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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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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Larking About London, Part III

Eep. I never leave myself enough time at night to write these things. Where do the hours fly to so swiftly?

I started out Monday morning with a quick breakfast from Sainsbury's (grocery store) and booked it to Buckingham Palace, where I managed to find a close-enough spot to view the famous Changing of the Guard ceremony. If you ever go, get a spot on the road to watch the parading guardsmen go by in their blood-red jackets with shiny brass instruments in their hands and bears on their heads. Once behind the fences and in the yard of the palace, nothing much seemed to happen for a good long while. Then the two bands started alternating playing music, which was nice but unremarkable until one of them broke out the overture from Star Wars.

All I could think was, I wonder how the Queen feels about them playing Star Wars under her window? Well, that and Squeeee! :DDD

After the Battle of the Brass Bands, the guardsmen departed with much pomp and ceremony, leaving the assembled hordes of London's tourist population to disperse haphazardly. I headed toward the river, waving to Big Ben as I turned down to 10 Downing Street. Although I don't think he's in at the moment (I'm not even sure who he is now...David Cameron?), this is the residence and offices of the Prime Minister. It looked an awful lot like a house, except with more policemen and steel bars, so I moved on.

Very nearby, and for good reason, is the Cabinet War Rooms museum. You descend down some stairs, pay for your ticket and audioguide, and then step right into the warren of tunnels and rooms where the wartime government of Britain, headed by Winston Churchill, directed the war effort until 1945. If you saw the recent Victory of the Daleks, yeah, it looks exactly like that. The walls are that mind-numbing shade of tan that all government edifices seem to be painted, but it's the rooms and lives that are interesting: the bedrooms and offices furnished as they would've been with typewriters and phones and beds.

The most fascinating thing about this place, though, has really nothing to do with the typewriters. As you wend your way down the corridors, shouldering past more glaze-eyed, audioguided tourists not talking to each other, you can feel something of the ghost of history still haunting the tunnels. In a place like the Tower of London, its history is long and varied and interesting, but most of those executions and royal visits and things that made it famous were long ago. Nothing's left of that bloody and royal past but the grand buildings themselves, looking like a fairy-tale fortress brought to life, and the ominous graffiti that the prisoners left etched in the stones. On a sunny day, it's hard to imagine the Tower as a place of terror and death.

The War Rooms have no such disguise; the fear and tension is too recent to have faded from the stones. There's no sun and no open space here, just narrow tan corridors and low-ceilinged rooms filled with maps and telephones. You can almost hear the distant thunder of the bombs falling and the wail of the air raid sirens. Near the end of the tour, the audioguide reads an excerpt from the journal of the man in charge of the Home Guard, which was responsible for defending Britain against invasion. Every day he lived in suspense, agonizingly aware of all of Britain's weak points, just waiting for an attack that, thankfully, never came.

The exhibit also contained the Churchill Museum, dedicated to everyone's favorite cigar-chomping British statesman. The museum was so big, with so much information, that I started zoning out and had to move on without reading everything. What I gleaned was that Churchill was a very clever but volatile man who loved his wife, was very ambitious, and a little bit mad, but that was what made him great. He was also not nearly as fat as DW made him out to be. The best part of the museum was a touch-screen showing different Churchill quotes, especially about people he didn't like. The man definitely had a flair with words.

I emerged blinking into the light of the free world from the War Rooms and returned to the nearby park with my Clarkson book to have some lunch/dinner and wait until 5pm. When the hour drew nigh, I headed off to church.

And by "church", I mean "one of the most famous and gorgeous churches ever," namely Westminster Abbey. Now, as wonderful and beautiful as Westminster is, I just can't wrap my mind around paying about £12 to go into a church where you can't take pictures anyway. So both times I've been, I just cheat a bit and show up for the totally free evensong service. You still can't take pictures (but you can't anyway) and you don't get to wander around too much, but as I've said before, a church is meant to be experienced during a service. And there's nothing like sitting in Westminster Abbey, hearing the echoing notes of the boys' choir and wondering if the Queen's ever stood where you are at that moment.

The Abbey is brilliant and beautiful, besides being hugely significant historically. I mean, I had to walk past the tomb of Sir Isaac Newton and over the tomb of Charles Darwin to get to my seat for the service. But the roseate windows are gorgeous, and the whole place is fit for a king. Or queen, depending.

Now, if you'll allow me to digress for a moment: American and other modern churches do buddy-buddy stuff with God really well. We meet in basements and living rooms and industrial parks because God doesn't care--wherever two or more are gathered in his name, etc. The church in America, at least, tends to depict God as being your best friend--who loves you no matter what, who is always ready to forgive, who is full of mercy and compassion and all manner of warm fuzzies. Well and good; we love the New Testament here. But we're also missing something very important with this cuddly-teddy-bear image of God.

And a part of that something, I think, is awe. Think of the song: "Our God is an awesome God/He reigns from heaven above/With wisdom, power, and love..." And although you can get wisdom and love and community in the Spirit and so forth in an American church, we're a bit short on power and awe. But the old churches have got awe in spades.

When you walk into a place like Westminster, or Notre Dame--or, for the big guns, St. Peter's Basilica--you simply cannot get around how much bigger, grander, more amazing and staggeringly glorious and eternal God is than you. The high, vaulted stone ceilings reaching toward the heavens, the gilt statues and meticulous ceremony don't have much of anything in the way of sympathy or warm fuzzies. There's forgiveness and mercy, but at a high price, taken very seriously, and with a very, very healthy dose of awe. It makes you feel small and dirty and plain. And it should. It's supposed to. Caught up in the supposed importance of our own small stories, we begin to loom large in relationship to the tiny spheres of time and space in which we move. It's refreshing, if quite startling and uncomfortable, to get a distant sense of our actual proportionate importance in the grand scheme of who and what God is, which is to say, next to none at all.

Anyway, after the service, I'd been planning on visiting the Houses of Parliament, but was told first by a woman in very quick Spanish (when she finished, I just nodded, smiled, and said, "Entiendo, gracias") and then by a guard that the line was about an hour and a half. I retreated to a park to read more Clarkson and went back after a bit, only to be told that Parliament would probably be out early and it wasn't worth the wait. So I went back to the hostel, chatted with a new roommate for a bit, and Skyped my mother before bed.

I started today (technically yesterday; it's past midnight again. Oops...) at the British Library. Something like Britain's Library of Congress, there's a wonderful room there with treasures of the written word, like early copies of Shakespeare's works, a page believed to be in Shakespeare's handwriting (?!), the Magna Carta, a Gutenburg Bible, pages from Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks...all under low lights and lovingly displayed. There was also an exhibit on maps that I skimmed through, and a display about book repair and conservation that I studied intensively. Apparently, they give occasionally tours of the conservatory, but all the tickets for the only day I could attend were already gone. I may still try to get in but unfortunately, I may just have to come back another time. Darn.

Poor Greenwich keeps getting put off; since I got a late start at the Library, I opted for the Victory and Albert Museum instead. It's a very lovely place, but I think I'm starting to max out on marble busts and 500-year-old silverware.

Oddly enough, the V&A was where my arm decided to have a breakdown on me. I had joined a guided tour through the highlights of the museum, and for some reason, my arm was beginning to ache. I tried to ignore it, but it turned into shooting pains from my left shoulderblade through my triceps to my elbow, and I had to break off from the tour and sit down. A kind staff lady noticed my distress and called for the first aid guy, who ascertained that I was not, in fact, having a heart attack or stroke, and applied an ice pack. The nice lady, the first aid guy, and the floor manager, who had come over to see what was the matter, all hovered protectively around me until the pain went away a bit. I decided to abandon my clearly overambitious plans to get through the rest of the museum, and I went out in the courtyard garden and fell asleep on the grass for about half an hour instead. When I woke up, the pain was completely gone, and it hasn't been back since.

This is weird because I have no idea what caused it. The museum people thought it was my "heavy" pack, but I've been carrying a backpack twice that heavy to school every day for four years with no problem. In any case, I just hope it doesn't happen again.

After getting some dinner, I headed down to the Thames and hung out on one of the pedestrian bridges as dusk fell over the city. The wind was still comfortably cool, and as the sky dimmed, the periwinkle lights flicked on on the towering London Eye and the Houses of Parliament were lit with an orange glow, presided over by the staring white orb of Big Ben crowned in green. I'm not sure how anyone could ever get tired of a sight like that.

Next to me on the bridge, a man in his mid to late fifties was leaning on the railing, admiring the same view, and struck up a conversation. I'd say that I talked with him for more than an hour, but that would imply that I got more than six words in edgewise. He very kindly walked me to my bus stop to go home (along about a quarter mile of densely populated and well-lit streets) and offered to say hi if he saw me again in the same place tonight.

Sheesh, this is getting long. I could make an effort to be less verbose, but where's the fun in that?

I rose late today and got a bus ticket for my departure to Oxford. I can't even describe, and perhaps don't even know myself, how I feel about going to Oxford. I'm very excited to see it, terrified that I won't like it, wishful about living there someday myself, nervous about seeing Stephen and meeting all his friends...there's a lot going into this.

Anyway, there are still some major sights that I haven't visited: Tate Britain, for instance, or St. Paul's right around the corner. Nevertheless, I took off for Baker Street and spent a good two hours at 221b--the (fictional) residence of the (fictional) Sherlock Holmes. There's a museum there and everything. Now, how do you have a museum at an address that didn't exist, displaying a collection of artifacts that never were that belonged to a man who never lived? You make it up, of course. And charge suckers and tourists £6 to see it. It was still grand fun, although you'd have to be a much bigger fanatic than I am to really appreciate all of the details.

I then headed to the Imperial War Museum, which had been recommended by Joseph, the guy from the bridge last night. There were fighter planes and guns and shells galore, although I spent my time in the exhibits on WWI and II and a really sobering display about the Holocaust. Fun way to spend an afternoon, eh? War and death and cruelty and terror.

Which brings me to where I am now: trying to get everything in order for my departure to Oxford tomorrow. Oxford, though. Oxford Oxford Oxford.

More when I get there...

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