Sunday, November 25, 2012

You Have to Admire the Brits

No matter what the weather, the Brits are going to celebrate outdoors.  No matter how cold or rainy, they are carrying on.  In the cold and the rain...

And, this is especially true of Christmas season festivities.  Friday night, the traditional Black Friday in the US, was Oxford Christmas Light Night (I'm not sure if they always correspond or if this was coincidental), the day after the city of Oxford turns on its Christmas Lights.  The stores stay open late (though there's none of the terrible advertising and ridiculous promotions of the US Black Friday sales), there is a parade, and there are events all over the city including a stage with music and dance acts set in the middle of a fair with rides and food booths.  It doesn't matter how cold it is-- Light Night is going on.

My first stop on Light Night was at Oxford Castle where there was a "performance" of kinetic sound and light sculptures--"Chorus" by Ray Lee.  I knew from the description that it would be electronic music, but I thought there would be more lights.  Instead, there were only small red ones-- they were supposed to mimic fireflies or planets in motion.  I definitely didn't get the planets in motion thing (I only learned that was the intent from the website). I guess they could have been like fireflies...


So, the sculptures started out moving really slow. Then, they sped up which changed the frequency of the sound making it seem like different "notes" were playing.


Then, they were were all moving fast, which again made them sound relatively the same-- blending in harmony, I guess.


And then, all the surrounding lights were turned off-- so that all that could be seen were the red lights on the sculptures.


The whole thing took a little more than 20 minutes.  Honestly, I kept waiting for something else to happen-- like more lights, maybe.  Or for the sound to become a recognizable Christmas song (I was expecting this to be more "Christmas-y" since it was part of Light Night-- but it wasn't.).  That didn't happen.  However, when I left Oxford Castle to make my way towards the fair, stage and parade, I did pass this guy.


I have no idea why there was a person dressed up as an oversized, unidentified character. Sometimes in Oxford, weird things happen and strangely dressed people appear (though, they are usually university students)-- it's a quirky city when it comes down to it.

Part of Light Night is admiring the lights around Oxford-- most of which are set up on Cornmarket Street and High Street. They're a bit hard to photograph because they are actually "twinkling".  And, the coming on and off of different lights to create that effect tends to make the picture blurry.  But, I got one that isn't too bad.


On the list of things the Brits will do no matter the weather is attend a fair-- and there are a lot of them. They seem to set up rides and game booths to mark any occasion they can think of (or, at random).  I don't quite get the appeal of getting on a ride that spins around really fast in the cold-- it seems like that would only make it colder. I do, however, get the appeal of hot chocolate mixed with Baileys, which was on sale as part of the fair.



I held onto my warm hot chocolate as I watched several acts on the stage. I came up right as the Welsh Male Voice Choir was getting started.


It's a little hard to hear because everyone in the crowd is also talking, but they are singing about Dixie-- again, I have no idea what a song about the American South has to do with Christmas in Oxford, but it added to the quirkiness.  And, then it got even more quirky when this guy (I think he's some kind of local celebrity-- and there's a small part of me that thinks he might be the guy who owns the house with the shark coming out of the roof, but I can't be certain).


Again, it's hard to tell it the video-- but he was dressed like Henry VIII (or, someone equally royal and pompous). With him on stage were two professional Rugby players who largely stood off the to the back of the stage and tried not to look too awkward, one of whom the guy singing gave his hat to.  His one song was intended to get the crowd moving so we would warm up since, as the host for the evening kept pointing out, it was cold.

The next group up was Out of the Blue, an all male a cappella group who were supposedly on Britain's Got Talent. However, from the conversation the host had with these guys, I think most of the singers who were on Britan's Got Talent graduated a while ago-- I don't think that any of the guys performing on Light Night were actually on TV.  They did perform Christmas music near the end, but this medley dedicated to Brittany songs was my "favorite."


Out of the Blue's Christmas medley got interrupted by the arrival of the parade procession, which was something of a debacle.  The parade route ran through the crowd at the stage, but no one had mentioned this to the crowd before nor was the route blocked off in any way. So, as the parade approached, there was this grand effort by police and event organizers to move hundreds of people out of the way of the procession. It didn't go well, mostly because those at the edge of the crowd realized they had prime spots to see the parade and then didn't want to give up the good viewing spot so they were moving as little as possible while others tried to push forward to get closer to the action.  I would have thought that leaving a clearing for the parade route would be the kind of thing planners would have planned for... but there was quite a bit of jostling and pushing instead.  And, all for what was a pretty unimpressive parade.

The Parade of Lights turned out to be a parade of school children (mostly elementary school kids) carrying lit up items-- some simply had makeshift lanterns. Others did have animals created out of tissue paper that the lights could shine through.



It culminated in a very fast explosion of light around this sun statue


which happened so fast, I  pretty much missed it.  Out of the Blue was supposed to come back post-parade, but I think in all the chaos, the stage performances started to run behind and so Out of the Blue was just gone.  And, I was hungry, so I headed off to Wagamama, a very popular chain restaurant which serves sort of fusion Asian food (even though it says it's a Japanese noodle bar).


One dish on the meun is very like Pho and after standing in the cold for a few hours, this seemed like the perfect meal.




I continued the Christmas theme the next day, heading off to Birmingham with a couple of my students for the Frankfurt Christmas Market, the largest German Christmas Market outside of Germany.  Birmingham itself seems like a really lovely city





though we didn't get to see too much of it-- we were there primarily for the Christmas market, and though that encompassed a lot of the city (so we did walk much of Birmingham), what we did see was largely blocked by the decorations and market booths. There were Santas of every size, everywhere.




Everything was decorated for Christmas, even the trashcans.


 The day started off deceptively nice-- and then became increasingly more dreary, going from drizzle to pouring rain that just didn't stop.  We were really expecting it to stop at some point-- it rarely rains for an entire day in England (or, it hasn't very often since we've been here)-- but once it started, a little before noon, the driving rain never stopped.  And yet, the market crowd never dissipated. It was crowded all day even though there was nowhere to hide from the rain. This is what amazes me most about the Brits-- I guess in a country where it rains so much, you just have to soldier on through it. But, the Christmas Market goes on for about a month-- this wasn't the only day it was on, so people could have come back. Instead, they stood in the rain eating their bratwurst and drinking their oversized beers (which they were drinking when we arrived at about 10:30 am-- I think I've mentioned this before, but there is no sort of happy hour or "appropriate" hour to start drinking, no "it's 5 o'clock somewhere" to explain away or excuse drinking in the middle of the day.  They drink when they feel like it-- with no judgement.).  So, my students and I forged ahead too.

At the entry to the Christmas Market was this guy.


It was sort of ventriloquism without the impressive "look--my lips aren't moving" part of the act since the guy manning the dummy is encased in that cart.  (The legs you see are his.)  It was a lesson in why not to smoke-- the dummy had a really gravelly voice and a heck of a cough.  The German Christmas Market itself was very German and very Christmas-y at the same-- like with this Beer Bear.


And this moving Christmas display which was on top of a small pavilion serving beer and mulled wine and bratwurst.


Or this moose, who was enticing visitors to come drink. 


Even though it was about 11 am, the enticement was unnecessary.  We were even enticed to stop for drinks-- something hot since it was cold (even though it hadn't started raining yet).  The choices were hot chocolate with various liqueurs or hot, mulled wine.  We all got hot chocolate.  It still seemed a bit early to be drinking alcohol (though, I don't know how much was really in the hot chocolate-- a decent amount since I could taste the nutty flavor of the amaretto I got in mine, but not a whole lot, I'm guessing), but we were a lot later than others, like these women




who were all wearing mustaches (I like that the one blonde had a blonde mustache). We passed them several hours later and they still had their mustaches on-- they were committed, though to what I'm not sure.  I don't know why they had mustaches in the first place. 

There was a wide assortment of food for sale, including lots of sweet treats like unusually flavored donuts


and these marshmallow concoctions.


There were about 15 different flavors-- I bought two as we were leaving at the end of the day to take home for dessert.  They pretty quickly collapsed in the bag they were in-- I think it was because it was hard to keep them dry in the paper bag.  Also, I thought they were more solid marshmallow, so I didn't realize how easily they could get smushed-- I probably need to be more careful with them as they were more delicate than I realized.  But, even smashed, they tasted pretty good--I got one that was Irish Creme and one that was hazelnut and, mixed together (as they were now that they were somewhat smashed and the marshmallow center had become a little liquid) they complimented each other well.

There were also pretzels stuffed with sandwich fillings like ham and cheese or salami.


This is what we had for an early lunch-- there are no soft pretzels in England, or at least I haven't seen any yet (not that I've been missing soft pretzels-- it just occurred to me when I saw these that I hadn't seen a pretzel stand since I've been here), and this variation seemed like a nice twist on a treat from home. However, they weren't hot, or even warm-- they were cold and a little disappointing, even though my filling of Camembert and cranberry was good.  The pretzels needed to be hot.

There were large slices of garlic bread





and foods like onion rings, cheese sticks and jalapeno poppers ready to be fried to order.  And, of course, there were the expected varieties of sausage-- though some were really long in a way that was almost obscene (look closely-- there are sausages of two different lengths in the picture).


There were also tons of goods for sale-- a lot of it was the expected sort of Christmas craft fair stuff, like wooden instruments shaped like animals



and metal creations like kitchy wine bottle and toilet paper holders




and figures carved from wood.  These two struck me as really politically incorrect-- in fact, I'm not even sure you could sell them in the US.  It made me wonder if the stall owner knew how offensive these had the potential to be (which does bring up questions of cultural awareness-- this booth was full of characters like this. I'm wondering if it resonated negatively with anyone who wasn't American.).


And, then there were some more unusual items like reindeer hides and rabbit hides. 


They weren't made into anything-- it was just the hide for sale (in case you were wondering, reindeer hide is not very soft).  I'm not really sure what one is supposed to do with a reindeer hide... but there were a lot of them, so I assume they get used for something.

We did get to see a few of the Birmingham sites.  The route of the market (which was really large) took us past the Birmingham Hall of Memory




 a small chapel dedicated to the memory of all those who have died or been injured in battle.

 And, to get out of the rain for a whle, we went to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery which is lovely on the inside.


At the end of this room (where it's orange) is the Buddha Gallery-- it's not all statues of Buddha, but it's all Asian statuary dedicated to deities.  There is also the Infinity Collection Box made from 8 different kinds of wood, created by Andrew Varah in 2008, which, when looked into at different angles, seems to present endless "hallways."  From different angles, there are different numbers of hallways.


That's the same box from two different angles.

The top floor of the museum is an interactive history of Birmingham and its people. It includes mock newscasts from the 1600s explaining why it wanted to remain officially recognized as a town (there would have been higher taxes and guild membership fees if it were considered a city-- apparently Birmingham managed to hide its identity as a manufacturing and industrial city from the royalty for quite a while), a "coffee house" where ballads written hundreds of years ago are performed, and cute displays like this one that demonstrate the different guild trades.





We thought the rain would have ended by the time we were leaving the museum (since much of our experience has taught it never rains constantly for a whole day), but we were wrong. We forged on anyway, going through the rest of the market (which really does stretch through a lot of the city) before arriving at the canal


where we went into a small boat turned restaurant for tea (because, if you're not just going to continue to hang out outside, tea is what you do in England when it's cold and rainy).


We sat in the boat for a while, again convinced that it was going to stop raining but after about an hour it still hadn't stopped, so we forged back out into the downpour to return to the German Market for dinner-- I was quite insistent that if I had traveled two hours by coach for a German Christmas Market, I was having a bratwurst at some point. (I didn't brave the white sausage-- it looked disturbingly uncooked.  You can sort of see it in the middle of the picture.)


We did find a small "room" off to the side of this stand to eat in, so we didn't have to actually eat our dinner (or, really, late lunch since I think it was only 4:30-- it's easy to lose track of time and think it's later since it's pretty dark by 4 now) in the pouring rain (I'm sure that was very American of us-- not wanting to stand in the rain and eat as everyone else was doing.  There were others in the small room as well-- but not many of seemed to be British.  It was mostly visitors.  Near us was a Russian woman who had relocated to California with her kids.  So, those who weren't braving the weather during meals were clearly not native.)

The Christmas market area was really pretty in the dark (and you can't even tell how hard it was raining from the pictures!)




but even though it was really lovely, we were about done with the rain (even though more and more people were showing up for dinner and drinking in the rain-- the market is open until 10pm daily), so we headed back towards the coach station, stopping of in Selfridges to kill about 30 minutes of free time looking at expensive designer clothing (and, where I considered buying incredibly expensive flannel pjs just to have something warm and dry to wear on the bus).  We'd passed by this building earlier in the day (this isn't my photo--as you can tell from the delightful sun in it)


and never knew what it was, but it turned out it was Selfridges, which is why the store, from the inside, seemed oddly shaped.  And, then, we headed back out into the rain again to catch the coach back to Oxford, where it actually stopped raining just long enough to get home.


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