Tuesday, June 2, 2015

London Town

I know, I know. I’ve gotten a bit behind in recording the exploits of our trip, given that we’re now in Paris, and I still haven’t even written about London.

We left Oxford for London on a brisk, sunny morning, feeling sad to be leaving our friends and such a beautiful city as we schlepped our stuff to the bus stop, then onto our London-bound bus, then through the tube station, onto the tube, then the DLR train, and then across the neighborhood and up the four flights of steps to our lodgings. 

Ah London. Where to begin? There are so many ways in which London was so much more than I imagined and also not at all what I was expecting. I’ll try to explain, but only with the caveat that we spent just a week there, so how much can we really know about the city? 

We arrived in London on a brilliant, sunny afternoon. I’m glad that’s the first way I experienced London: warm and bright and green. We walked through a cold, white-tiled tunnel under the Thames to busy Greenwich where we stuffed ourselves on tea and scones, visited the Royal Observatory situated in a leafy, rolling park, and bought bags of groceries which we carried back under the river to our flat. 

Highlights of London:

—The Imperial War Museums

This is a British national museum with multiple branches, of which we got to visit two. Our first full day in London was iconically grey and rainy—perfect for visiting museums—and the first one we visited was the Imperial War Museum’s main campus in Lambeth. The next day we visited the Churchill War Rooms buried deep beneath the surface of London. Personally I find it easy to quickly grow bleary-eyed in museums. I start out with buoyant enthusiasm, determined to see everything, and usually start to fade rapidly as I take in too much information too quickly. The War Museums were perhaps the finest museums I’ve ever been in. Nothing was boring, nothing was dry, nothing made me want to hurry through or skip to the end. The World War I exhibit at the main campus was nothing short of fascinating—complete with recreated trenches and sound and lighting effects powerful enough to transport you back to 1917. On the next level we saw the smallest still in-tact boat which ferried troops from Dunkirk to the British mainland during the Miracle of Dunkirk. The Churchill War Rooms were equally well-done and interesting—perfect for my history-loving soul. And it was fun to look at Winston’s weekly receipts for alcohol. (Apparently, someone once offered to pay him a large sum of money if he would give up drinking for a year, and he said something to the effect of, “Life would not be worth living.”)


If we come back with our teeth stained black, you will know why. We found ourselves wondering how we ever made it through a day without drinking tea at least three times. It’s so simple, so comforting, so warm, so charming, so perfectly suited for pleasant conversation. The Brits are on to something here. 

—The British Museum 

If you ever want to feel the full might and splendor of the British Empire, just go to the British Museum and walk through the endless halls of relics and artifacts and stone ruins culled from ancient lands. We saw the Rosetta Stone, huge stone carvings of the pharaohs, Assyrian doors and statues, Egyptian mummies, friezes from the Parthenon, and totems from Easter Island. And that was all within the one hour we had there! What a magnificent place! Also—free to visit! Without going into politics and economic systems, I have to say that free museums are pretty amazing. I especially like the way they encourage an atmosphere of cultural engagement. Museums become things accessible for even brief trips—to pop in and see a painting that you love, or visit for an hour just to explore the Egyptian hall—rather than to pay a large entry fee and then try to cram in everything in one visit in order to get your money’s worth. It’s more leisurely, and therefore, I think, more valuable. 

—Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey

If there’s a place with more history per square inch than Westminster Abbey, I’m not aware of it. When you tour the Abbey, you walk through halls and rooms and chapels stuffed full with English monarchs and nobles and Britain’s most famous citizens, and then, at the end, you reach the Poet’s Corner, and it’s like walking into a room full of friends. You think, “Ah yes, here I am last! With my people. The people I know. The people I love. The people who have added so much joy and meaning to my life.” And then you think of all the people you’ve shared your love of these authors with, your peers, your college-mates, your dearest friends. It’s a happy little corner to find yourself in when traveling the great wide world.

—The Crown Jewels in the Tower of London

The Crown Jewels were, of course, thoroughly impressive—but the best part was when I got accused of clandestinely trying to video them as I rolled by on the moving walkway that moves you like cattle past the desirable objects. I reached the end of the walkway and was immediately accosted by the security guard demanding to see my phone. I was adamant in my assertions of innocence and willingness to let her look at my phone, as she continued to assert that I was making, “peculiar gestures”. “Don’t you know I’m a rule-follower?” I wanted to ask. “My husband is the one you should be questioning!” ;)

—The Globe

We bought cheap tickets in the standing section to see As You Like It. It was so much fun to stand in a crowd, so close to the stage, with actors and actresses walking right by you. It was the most involved I’ve ever felt in a play. I was determined to stand the whole show because if the Elizabethans could do it, then so could I! But perhaps the Elizabethans hadn’t all spent the entire day on their feet touring the city of London. Or perhaps they just had quite a few pints to keep them happily on (or off) their feet. Either way, Sean and I were happy, Orlando was handsome and Rosalind was witty, but our feet were miserable. 

—Hyde Park

This may be my favorite place in London. It helped that we visited it on a sunny, relatively warm day, but no matter what, it’s an oasis in a huge city—an oasis of flowers and green lawns, old trees, stone bridges, and a calm, curving river—all set under blue skies and white puffy clouds. And after some wandering and roaming, we found the Peter Pan statue!

—The Harry Potter Studios in Leavesden

We couldn’t help it. We paid the exorbitant ticket price and went on our grand Harry Potter pilgrimage. What a place! It was less like visiting Hogwarts, and more like visiting the world’s best Harry Potter museum. I was kind of in heaven as we walked through hall after hall of the movie’s sets and props perfectly arranged, and then we walked into a room with a heartbreakingly beautiful model of Hogwarts lit in the soft blue light of twilight. I wanted to stay in that room forever, watching the lights twinkle in the windows of the Great Hall and feeling like everything is right in the world. 

What Was Difficult:

London felt like a monstrosity. It was so huge and disjointed and spread out that it was very hard to find a coherent sense of London as a city. There were pockets of London that we greatly liked, but it was difficult to comprehend London as a whole except as a vast network of buses and subways and trains and stations that cumulated in too big of a mass. It took at least 40 minutes to get anywhere, and every day felt like we had to work up the energy to venture out to a new outpost in a vast and unfamiliar landscape. It was quite draining. I liked things we saw in London, but it’s lack of cohesiveness made it hard to love London as a whole, as a place, as a city. 

What We Loved:

We arranged to stay with a friend’s uncle, so we didn’t really know what to expect except for the fact that there was a man in London who was willing to host what were, to him, strangers for over a week. That alone was impressive. And so we arrived in London’s Victoria Station and schlepped our stuff through the labyrinthine subway to the doorstep of an apartment building, rang the buzzer, and—wonder of wonders—were welcomed in. What we didn’t know is that we would be staying in a cozy little apartment right on the Thames with a stunning view of the river. That view, and the people we were staying with, rapidly became our absolute favorite part of London. We woke to the sounds of the waves on the Thames, and then fell asleep to the same waves at night. Throughout the day we watched the river rise and then fall as the tide came in and out. And then there was all the river traffic to keep one entertained—rowing teams early in the morning gliding across the surface of the water, commuter boats racing back and forth, river cruises for those wanting to see the sights, and party boats with thumping music and happy people drifting by at night in a twinkle of lights. Having the river so close brought the city right into the apartment, and made us feel a part of everything that was going on outside, without ever having to leave the couch. The rhythms of the river filled the day with a pleasant hum of activity, and filled the windows up with beauty. And then we had our hosts. Uncle T. and his daughter E. I’ll use their initials just in case they don’t want their identities broadcast all over the internet. Anyway, they made us feel right at home with their abundant hospitality and warmth. When we met Uncle T. for the first time, he said, “You are welcome here.” And we truly felt it. E. was around the house a lot and we absolutely loved drinking tea, talking about the differences in our countries, and watching Daredevil with her. The evenings were lovely when we were all together, drinking more tea, eating biscuits, and discussing all sorts of interesting books, historical events, and movies. It’s such a joy to meet bright, kind, thoughtful people in a foreign land and feel that the world is full of friends, just waiting to be met. We were touched to the core by their kindness to us, and left London so grateful for the chance to get to know them, and with admonitions for them to come visit us in California soon!