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!

1 comment:

Mom said...

I loved all your descriptions of Greenwich and Westminster! Definitely made me want to be there.....so when you publish your travel articles/books, I'll definitely be your first customer!