Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Merry Old England (and Friendly Old Canada)

Little-known fact about me: I was born in England (though sadly I didn’t stay long enough to pick up the accent), but until two weeks ago I had only been back once, on a day-and-a-half stop in London on my way to Dublin. We were there over a Sunday and, if I remember rightly, practically everything was closed—particularly Westminster Abbey, whose Poets’ Corner was the very attraction I wanted to see. Fortunately, a summer grant from my department allowed me to return on much more agreeable terms in the middle of this month.

The British Library
I must preface this post by saying that I was, in fact, in England for business: the main purpose of my trip was to visit the British Library and the Bodleian to avail myself of the manuscripts they hold and which I have studied in facsimile for the past several years. But what’s business without a little pleasure? And the libraries aren’t open in the evenings, after all.

So my dear friend and I (she also had a travel grant for research) dutifully spent several days up to our elbows in old books. By the way, I was almost prevented from obtaining a British Library reader pass because I didn’t have sufficient proof of residence—future researchers beware: they mean business, and having traveled thousands of miles to visit the library buys you no special treatment! (Infinite thanks to my wonderful family for scrambling to get the documentation sent to me in time.) Perhaps thumbing carefully through dusty old books doesn’t strike the average Joe as a terrific way to spend a day in a foreign country, but if I may speak for myself, I was enthralled. I actually got so distracted by reading annotations that I WASN’T studying, I forgot for several hours what I WAS studying and almost missed lunch to boot. Seeing these manuscripts in the flesh (literally—they’re calf-skin!) after studying them from photographs for so long truly felt like meeting a living person after having corresponded with him for years.

We arrived, I should note, the day after the riots left London and headed to greener pastures in other cities. Another friend of ours came in a day earlier and said she could see the smoke rising from the fires in the northern part of London. Even while we were there, I noticed that every last shop window in the jewelry district was bare of displays—a precautionary measure, no doubt, in case the rioters should start up again closer to the center of town. But the riots didn’t affect our own travel at all, for which we’re very grateful.

When we weren’t in the library, we made the most of being in England. We didn’t do the double-decker bus tour, but short of that we covered practically all the bases. Trafalgar Square, Picadilly Circus, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the British Museum (Sutton Hoo and the Rosetta Stone—what more could you ask from a museum?), the Tate Britain (Millais’ painting of Ophelia hangs directly beneath Waterhouse’s painting of the Lady of Shallot—almost too much beauty for one wall to hold!), and of course Westminster Abbey. It was a zoo at Westminster, by the way; everyone was still crowding in to see the pictures from the royal wedding. How dare they get between me and the tombs of Henry V and Elizabeth I?! And Poets’ Corner, naturally, more than lived up to expectations. I have stood six inches away from the burial place of Chaucer, basking in his glory and wit. It may not have made me smarter, but it sure made me happy.

The British Museum

The Sutton Hoo Helmet

The Rosetta Stone - I like the fact that you can see all the tourists' reflections.

The Globe
We also went to two shows at the Globe (a replica of Shakespeare’s playhouse) and one show in a regular theater. If you’re ever in London, go to the Globe! Fork over the five pounds for a groundling ticket, stand in line for an hour, and get a spot standing right up against the stage. You’ll be able to hear everything, you’ll make eye contact with the actors, and you may even get spit on or have props thrown at you. It’s a thrill a minute, being a groundling! And David Tennant and Catherine Tate in Much Ado About Nothing (not at the Globe, though that would have been a thing to see!) are uproariously funny. I’ve come to the conclusion, by the way, that there are about thirty British actors in total, and all of them have been on Doctor Who or Midsummer Murders—playing the seven degrees of separation game in Britain is just too easy!

Sadly, my camera ceased and desisted about halfway through our trip, but at least it survived for what I considered the highlight of our time in England: a day-trip to Oxford. I like London very much, but despite the fact that the Tube outstrips any American subway in speed and reliability, I think I like New York better, as big cities go. It sort of saddens me to see a space-age London built on top of some thousand years of settlement, with so little of that history visible. New York at least openly embraces its lack of ancient heritage. But Oxford, now THERE’S a city! I think I wandered around the whole of the university area without ever closing my mouth, it was so beautiful and so…medieval! To think of all the great minds who have studied and taught there, from medieval geniuses right up to Tolkien, almost floors me. Forget the fact that Harry Potter was filmed there—this was where the greatest English thinkers of the past 800 years have lived and died! I couldn’t believe they let us even walk around without putting cotton booties on. The whole place feels hallowed, even with the hundreds of gaudy tourists poking around and being chased out of private college courtyards.

The tower at the Bodleian Library

The Bridge of Sighs

Oxford from above

Because I had to spend most of the day at the library actually doing work, I didn’t get to see as much of the university area as I would have liked, but a trip to the top of St. Mary’s tower gave me a lovely Quasimodo-like view of the town from above, and I’ll never forget it. Thank goodness it wasn’t raining.

A panorama of the Radcliffe Camera from St. Mary's Tower

It was, really, a very literary trip, even outside the libraries: we ate at the Eagle and Child pub at Oxford (the meeting place of the Inklings) and at the 17th-century pub Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in London (a favorite haunt of greats from Samuel Johnson to Dickens to GK Chesterton). And having absorbed performances of Marlowe and Shakespeare, who could possibly say that we didn’t make sufficient educational use of our time after library hours?

When I blogged about Iceland, I spent a lot of time talking about local customs and foods and history—things people don’t tend to know but might find vaguely interesting. But what could I say about English customs, food, or history that most people wouldn’t know better than I do anyway? Nevertheless, here are a couple of thoughts and observations by a tourist in merry old England.

1) Just like in DC or New York, in London practically nobody is an actual born-and-bred local. I heard more languages on the streets of London than I ever did in New York, and it wasn’t just because we were surrounded by tourists—though that was of course a contributing factor.

2) You can probably find rude Brits just like you can find rude anybodys, but I must say the British customs officials and security personnel far outstrip the American variety for courtesy. The guy running the metal detector at Heathrow kept apologizing to me for a short delay while his female counterpart patted down someone who had neglected to take off her watch. In comparison, the way the customs officials in Dulles bark and scold, you feel as though you’re a criminal just for trying to come home. I can hardly believe tourists are brave enough to get into the country at all.

3) Doctor Who is every bit as popular in England as I’d hoped it would be. My friend and I spent our last full morning (after all the library work had been done) at the Doctor Who Experience—something like a museum combined with a theme park, only no roller-coasters. I don’t really know what I expected, but I was absolutely tickled to see all the little British children with their serious and intelligent-sounding accents naming every episode of Doctor Who that they saw in clips. Classical Doctor Who as well, not just the recent revival. One kid was even dressed in costume, and one of the staff (yet more evidence of superior courtesy in England) enthusiastically asked the boy if he was going to be the 53rd Doctor. Probably gave the kid the thrill of his life.

4) My sister is not the only one who immediately said, “Look for platform 9 ¾” when I told her our hotel would be close to King’s Cross Station. The Brits have gamely posted signs all over the station apologizing to Hogwarts students for the construction mess and changing platform numbers.

5) They still call elevators “lifts,” but never once did I hear “bobby,” “tellie,” or “brolly.” I did, however, hear “push chair” and had a debate with my friend over whether it meant a stroller or a wheelchair. It’s a stroller, by the way, which we figured out by shameless eavesdropping on people in the Tube station. Also, a receipt is not called a receipt—the ATM (a.k.a. the “cash machine” in London) offers an “advice slip” or something incomprehensible like that. Tom-AY-to, tom-AH-to. I find if you look confused enough somebody will always translate for you.

The very day after we flew back from London, I drove with my family (or, rather, my family drove me—I’m an inveterate pedestrian, after all) up to Ontario for my eldest cousin’s wedding. The Waterloo/Stratford area (I don’t know how else to describe it, as distances in that area are best given in hours it takes to drive from one place to another) is simply beautiful—so different from the crowds of London! I’d been to visit my Canadian family once when I was in middle school, but I appreciated it better this time. Everything seemed a little smaller, perhaps, but no less stunning. My cousin’s wedding was a lovely backyard event, just the right sort of thing for her and her now-husband. Their reception was at the most picturesque ranch I’ve ever visited, and it was a pleasure meeting all the wonderful people I can now count as (distant) family. If we belonged to any other culture in the world, we would undoubtedly have specific terms for the daughter of the brother of your aunt (the one who’s not a blood relation), but just because we don’t doesn’t mean we can’t treat them as family.

My cousin’s wedding deserves a long and detailed narration, but as she’s a writer herself (the kind people PAY to write, rather than the kind one has to guilt into reading, like myself), I’ll leave that to her and simply conclude by saying I’m back where I started and classes have begun for the fall semester; I’ll be perfectly happy not seeing the inside of a plane or a minivan for a good long time to come, but I’m so glad I was able to jump on the two-for-one travel bandwagon.

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