An evening at Carnegie Hall, the most iconic of New York music venues, has been on our must-do list for some time. When the Winter 2019 schedule was announced and individual tickets became available to see YoYo Ma perform Beethoven with Emanuel Axe and Leonidas Kavakos, we were ready to pounce. It turned out that most of the tickets had been scooped up before I got online and the price of what remained was simply too much. To see this caliber of performance, you’ve got to get up early.
Not to be defeated so easily, I fell back to the offering of Beethoven symphonies and found acceptable balcony seats two places off the right aisle for performances of Beethoven’s Fourth and Fifth (my favorite). I registered and completed all the required information, including credit card, only to be greeted by a message that an unexplained “error” had occurred. The instruction was that if you received the error message you should send an email to a provided “feedback” address. I did that, but it felt like sending a complaint to the moon.
Not to be defeated so easily, I tried again, but now the offer was for seats I did not think were acceptable and at the same price as the better seats previously offered. I wrote the “feedback” email address again with my final moon-shot, telling Carnegie Hall that we were going to pass and why. I emailed my wife with the bad news that I was defeated and that Carnegie Hall was not in our immediate future after all.
Within a few minutes, literally, my phone rang – I answered to hear a young man at Carnegie Hall [YMACH], “I see you’re having a problem buying tickets?”
I am not fantasizing; this actually happened (I have the confirmation).
Me: “Yes,” explaining in passing that I had really been hoping to get two seats starting on an aisle.
YMACH: “You want an aisle seat?”
Me: “Yes, but … (thinking, this is going nowhere but at least I can convey how disappointed I am).”
YMACH: “I can put you in an aisle and adjacent seat closer to the center, better than the seats you were trying to buy.”
Me: “Done and done.”
That, dear readers, is how it should be done. I am now a devoted fan of Carnegie Hall for life. Humans over computers – is that great or what?! I did not spoil the moment by asking why the computer offered me worse seats than were available at the same price. The young man likely could not explain it anyway, but the lesson is clear. Next time I just call or go to the box office. Now the waiting begins – the performance is in February!
We recently spent a vacation week in London and were constantly reminded of the similarities and differences, large and small, between that great city and New York City that we now call home. To avoid any wrong impressions from what follows, we had a great time in London. Among many other things, I rode on the London Eye, my first time on a “ferris wheel” in many decades. Very good experience.
The first afternoon we took a bus tour of the city, something I would normally not want to do, but the tour guide was a semi-retired lady with sharp English wit who provided many comical moments as we drove through the relatively calm Sunday afternoon. We walked along the south bank of the Thames, now a thriving public space for foot stalls and buskers. And, of course, we paid a visit to Harrods and Selfridges for a little shopping.
One of the largest differences between the cities cannot actually be seen from the ground – London occupies almost exactly twice the square mileage of New York City including the boroughs. If you look at a map while you’re there, it’s clear that London is simply enormous. At the same time, it is not as vertical as New York City. There are a few very tall buildings, but most of London is open to the sky.
The most obvious similarity is the traffic congestion. It actually seemed worse in London because there were so many times when it did not seem to move at all for long periods. New York’s congestion does usually creep along, albeit with much horn honking and other irrational responses to the frustration. Oddly enough, there was much less horn honking in London. We quickly realized that the only smart way to get around during the day was The Tube, the London equivalent of the New York subway.
Except that the Tube and the New York subway are not equivalent. The list of differences is long and important; in London’s Tube,
No trash on tracks or in stations High frequency of trains
Padded seats Did I mention padded seats?
Clean cars Large windows
Light traffic most places during day No foul smells
Lifts and escalators mostly working Trains relatively smooth & quiet
On the other hand, the Tube had
No air conditioning in the cars
No disabled access
Small signs to the lifts where they existed
The lack of air conditioning resulted in very hot cars most of the time and compounded the failure of many young Englishmen/tourists to use deodorant. Thankfully, the scale of the Tube combined with its frequency, at least at the stations we used, meant that we could get around the city very quickly and, in our experience at least, reliably. Access to the Tube made our entire trip work.
I noticed a few other things. This may well be “eye of the beholder,” but the English are justly famous for frumpy clothing and it was on full display during our week there. Because of the crowds in the main shopping areas especially, Londoners exhibited another tendency we’ve seen a lot in New York City – the commandeering of sidewalk space by people who suddenly decide they have to consult their phones, a map or just stop to chat with each other. Likely, many of these were tourists but it was so common that I strongly suspect the indigenous population was also guilty. It was early summer, so, of course, there were plenty of tourists on hand. You’d think many of them had never been away from home before.
There were a few other rough spots. One was what I will call the VAT tax refund scam. It turns out the only way you can recover the money at the airport is to have in your possession the physical items you purchased, which means holding them out of your suitcase when you check in.
Rough spots aside, we worked very hard to avoid what is known as “British cuisine” and were, for the most part successful. We ate at some fine restaurants and while they were generally a bit expensive, this was a cost well worth incurring. We largely enjoyed most of our meals except a forced lunch at a pub on Sunday, the only eating place open in the immediate area on a Sunday. The food was simply awful. Not so at the Richoux tea room for lunch during the week. Great food and ambience. We enjoyed a fabulous fish dinner at Milos before a show and the last night an incredibly tasty Indian cuisine at Matsya in Mayfair. Bill’s in Islington was funky but very friendly people and interesting food.
London has a thriving performing arts scene, which we undertook to enjoy to the fullest on our short visit. We saw what I can only describe as a largely “experimental” dance/ballet performance at the somewhat remote Sadler Wells Theatre, as well as two traditional shows, Mama Mia and Les Miserables. The musicals were wonderful, marred only by the necessity for the house manager to threaten to remove some of the teenagers who came en masse to see Mama Mia but mainly to talk, check their phones and generally act like jerks. Les Mis was presented in a small theater, magnifying the power of the show even more than usual, a spectacular performance.
We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the Churchill War Rooms, covered, very partially, in the photos below; it was a genuinely unique experience. One important note for anyone interested in seeing the War Rooms: make your reservations weeks or even months before you arrive. If you don’t, you’re likely looking at a multi-hour wait in line, outside.
Finally, we spent an entire day on a private tour of the Cotswolds, a beautiful section of English countryside that is well represented in the photos at the end of this post. We highly recommend this to anyone visiting London.
Finally, finally, I have to add in closing that our hotel and room were among the more bizarre designs I’ve seen in many years of traveling. there was no way to plug the sink to create a pool of water for shaving. The shower had a sliding door that resulted in water accumulating on the bathroom floor. We tried everything to stop it, without success. The hotel restaurant had a decent menu, but for breakfast the buffet was the identical collection of items for seven straight days.
So, that’s it in summary. The photos, a fraction of what was shot, follow.
Some months ago, we discovered two interesting but similar TV series, one entitled Secret Life of the Zoo and the other just The Zoo. The former production covers the Chester Zoo in England and the latter is about the Bronx Zoo in … the Bronx.
Both shows take you to the back of the house and involve mainly efforts to breed endangered species or to help injured or sick animals under the zoo’s care. The overall thrust of the shows is that most of the species there are threatened with extinction in the wild and the work of the zoos is one of the main, if not only, programs to increase the number of animals in such species and, in some cases, to release them into the wild. While there are some occasions with an unhappy outcome, the shows definitely fall in the “feel good” category.
Having watched numerous episodes of The Zoo, we finally were able to visit the Bronx Zoo. The experience was spectacular. The only negative was that a sudden and unexpected thunderstorm in the afternoon defeated our plan to ride the monorail. We did not see the entire zoo in the time we had; the property is enormous. Pick up a map when you enter or you will get lost. Photos of some of what we saw are attached. The quality of some shots was affected by having to shoot through dirty glass.