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Welcome to Fernweh, a blog concerning the (mis)adventures of one Fulbrighter during a year spent in Europe teaching English.
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Saturday, July 3, 2010

Larking About London, Part I

Ahhh, London.

Being here is a serious case of deja vu. I was here for four days a year ago January, and despite the radical change in temperature and the leafiness of the trees, not too much is different. Big Ben is still strikingly gorgeous, the Eye is still impressive but silly, the Tube is still stuffy and uncomfortably loud and Tower Bridge is still unaccountably blue. This time, though, I'm alone, it's hot, and the whole place looks familiar.

This isn't just because of my previous excursion here, either. If you've talked to me or read anything I've written in the past year or so, you know that I've got something of a thing for British telly at the moment. So last time I was here, I had a vague idea that there was a Queen and a big-ass clock tower and people talking with accents in London, and that the entire country played croquet in coattails and drank tea incessantly. I know (very slightly) better now, and thanks to DW and TG, the views of not just the Thames biggies but the small towns and roads of England look familiar.

Anyway. I arrived from Bath in the early afternoon on Thursday, but it took me a while to stumble around to my hostel. Despite being somewhat unfriendly, too warm, and lacking in an easily accessible source of drinking water, the hostel has the distinct advantage of being literally right around the corner from the front steps of St. Paul's Cathedral. It's a lovely view when leaving in the morning and coming home at night, and it makes an easily identifiable landmark by which to navigate. It's also a five-minute walk across the bridge to the Globe Theatre--yeah, that Globe. Where, incidentally, I have a ticket to see Henry VIII. Just squee.

Er, anyway. I dumped my stuff off at the hostel and promptly headed off to the British Museum. You know, maybe it was that I arrived only an hour before many of the exhibits were closed, so I had to rush through, or that I've been spoiled by the Louvre, but (and don't excoriate me here) I found the museum difficult to enjoy. I'd like to go back and spend some more time there to really enjoy it.

This, however, is not to say that it wasn't worth the trip. In fact, going there was more than worth it for just one item in the collection, one that I had completely forgotten (or never knew) was there, one that I have a special reverence for as a linguist and language lover. I came across it after wandering through the Assyrian carvings and found it set apart in its own case, crowded round by tourists staring at it with the vacant-eyed zombie gaze of those who've heard too many numbers and foreign names spew out of the audioguides smashed into the sides of their heads but don't have the willpower to simply leave before their brains dribble out their ears because of a vague sense of guilt that they should care.

I consider this chunk of rock to be a part of my culture and heritage as a linguist, because it was a remarkable linguistic find and is now famous around the world. You see, the largely ideo- and pictographic Egyptian hieroglyphics were used mainly by the Egyptian priesthood, but eventually the way to read them was forgotten and all the texts written in hieroglyphics were unreadable to subsequent generations, because you can't decode or translate a language without some sort of analogue or key. (I'm looking at you, Sycoraxic.) Then French troops found this wonderful slab in the town of Rosetta, which is inscribed with the same proclamation in three languages: hieroglyphics, Demotic (apparently a dialect of Egyptian), and Greek. Because of this remarkable find and about 25 years of linguistic genius, hieroglyphics were unlocked and previously lost aspects of ancient Egyptian culture and history were suddenly within reach.

Sorry about the geekout, but that is seriously brilliant. And I loved standing there seeing the three blocks of text, saying the same thing in radically different modes, contemplating not only its huge significance to linguistic work but also the culture that had made it so long ago.

Whew, anyway, that was definitely the highlight of the museum for me, and I won't bore you with anything else I saw there. After dinner back at my hostel, I couldn't resist the lure of the Thames in the evening, so I took a walk across the river to poke my nose inside the Globe and saunter down the South Bank. I was originally going to just look around a bit and come back, but the evening air was so delightful, the atmosphere so fun and relaxed, that before long I was walking under the London Eye and admiring the luminous face of Big Ben against the twilit sky. I eventually made my way homeward along the north bank, but got completely sidetracked for a while by two huge sphinx statues flanking an Egyptian obelisk. Turns out that the space between the sphinx's front legs is the perfect place to sit and look up the river toward Westminster. I got a few laughs and cheerful waves sitting up on my throne and I loved it. I finally made it back just before midnight.

Yesterday morning, I went straight to the Globe first to get my groundling ticket to Henry VIII and geek out a bit in the Globe's shop. I then took myself off to Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery, which is like the Uffizi for London. I spent most of the day looking at paintings--Michaelangelo, Manet, Monet, Rembrandt, Van Gogh--and lost track of time entirely. I did take a two-hour break for lunch and a concert at St. Martin's church, but otherwise didn't leave the Gallery until dinnertime. From there I headed to Covent Gardens, but most of the stalls were closing, the shops were too posh for me, and I didn't feel like I fit in in the bustling restaurants by myself. I decided, therefore, to get lost--literally. I set off in a random direction and turned down whatever street looked good to me at the time. I didn't find much but a Tesco, though, so I bought a picnic dinner and found that I was just a block from the Thames. I snuggled up with the Sphinx again to eat my dinner and look over the Top Gear magazine I bought. Mmm, cars.

It was still too early to go home (I had no idea what time it was, because I had no timekeeping device with me, but it was still light, so that's close enough), so I caught a bus and took a joyride along the South Bank to Tower Bridge. Little bit of reminiscence there, too. I walked across the bridge, and after some trouble with the bus and the Tube (one just straight-up late, the other hideously delayed because of a fire at another station), I finally got home.

Being the clever and industrious Fulbrighter that I am, I stayed up until 2am doing nothing in particular on the Interwebs, then failed entirely to wake up in the morning until the cleaning staff came round at about 10:30--oops. I got out of the hostel as quickly as possible and took a bus towards Portobello Road, whereupon, after riding through London for a hideously long time and missing the stop completely, a friendly passerby took pity on me and pointed me in the right direction.

The scale of the Portobello Road Market is amazing. It takes up the entire road for block after block and spills into side streets, alleys, galleries, and plazas on either side. You could buy almost everything you would need for everyday life there, along with a very hefty dose of stuff you don't: clothes, shoes, jewelery, really gorgeous old books, silverware, more jewelery, paintings, maps, toys, knickknacks of every possible size, shape, color, origin, and price, food, produce, rusty keys with no locks, and just about anything else you can imagine that would fit into a streetside booth. To remedy my timekeeping problem, I bought myself an adorable little watch necklace that I'm sure will duly break or get lost in the next few days. For now, it works quite well.

I love the colors and cacophony of chaotic calls that characterize such a cornucopia of creativity (sorry, got carried away there), so I wandered up and down the street, partly because I was desperately trying to convince myself not to spend the rest of my life savings and partly because I wasn't really sure where to go from there. I finally found a bus toward Kensington and spent a while lying on the grass, eating strawberries, watching the swans, and reading a book. (My life is so hard.) I spent a couple minutes in the Natural History Museum looking at cool rocks and dinosaur bones then, figuring that I can't possibly get too lost in London, I picked another bus almost at random but got off early to have a look around Hyde Park, where I saw a Ferrari. (No, really, it doesn't get any more exciting than that.) From there, I considered spending a couple hours at the Tate Modern, but by the time I made it back to St. Paul's, I decided that I simply didn't care anymore and came home for the day.

I hate to make this sound like just a list of things I saw and did, because although it was fun and exciting for me, my report of it can't be that enrapturing for you. This, however, is the problem with traveling alone: you don't have anyone to share the wonder with. There were several times today where I wished that I had someone with me to wander about the city with. I know, though, that if I did have someone with me, I'd be fed up with them already and wishing I were alone. Ah well.

P.S. I saw another R8 today! During my long and epic bus journey across the city this morning, we followed a white Spyder for a couple blocks. I've never felt so jealous before.

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