.

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On VERY clear days you can just make out the second holiest Bahá’í temple in the world, known as the Shrine of the Báb, it’ll look like a vertical strip from the top of the of the mountain to the bottom, with one very large building in the middle of it. I know all about the Bahá’í because one of their temples isn’t far from the home where I grew up, north of Chicago. But like I said, you can only see it on VERY clear days… otherwise the fog and or smog (depending on the color — fog is white, not brown) will block you from seeing it.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2ba6.jpg

Just to the right of the lighthouse is the remains of a submerged crusader castle. On days when the wind is low and the water is still, you can just make out the walls of the various rooms of the building…

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_df48.jpgon other days you’ll see fishermen (who aren’t actually supposed to be there, but the police don’t stop them) fishing either off the exterior wall of that castle, or netting up fish caught in the pools they create.

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Getting to his place is however NOT the easiest thing for people with mobility issues (it is NOT wheelchair accessible). The image above is the first set of stairs you’ll need to climb. These were built by the ottoman controlled Acre and were built more to be comfortable for horses pulling carts, then they were for humans. That said, the built-in ramps would have been a lot more helpful if they were filled in (so to speak). If you try pulling a suitcase up them, or a cart, the wheels will constantly slip off to one side or the other. (I’ve not seen anyone even TRY to negotiate them with a wheel chair.)

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The Stairway and Church’s doorway, decorated for the wedding

Nzar’s home — which is built upon the remains of a Crusader Church — is just next door to the St. Andrew’s Church (Greek Catholic), which is accessed from the parking lot by that same stairway. So, if you’re lucky, as I was, from his balcony you’ll be able to watch an Arab wedding party ceremoniously lead the bride to the altar.

At the top of the stairs you make a hard left (if you go right you see the church’s front door which is usually locked) and you’ll see the big metal door that marks his entrance

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The guest house’s  doorway and staircase

Push it open (it’s never locked)… be careful not to pull the handle (sometimes it’ll come off)… and you’ll see a very uninviting steep staircase that’s about 2 stories high with a banister that is just a rusty pipe bolted to the wall… that wiggles a bit if you lean on it (so don’t if you don’t absolutely need to). That said, while I was there a 90-year-old gray-haired grandmother with a seriously bent back put me to shame on those stairs.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2b6d.jpgOnce inside you’ll see an apartment with VERY high ceilings. These are traditional to the region, and act as a sort of natural air conditioning system, as the heat rises above your head, and the cold drops to floor level. That said, no two spaces are on the same level. All the bedrooms are a step up to a place where you can leave your shoes, and then another step up to the bedroom area… the en suite bathrooms are yet another step up.

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The skylight viewed from above

My bedroom, where I stayed, has a skylight (image of it from the building’s roof)… but it’s currently the only one like that does. Unfortunately there were no way to block that light… so I ended up having to go to sleep earlier than normal in preparation for an 8am wake up (after a 6 am one, at which point I covered my head with a pillow)

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The setting sun as viewed through the doorway to the patio

At night, Nzar lights up his sign, so you can still easily see it from the parking lot below. IF you’re in one of the rooms that lines the back alley, as I was, and pop your head out the window, you’ll an large number of swallows (who you can watch at around sunset feasting on the mosquitos, G-d bless them), hanging out on the electrical and telephone wires that line the way.

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That said, I WARN YOU… they wake up really easily from things like the flash on your camera; and if awoken, they will fly around like crazy idiots for the next hour or so, chirping noisily. DO NOT WAKE UP THE SWALLOWS. That said, if you’re there during Ramadan, as I was, the wake up call before sunrise to allow muslims a chance to have breakfast, is ALSO going to wake the birds… you’ve been warned (ear plugs are your friend, as is a pillow over your head).

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Me, blogging while sitting on the patio on an overcast day