Monday, July 27, 2009

The first condition of human goodness is something to love; the second is something to reverence.

That is inscribed on George Eliot's memorial in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey.

I thought our whirlwind bus tour yesterday was busy but today we were on foot, hoofing it through the city and through museums. It started out rainy, but by the time we left the Abbey the sun had come out and it had warmed up considerably.

Hey Big Ben! You're the bell, not the tower! But who's that cute guy looking so jaunty with his umbrella?

We began at Westminster Abbey and decided to see the place with a London Walks tour guide. You pay 7 pounds extra for the tour guide, but in return you get three pounds off the entrance fee to the Abbey and you miss the super long queue outside. Our tour guide was fabulous. He is a barrister slash London historical guide and he was smart and funny and the Abbey was so fascinating.

We began at the tomb of the unknown warrior. Our guide explained that British soldiers in World War I were grouped by villages so they fought alongside their brothers, cousins, and friends they had grown up with, which was great for morale, but it also meant that for some towns, an entire generation was wiped out in the war.

From there we toured the rest of the Abbey -- the royal tombs, the tomb of Queen Elizabeth with her wax effigy made from her death mask, the coronation chair with schoolboy graffiti carved into it from when it was available for tourists to sit on (Can you imagine? This chair was made hundreds of years ago. Blows my mind.). We saw the coronation spot where everyone from King Henry VIII to Queen Bess has been crowned. Our guide pointed out where Princess Diana's casket had been and where Elton John was seated before he sang "Candle in the Wind."

Poet's Corner was inspiring even though female writers are sort of tragically underrepresented. The poor Bronte sisters have to share one tiny little square on the wall and Jane Austen's memorial is dwarfed by the dudes who surround her.

All the big players are represented there and it felt like an amazing concentration of talent and creativity even if they are just names etched in stones.

Lord Byron's stone reads, "
But there is that within me which shall tire Torture and Time, and breathe when I expire."

I read that and was seized by this totally poetic feeling that it represented the entire Abbey and its efforts to glorify God and the best of humankind (nevermind that most of the people buried there were simply those who could afford to it). The Abbey itself just felt so permanent and significant, especially considering it is mostly a marker of mortality.

And then I was nearly trampled by the crush of tourists wanting to see Shakespeare or Handel or whomever and I lost all poetic feeling in Poet's Corner and just tried to avoid the onslaught of the bourgeois public.

No photos allowed in the Abbey. Here we are outside. I felt like my outfit was much cuter than it appears in this picture. How unfortunate.

From Westminster Abbey, we headed up Whitehall. We had already seen the Jubilee bridge (notable for its presence in the opening scenes of the new Harry Potter movie) and the London Eye and Big Ben and the halls of Parliament on the way to Westminster Abbey so we did a little walking tour by #10 Downing Street (well, we peered at it through the iron gates). We then sidetracked into the Winston Churchill museum and war rooms.

I was far more impressed than I expected to be by this museum. It was totally worth the price of admission. Part of it was a museum that told all about Churchill's life and career and part of it was fully restored war rooms buried in the basement of the building so that it would be safe from the bombs that showered Britain during the war. Frightingly enough, they were never quite certain that the super thick layer of protective concrete above the basement would actually support the building if it were to be bombed and collapse; fortunately they never had to find out.

The included audio guide voices were really cute about leading you through the museum. They got so excited about stuff -- like the locked door that was labeled to look like a bathroom but was really a top-secret hiding place for the prime minister. All the war rooms were so remarkable -- they have all been restored to their original state, but some had been shut up as they were in 1945 and not reopened until the '70s so everything was literally just as it had been left. The maps full of pin holes that had traced every military advancement, the scribbled chalkboards, the telephones that scrambled signals so they were untraceable, the sugar cubes that were so carefully rationed.

Two views of the "map room" in the bomb-safe bunker created in London. Check out the sugar cubes on this guy's desk (near the bottom of the photo)-- they were discovered hidden away in a desk drawer when these rooms were reopened.

The war rooms were most amazing to me because all of the tiny details -- cigars, handwritten notes, the assigned seating for Churchill's war cabinet. But the museum section was great too -- in spite of some tourists with very small personal spaces and even one woman who was generally rude no matter what one's cultural bias might be. Everything was very interactive and you could watch films and hear recordings and follow Churchill's career, first from World War II to his death, and then back from his childhood and through his early political career and family life.

We spent a couple of hours there and could have spent more except that we desperately needed something to eat so we finally tore ourselves away and strolled through St. James Park on our way to Tralfagar Square where we grabbed cheese-filled croissants to take away (nobody here says "to go." Also British coins are very confusing because the pound is so small and the twopence is so big and I hate counting out in coins because I feel stupid each time -- mostly because the cash register workers are so polite and kind about it).

We sat on the edge of a fountain in Tralfagar Square and people watched and munched on our croissants. The diversity of London tourists has not ceased to amaze us and we are always trying to eavesdrop on conversations taking place in foreign languages. The funniest thing is that you can always tell what parents are saying by the tone of their voice, no matter what language they are using "Stop that!" "Come back here!" and "No!" are easily translatable.

On the steps of the National Gallery overlooking Trafalgar Square. That place is crazy and I am obviously distracted.

After our snack, we were refreshed enough to do a whirlwind tour of the British National Gallery of Art. Honestly we practicaly jogged through the huge museum just so we coudl see some of the major pieces before we had to go to dinner -- the medieval stuff with its gold foil halos, the Italian Renaissance with all the lounging lovelies, the major Renaissance dudes Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo (a.k.a. the Ninja Turtles), and then the uptight Protestants with their dull colors and high necklines, the flashy and gaudy and naked Baroque pieces, and some of the British nature-lovers (my favorites are the Pre-Raphaelites). We swept through the impressionists (David is a fan, I am not so much) and then gazed on Van Gogh's sunflowers (inspiration for the uber-popular mid '90s perfume and my bedroom decoration of the same era).

By the time we had seen the big things we wanted to see, the museum was closing and we headed back for the tube on our way to meet up with my favorite professor from my undergrad days who is in London researching at the British library and two of his friends. We had dinner at a South Indian restaurant (The Sev Pori was delicious although I have no idea what it is. It was absolutely divine -- sweet and spicey and savory and crispy and chewy all at the same time). It was a most interesting dinner, followed by drinks at a hotel bar, with conversation that ranged from Gilmore Girls to post-modern literary theory. Derrida was mentioned twice, but I promise not by me. It would have been pretentious except they were so earnest about it that there was nothing self-conscious about their discussions. By the time we'd all had a beer or wine we found ourselves excessively amusing and entertaining and then David got going on mushrooms being outlawed in Amsterdam and then we wondered aloud about why pizza delivery guys don't carry satellite credit card machines like the waiters in restaurants here and the cabbies here do and then we were so exhausted that David and I headed back to the hotel.

So here we are ready for bed after our third day, watching a special on Lord Byron hosted by Rupert Everett. It is both fascinating and totally rauchy. Just like Byron himself, I guess...

Tomorrow is my birthday although technically since I was born at 9:54pm Central Standard Time in the States, I don't suppose I will truly have my birthday in England until the 29th... But we're celebrating tomorrow anyway with the changing of the guards and an afternoon at Harrod's!

Not that I'll be buying anything at Harrod's. Everything here is so expensive that we are blown away by the price of even the cheap souveniers. Next time we travel to London, I'd like to do it when the dollar is strong because the exchange rate of dollars to pounds is just a punch in the sternum. We've strategized with free breakfast (included at the hotel), cheap lunch (take away pastries and today a banana for 50 pence), and then splurging (relatively speaking) on dinner and drinks. We're managing pretty well with that so far, but Harrod's might be a real challenge!

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