May 8, 2007

On Tuesday, we left Stratford-upon-Avon and returned to London by way of a few stops. Although much of the day was spent on a bus, this was probably my favourite day on the trip. Late in our tour, the bus trip was just what I needed, and a day that is spent alternating between napping and visiting historical sites is a good day indeed.

The first stop was Blenheim Palace, which I knew next to nothing about when we arrived. The only thing that I knew was what my professor had told us before we left - that it was Winston Churchill's birthplace, and that it was a big house. He wasn't kidding when he said that it was a big house. Blenheim Palace belongs to the Duke of Marlborough, who still lives in it with his family, so the tour only goes through part of the house. The first Duke of Marlborough led the British troops to victory at the Battle of Blenheim in the beginning of the nineteenth century and his reward was this estate. The first duchess, Sarah, was actually pretty tight with Queen Anne, and from what I understand, kind of had her say in how the government was run until she and the queen had a falling out. Our tour guide, who was interesting and full of fun facts, promised that Sarah was an incredibly interesting woman and when I left Blenheim Palace, I left with a giant hardbound biography of Sarah that I plan to tackle this summer.

It's difficult to describe Blenheim Palace in brief, without going into all kinds of detail on how much I love castles and other impressive homes, but suffice to say that I was floored. There's a dining room in the palace that was painted by a French artist, and while we were gaping at the ceiling, our tour guide dropped the bomb that the moldings around the ceiling weren't actually real - they were two dimensional illusions. I think I actually gasped, probably muttering a "Shut up!" in that uniquely American way. The rest of the rooms that we were able to see were equally grand, as were the gardens, but it was the dining room that really stayed with me. I checked out a family tree to see if there are any dukes-to-be that appeared unmarried and relatively close to my age, in hopes of securing an invitation to the annual Christmas dinner in that dining room. No luck in the direct lineage, but there appears to be a cousin who's a year older than me. I don't remember your name, but if you're reading this, feel free to look me up.

The other big event of the day was our trip to Stonehenge. I do have an important anecdote to tell to explain the importance behind my visit to Stonehenge. My mom went to England when she was in high school, with her choir from church, which was First Baptist Church of Tulsa, Oklahoma. I think she was about 15 years old. They saw a lot of things in England, and sang some performances, but one of the memories that she always recounted to me was of her being in the bus, driving through the English countryside, and seeing a familiar structure off the side of the highway. "Uhhh...isn't that Stonehenge?" she asked one of the chaperones on the trip. "Oh, that? I don't think that's very important." And they kept driving. Past Stonehenge. They didn't even stop on the side of the road to take photographs.

Fortunately, we stopped when we drove past Stonehenge, and it was pretty incredible to see. Honestly, it wasn't as big as I thought that it was, but that didn't make it disappointing. It's still huge, and it's still amazing that it was built so long ago. What most people don't know is that Stonehenge is situated in the middle of the Salisbury Plain and that it is literally one of the windiest places I have ever experienced. I'm from the Windy City, and granted, Chicago didn't earn that nickname originally based on the wind, but Chicago really is quite a windy place. I'd never felt a constant barrage of gusts like I did when we were fighting our way around Stonehenge. We stayed for about half an hour and it was pretty great, but I felt like there was only so much time I could spend looking at rocks, and besides, my camera died when we were only about a third of the way around. I was grateful for the refuge of the bus.

Salisbury Cathedral was our last stop before we returned to London, but after the incredible cathedrals of Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's, it was a little underwhelming. Its size is impressive, even taller than St. Paul's, but the church was dark and most of the stained glass had been removed by an architect assigned with the task of modernizing the church in the nineteenth century. We also had one of the worst tour guides I've ever listened to. Sweet lady, but I'm not sure that leading a group of American students around a cathedral was the best job for her, and after a full day, I was ready to get back on the bus and recommence napping on the way back to London.


The Shakespeare Experience

Travelling with an English class, it was only logical that we would spend a fair portion of time in England seeing Shakespeare-related sites. In London, on May 4, we began our day with a tour of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. A lovely woman named Val told us about the theatre and was entertaining, as well as clearly passionate about Shakespeare and the success of the theatre. She'd been involved with the Globe since 1988, almost ten years before it opened for business. It's hard to believe that it took until 1997 for a restored Globe Theatre to open. It is said to be authentic, to the best of Shakespearian experts' knowledge, and since I'm not by any means a Shakespearian expert, I was easily convinced.

After an afternoon that was dedicated to some much-needed relaxing, we returned to the Globe that evening for the opening night of Othello. We'd read it the previous week in class, but I was still a little nervous, because I didn't feel completely comfortable with it yet, and I worried that I would have trouble following it. My worries were not needed, though, because the play was performed wonderfully and even though I was standing against the back right corner of the stage and often saw the action from behind the actors, I understood everything perfectly. My one complaint, though, was for my feet! Standing for an hour before we got in, plus standing for the four hours that it took for everyone to kill each other off, as is the trend in Shakespearian tragedies, on feet that had been traipsing around London for four days, was brutal, to put it mildly. By the last half hour, I was silently pleading with Othello to just pick up the sword and start killing people. I survived, though, and despite the incredible pain in my feet, I enjoyed seeing a traditional performance of one of Shakespeare's masterpieces, just as it was performed there four hundred years ago.

Two days later, on Sunday, we left London and arrived in Stratford in time for a matinee performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Swan Theatre. Completely different from the production of Othello, I was not at all prepared for the liberties that they took with Shakespeare! To begin, only about half of the lines were given in the original English. The program said that the rest of the lines were given in a mixture of South Asian languages, and I assumed them to be Indian dialects, but I was never sure. This is one of my pet peeves - I hate when people refer to things like "Indian" and "African" as if they are languages, not geographical references to large numbers of ethnic groups. The play was infused with modern dance, and while the choreography was interesting, including some elaborate routines that involved acrobatics off of the sets and from ropes that hung over the stage, I found it distracting. Combined with the fact that it wasn't entirely in English, I thought that the experience was interesting and definitely not something that I would have attended at home, but I preferred the traditional production of Othello, sore feet and all.

The next day, Monday, was spent in Stratford-upon-Avon. We spent the morning visiting several of the Shakespearian attractions. We went to his birthplace, Holy Trinity Church (where he and his family are buried), Anne Hathaway's cottage, and Mary Arden's house. I wanted to hate most of it, since I thought it was ridiculous that Anne Hathaway's cottage and Mary Arden's house were included as historical sites. Anne Hathaway only lived in the cottage before she married Shakespeare, obviously, and the now sixteen-room home only had two rooms when she actually lived there. But when we arrived, I was struck by the beauty of the traditional thatched-roof cottage and especially, by the incredible garden, full of tulips and other brightly coloured flowers. Mary Arden was Shakespeare's mother, and her house and the adjacent farm were, obviously, only her home before Shakespeare was even born. I wanted to hate that, too, because they were siphoning off all of this money from tourists when it was hardly even a legitimate claim. However, they had done a lot to keep it unique. It featured a working farm, and even several people in costume, demonstrating different things on the farm, like traditional food preparation. It was all very interesting, but a sudden rainstorm sent us running for the bus, and although I had a good time, I was happy to return to the town.

Stratford is a lovely town that has flourished because of the Shakespeare tourism draw, but overall, the town does not seem like a typical tourist trap. Although there are a lot of people and a handful of the typical fast food restaurants, the downtown area was lovely, and there was a wide variety of interesting shops. And - I found a café that served Brie sandwiches, and really, that is one of the quickest ways to my heart, besides chocolate chip cookies, which were nowhere to be found in England.

After all of this, I have to admit that I was a little Shakespeared out, but it was a great experience, and certainly not something I probably would have done if I had gone completely on my own. If nothing else, it was worth it for the fish'n'chips we were served for dinner on Sunday night after the play.


Journey to the Top of St. Paul's

I am not a fan of heights. I have a vague memory of going to the top of the Sears Tower in Chicago when I was six years old or so, and heights didn't bother me then, but sometime shortly after that, just walking next to the glass at the mall and looking down from the second to the first floor started making me woozy. I've been up the Eiffel Tower three times, each experience equally traumatic, and I was sure that the idea of going up some outrageous structure, just because I'm in a foreign country, had lost its charm.

I was sure of this, that is, until I visited St. Paul's.

The church is beautiful from the outside, but I was not at all prepared for how breathtaking the interior would be. I've seen some wonderful cathedrals, but they have been, for the most part, of the Gothic style. Gothic cathedrals are lovely, but they are dark and often feel very enclosed. St. Paul's was built after London's Great Fire in 1666, so it is a much newer building, and of the Neoclassical style. Made of lighter coloured stone, the interior is much brighter and it is physically larger and more open than the great Gothic cathedrals, but the difference feels like night and day - literally. St. Paul's continued to draw my gaze upwards, towards the enormous dome and the mosaics. When we entered the church, an official was inviting everyone to pray the "Our Father" prayer in their own languages, and the sound was beautiful. Although I belong to a denomination that does not usually use set prayers, I know the words, and whispered them along with the visitors from different nations. The feeling of peace that this action created was incredible, and I think the calm I felt from that moment carried through the rest of my visit.

We wandered around the church, visiting the memorial to the American soldiers that died in the Second World War, and I cried a bit, as I always do at war memorials. Then my entire group, twelve students and a professor, climbed 162 stairs to the Whispering Gallery, which goes around the dome on the inside of the building, about halfway up. I hadn't planned to go all the way to the top, but in a strange moment of bravery, I convinced myself that I needed to do this, to complete my visit to St. Paul's. Perhaps it was the peace that I felt earlier that compelled me to follow my classmates into another impossibly tight stairwell. There are almost 500 steps in all, from the cathedral floor to the Golden Gallery, which is an outdoor gallery at the very top of the dome. I was doing well until the stone staircases transitioned into metal, tightly spiraling staircases, the kind with spaces between the steps. I was dizzy and short of breath when I finally made it to the top, but I felt a sense of accomplishment, even pride. I surveyed the city of London from a bird's-eye perspective and even though scores of people had done this before me, I felt like I had completed some sort of pivotal milestone. So I snapped a photo of myself, looking terrified, and then I tried to hold my nerves together while I waited for the slowly shuffling pack in front of me to reach the staircases. For the record...those creepy spiral staircases are even worse on the way down, but I lived to tell the tale, and I'm even glad that I conquered my fear for a moment and went to the top of St. Paul's.


Greenwich, Westminster, and more!

I’m writing this in my hotel room in London on Friday afternoon. St. Paul’s was closed this afternoon for a private service, so we have a longer break than we originally anticipated, which is nice. I need it today; it’s already been quite a trip! Today, we took a brief tour and listened to a nice woman named Val talk at the Globe Theatre. Tonight, we’ll see the opening performance of Othello there, from the yard, which is the standing-room area in front of the stage. I’m excited, because it will be a theatre experience unlike any other, but I’m also dreading spending three hours on my feet that are already so sore from walking for three days!

I’m not currently online, since I don’t want to waste my valuable internet time, but I think I mentioned in yesterday’s brief blog that the highlights thus far have been Greenwich and Westminster Abbey.

Greenwich is everything that I have come to expect from a village in Europe – cafés everywhere, interesting shops, lush parks, friendly people who are truly thrilled that you’ve come all the way from Michigan to spend 50 pence on postcards in their shop. Note that I said ‘villages’ – I know better than to expect that kind of treatment in the cities. After a cream cheese and banana sandwich (so much better than it sounds, I promise!), I walked around with Sarah, one of the other girls on the trip with me. We poked around as many shops as we could – everything from market stalls filled with Indian textiles to a store that specialized in rhinestone dog collars. We chatted with a woman in a souvenir shop who made change out of a fanny pack. I think she may have given me a pound back in change, therefore negating my purchase completely, but I’m a silly American who hadn’t really looked at the coins before that point, so I’m not sure. She insisted it was right. A real highlight was pushing through throngs of British teenagers to have our pictures standing over the Prime Meridian, with one foot in each hemisphere. As previously mentioned, I had the opportunity to do this at the Equator in Ecuador five years ago, and I have to say that the Ecuadorians made picture taking opportunities much more abundant by running the painted yellow line all the way through their marketplace. The English are more proper about the whole thing, giving us only about ten metres of a line, not obnoxiously painted yellow, and only outside of the Royal Observatory. We hiked up the steepest hill I’ve ever climbed on pavement, that’s for sure, but the experience was worth it. That is, it was worth it once Sarah asked someone where the line was, and he told us that we actually had to go inside of the gate that we’d already passed. I’m sure he laughed when we walked away, but he was very nice to our faces. That’s apparently how they roll in Greenwich. It should also be noted that we seemed to be the only American tourists in the place, which probably accounted for the polite nature of everybody. There were Brits, French, and a lot of Russians, but without American teenagers running amuck and complaining about sparkling water, the town had a wonderful calm about it.

Westminster Abbey was in a different realm from Greenwich, but it is the other highlight of the trip for me, so far. It was overrun with tourists, many of them American and full of various complaints, but I kept quiet and tried to maintain some level of calm amid the chaos. I’ve visited my fair share of churches in France, but this was different, because it’s also a national mausoleum and an incredibly revered monument for the British people. Kings and Queens have been crowed there, and many are also buried in elaborate tombs throughout the premises. Most of the nationally renowned writers are at least memorialized there, even if they are buried elsewhere. Politicians and musicians are given their respects, including one of my favourite composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams. On top of this Hall of Fame style cemetery, the construction of the Abbey is incredible, with stained glass windows and vaulted ceilings and giant pillars. The Germans bombed the area, which is also home to the British Parliament, during World War II, and although Westminster Abbey lost many stained glass windows, it still stands. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if they had lost such a treasure.

Since I have plenty of time this afternoon, I’ll also mention the visit to the British Museum last night. The size of this place is overwhelming, with more than I could have seen in an entire day, much less in the two hours that we had when we arrived in the Great Court. Kirk helped us focus our visit by taking us first towards the Elgin Marble room, probably better known as the sculptures from the Parthenon that have been the source of recent debate between the Greeks and the Brits. Basically, Lord Elgin of Great Britain went to Athens and took about half of the sculptures that he could find among the ruins of the Parthenon between 1801 and 1805, and brought them back to Britain. The British say that the Ottoman Empire, which controlled Athens at the time, knew all about it, but many other accounts indicate that he basically stole them. Of course, no one seemed to care about the sculptures at the time. The Brits weren’t the only ones who did this – there are pieces of the Parthenon in Paris, the Vatican, and several other places in Europe, but the British Museum has the most. Now the Greeks want them back, but the Brits say the whole thing is legit. I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but I’m glad I got to see them, regardless of where they’ll be in a few years, because they were incredible. Some of them were extremely well-preserved, especially considering that the Parthenon basically blew up in 1687 because they were storing gunpowder in it. Personally, I think a hole in the ground would have been a better place to store gunpowder, but I guess hindsight is 20/20.

Overall, the experience here has been incredible. I’ve spent a bit of time on my own, since I know that my nerdy tendencies aren’t universally shared, but I don’t mind being adventurous. Yesterday during my lunch, instead of eating with the group, I wandered into several used bookshops, one of which featured leather-bound volumes of classics, all of which were at least a couple of hundred years old. I was afraid to touch them, but they covered an entire wall. It was amazing to see something like that for sale in a regular store, with a standard selection of used paperback copies of history texts from the 60’s downstairs. That’s one of the most compelling things about being here – the incredible age of everything. In Chicago, with the exception of the two buildings that survived the Fire, the oldest buildings aren’t much more than a century old. London had its own Great Fire as well, but that was in 1666, so it’s not uncommon at all to see something that was built over four hundred years ago.

We still have over half the trip ahead of us, with all of the sights that we’ll see outside of London still to come. Tomorrow, we’re visiting the Charles Dickens Museum, we’ll try again at St. Paul’s although it will be crowded on a Saturday afternoon, and we’ll spend the rest of the day at Camden market, which is supposed to be really neat, plus Kate Winslet shops there on her American Express commercial. Since I don’t have cable and therefore don’t watch TV besides my weekly date with static for American Idol (something I don’t usually admit that freely), I’ve never seen the commercial, but that’s what I’m told. This is all for now!


Greetings from London!

I've arrived, safe and sound in London, and I'm having a wonderful time. It's only my second full day here, and I feel like I've seen walked the length of the city eight times already. Of course, I've only actually seen a small part, but I can't convince my feet to believe that right now. Yesterday, we went to the Tower of London, took a boat to Greenwich, and in the evening, I went to the National Gallery with Kirk and Katie, although I left earlier to give myself some extra time, since art museums are one of my favourite things to see when I'm in a new city. Today, we went to Westminster Abbey and took a tour of the Haymarket Royal Theatre. We also took photos in front of Big Ben, from the South Bank of the Thames, and also at Buckingham Palace. Tonight, we'll hit the British Museum. It's all so overwhelming!

I loved Greenwich! It's a wonderful little town with shops and restaurants and it's touristy, but not as obnoxiously catered to Americans as many parts of London seem to be. Westminster Abbey was incredible, too. It was one of the places I was most looking forward to seeing and it definitely did not disappoint. I need to head back to the hotel so I don't miss the trek to the British Museum, but I wanted to check in, since I know people are reading. I can't wait until I have time to write about everything!



Tomorrow, I will leave for London. I'm sure I would be more excited if I had actually begun packing yet. If packing anxiety is a legitimate anxiety, I definitely have PAD [Packing Anxiety Disorder]. For as much as I travel and have travelled, you'd think that I would have it down to a science by now, but I still cower in fear as soon as the suitcase is opened on the floor of my bedroom, the empty black insides symbolizing a deep, dark, terrifying abyss. The worst thing about this trip is that I don't have to be at the airport until 3 tomorrow afternoon, making the "I'll do it in the morning" cop-out extremely tempting.

I've been to London once before. In the summer of 2000, I was on a student trip to France. My mom was a high school French teacher and she had a group of about eight kids, plus me and a friend of mine. For our return flight, we flew from Paris to London-Gatwick, but our connection was from London-Heathrow to Chicago. The travel company told my mom that there would be a free shuttle between the airports, and we had about three hours, so we should be fine. We found the shuttle stop, but after about half an hour, we realized that the other people at the stop were holding pieces of paper that looked rather suspiciously like tickets. When my mom inquired at the desk, she found out that there weren't enough spots on the next shuttle for all of us to go, so we'd have to wait an hour. We all ended up getting on the plane in Heathrow, but they held it at the gate for us for a few minutes, and the whole experience was not without one of those Home Alone-esque scenes, with our whole group running towards the gate. It was kind of awesome, but I hope we don't have any of that tomorrow. We have an hour to change planes in Newark, and as far as I know, Newark is only important enough to have one airport. Of course, Newark is also kind of the third airport for New York, so perhaps that's even less important that being its own entity. I wonder how the folks at the Newark airport feel about that. I probably won't have enough time to ask anyone, and maybe that's a good thing.

So tomorrow, I embark on my first trip to London that lasts more than a couple of hours. I have a lot of expectations, mostly regarding the number of nerdy places I'll get to visit. I love museums and touristy things and taking pictures that inspire captions like "Me with a statue of some dude I forgot." This trip is part of a class that has been an endeavour in cultural studies, so I am excited to experience a culture that I was once a part of, given my heritage, which is heavy on groups from the British Isles. I'm also excited because London is an Olympic city, both past and future (1908, 1948, and 2012), and I'm a little obsessed with the Olympics. I'm also excited to go to Greenwich, where I hope there will be a painted yellow line that marks the Prime Meridian, so I can get a photo of me standing with one foot in each of the Western and Eastern hemispheres, to go with the photo of me standing with one foot on each side of the Equator that I took in Ecuador five years ago. See what I mean about the nerdy things?

This blog is an assignment for my course, so I'll be making it a priority to update while I'm in England. I should also mention that while most of the trip will be spent in London, I will also be going to Stratford-upon-Avon (it is an English course, after all!), Salisbury, Oxford, and Paris! Yes, Paris. Four other girls and I will be taking the train to Paris on our final free day, where I get to play tour guide extraordinaire. Thanks for reading, and don't forget to leave me comments if you miss me while I'm gone, or if you don't mind pretending that you do so I feel better about myself.