Friday, July 17, 2009

Capital Wandering

Here's the photo album of London. There are a lot of images and a lot of stories yet to tell!

Mike and Tim’s original itinerary was built around two goals: see me and Germany then go to England to see Jessica in Oxford (she’s a Rhodes Scholar doncha know), crash on her floor, then fly out. So, plane tickets were bought into Munich and out of London. Unfortunately we had really crappy timing and Jessica wasn’t going to be in England. Instead she would be in Brussels for research. No problem, we can go there too.

Well, work ended up taking a little more time than expected. The result was we found ourselves chugging under the English Channel with little to no preparation for our trip through one of the world’s great cities. I have been to London twice in recent memory, each time for more than a week, and both times in 2004. Weird, I know, but it meant I really wasn’t worried about checking off the great sights. This was about what Tim and Michael wanted to see…with one major exception.

I needed to see Waiting for Godot, the Absurdist Samuel Beckett play that was recently revived on the London West End. I would be excited by any production of this play which threatens its audience with confusion for a couple of theatrical hours, but this revival raised the bar. It starred Sirs Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as the waiters. If I didn’t see this, my brother would probably hop the Atlantic and punch me in the face.

After a nice chat about Cincinnati and paleontology with the customs agent in Belgium (the main perk being a new stamp in my passport) we were cruising along the western coast of Europe. Then for 17 stuffy minutes we rocketed under the channel, the shadow cast by millions of boats through history including William the Conqueror and the D-day invaders.

The best part of taking the Eurostar train was we just stepped off and were suddenly immersed in the city. At the station we were met by Yoonhee, a fellow Buckeye Alumna who’s been living in London for two years on a Marshall Scholarship. She let us crash on her floor, making our stay in the most expensive city in Europe a little easier. She lead a tour of her home: Goodenough College. They really churn out the overachievers at Goodenough, let me tell you. It’s actually named after the founder who may have risen through the ranks of society just to spite his surname.

My first priority was to get to the Theater Royal Haymarket to ask about tickets. We dropped our bags and dove into the West End. I really wasn’t thinking about being a good guide. I just wanted to get to the box office in case a large Albanian family made a last minute decision to attend a cousin’s birthday rather than see that weird play in London with Jean Luc Piccard and Gandalf. If they returned their tickets, I wanted to be there to snap them up.

No such luck. There were cheap seats with obstructed views or we could show up the next morning before 10AM when they sell 11 front row seats. Each person can by two tickets. In other words, if we wanted to see the hottest show in London, at least two of us needed to be among the first six people in line the next day. The guy at the box office suggested we get there between 7 and 7:30. He probably tells that to everyone. It would be an early morning.

We grabbed a picnic lunch at Pret a Manger and pow-wowed in Picadilly Circus. Michael wasn’t too stoked about this theater thing. I resisted the urge to react violently when he said, “Well I saw a big show (Phantom?) in New York. I’ve had the experience. Movies and TV are fine by me.” Sitting on my hands I also resisted the urge to launch into a lecture on the pleasures of live performance. Tim cut in, “I think we should do this. It would be good for us, Mike.” It was decided that the next morning Tim and I would go wait for tickets while Mike did laundry and met us for some museums.

Now it was landmark time. We dropped into the London Underground, the oldest subway system in the world, and rode for Westminster and the houses of parliament. We emerged from the cramped, stuffy tube at the foot of Big Ben. We didn’t notice it at first as we tried to cut through the swarms of tourists. Then we set our watches to Greenwich Mean Time.

I lead us past the prickly Houses of Parliament towards Westminster Abbey. Mike was briefly confused when we crossed the street. “Oh, I thought that (pointing at Parliament) was a church, too!” This wouldn’t be the first time I failed to fill in the details as a guide.

We crossed into St. Margret’s church next to the abbey. Margret’s is the home parish of the MP’s while the Abbey is where royalty is crowned. We walked through the small Gothic church and Tim expressed some disappointment. “I thought it would be a little bigger.” “What, St. Margret’s?” “No, the Abbey.” “Oh, um, that’s right here,” and I pointed up at the looming Gothic nave to our left.

“Oh, got it.”

Unfortunately it is twelve pounds to get into the Abbey and we decided to keep walking. It felt weird to give the tombs of Elizabeth I and Charles Darwin a pass, but we did have a city to explore and limited cash in our pockets. On to St. Paul’s. Christopher Wren’s masterpiece of Renaissance balance is the spiritual symbol of the city. The Nazis targeted the dome as they bombarded the resistant island. They figured a collapsed dome would dent British moral. But the Brits dug in, placing guards on the roof to throw bombs away from the building, and St. Paul’s stood strong with the pugnacious English.

We were ready to go into the cathedral. We were ready to climb the dome and whisper across the abyss thanks to perfect acoustics. We were ready to see Nelson’s gargantuan tomb. We were not ready to shell out another twelve pounds. “The Catholics let you in for free,” observed Michael. And the hike went on.

Using the newest addition to the Thames, we crossed the river on the Millennium Bridge. The pedestrian only structure cost £ 18 million. Then it vibrated weirdly in the wind and another £5 million was dumped into stabilizing it. The jokes near the beginning of the century flew thick and fast. Now it sits solidly over the river connecting St. Paul’s to the Tate Modern Art Gallery.

The Tate got a lot more people excited in 2000 than the bridge that leads to its doors when the converted power plant opened to enthusiasts of 20th and now 21st century art. I was surprised Mike and Tim were game to go in. I think the price of entry – free- was maybe a lure along with many enthusiastic recommendations. It probably did't hurt that fans of modern art tend to be very pretty people.

The museum is organized thematically rather than chronologically with abstractions like “Motion” and “Mood” uniting the galleries. We picked up audio guides since none of us are well versed in contemporary art. The most engaging stuff came from the surrealists and cubists, but a room of Francis Bacon portraits held my attention for a long time.

The artist worked through the middle of the twentieth century where he became famous for his portraits that had an eerie, and often macabre, way of distorting the sitter until they seemed to strain against their bodies in horror or revulsion. He usually painted loved ones, but he used photographs as his reference instead of live sitters so he could mutilate them on canvas without confronting their living faces or bodies. He was not a happy man, but he made some powerful art.

When the museum flushed us out (Please don’t rush me Frustrated Guard, I really wanted to take in all the details of those WWII Soviet propaganda posters), we started to walk along the bank of the Thames towards Tower Bridge and the Tower of London. All of London’s business community seemed to be hanging out bankside. Every pub was bursting with expensive suits and pantsuits. We were thinking about a drink, but didn’t fit the majority dress code.

Tower bridge is often confused with London Bridge, mostly because it strikes a much more impressive profile than it’s sing-song-y neighbor. It opened for crossing in the 1890s and sports a modern suspension design and drawbridge with Neo-Gothic towers so it blends in a little better with the medieval Tower of London next door. The Tower has held famous prisoners such as Anne Boleyn and counts the block where she lost her head and the collection of the Crown Jewels among its artifacts. But we didn’t check these out. Things were shutting down and we had one more iconic exterior to see before dinner.

We hopped underground and popped up in Holloway, a quiet suburb of London and home to Emirates Stadium, where the Arsenal Football Club works its high-profile magic. Michael was particularly enthusiastic about the excursion, saying it would be a great place to try some Indian food. The stadium was beautiful, but it seemed to be situated in a part of town far removed from any kind of food joint and our stomachs were getting impatient.

Michael hopped into a kiosk to ask about our options. We were in luck. On the next block, a Nepalese/Indian place had just opened its door. It was so new they didn’t have napkins yet. They also didn’t have seating. We ordered take-out (continuing to save our pence) and struck up a conversation with a young couple from the university nearby. They were shocked to see tourists so far afield and invited us to their apartment for some real plates and tableware. We politely declined, citing our packed schedule, but they did bring up the interesting question of where we would eat this stuff.

With curry and samosas in hand we returned to the kiosk where we received our tip, picked up English cider (I was almost carded, too. Why does that only seem to happen in London?) and headed back towards the stadium. We would picnic under the reflective gaze of the glass-swathed building and watch the sunset. Perfect.

With night approaching we returned to Westminster to see Big Ben and parliament lit at night. It was very different from the sweaty hubbub we had discovered earlier that morning. Small knots of tourists crossed the bridge and we had plenty of space to gaze over the Thames, glowing with the lights of Parliament and the London Eye.

It was time for an OSU Alumni moment. We arranged ourselves and flagged down a passing family. Michael explained we were trying to spell “Ohio” and the clock tower would make the “I.” The father was maybe a little confused, but took the shot. No good.

We needed another tourist. Again, failure. Okay, we would rearrange and use the London eye as one of our “O”s. The family we had snagged the first time was the only group in sight. Dad took the shot. This time things worked out a little better.

Frustrated Big Ben wasn’t working, we dropped onto the path along the river and patiently waited for a group of teenagers to stroll by. On the second attempt we were able to get this shot:

Now OSU has proof we’re still proud alums and they can’t revoke our diplomas.

But, it was time to call it a night. Tim and I had to get up the next morning to wait for Godot…


The photo album again. The rest of the stories coming soon.


Tim said...
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Tim said...

The Indian food was fantastic for only having been open a few days/weeks. And we got to meet some friendly Brits as well!