October 9, 2011
Traveling in London has been quite a change of pace for two reasons. First, it is nice to understand the signs, the tour guides, the TV and the subways. Second, we are so lucky to be staying with friends.
The previous 7 weeks was often a foreign and disorienting experience. We were on our own and dealing with challenges. We had to rely on our wits to navigate the cities while being supportive of each other.
Now life seems easy. We can ask anyone a question. We can ask our friends for advice. We have comfortable beds and clean bathrooms. Heck, we can even understand the cartoons on TV. I was attempting to describe the ease to our host. I decided that our previous travels were like running with ankle weights on. At first, you are completely focused on their weight and the difficulty of running. Over time, however, you become accustomed to the weight and simply adjust. When suddenly you remove the weight, you feel free, fast and comfortable.
Traveling to non-English locales has been like those weights. When we arrived in England, the weights came off.
I am glad we have had this experience since we will soon be in places that are much more foreign than Sweden, Hungary or Spain. When we travel in China, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, we must assume that we will go days without an English word (other than those uttered by Baskins). I am excited about that trip, but have some understandable trepidations. Remember, this is “travel, not vacation”, so we will not be on pre-arranged English tours. We will be independent travelers with a loose plan. I suspect that this trip has been the perfect warm-up for that. We know how to travel together. We can figure out answers without using English. Each member of the family has chores and applicable skills. We know each other’s bugaboos [note: if you think that I was just looking for a reason to work bugaboo into this blog . . . you might be right.]
In short, we are as ready as we will ever be.
Today was a lighter than normal day. I think we have slowed down for two reasons. First, our accommodations with Colin, Lucy, James and Olivia are great. Not only are they comfortable, but the company is delightful. Our kids love their kids and we enjoy each other. Second, Lucy clearly thinks that our (my) sightseeing pace is insanely aggressive. This stems from the fact that her kids are still young (7 and 8 years old) and we probably are insane with our agendas. In order to follow our often-crazed schedules, we have to round up the kids like so much cattle in the morning. This involves cajoling and creating a sense of urgency. In the lovely and laid-back Evans abode, these techniques just seem uncouth.
That paragraph explains why we only did two things yesterday, though both were biggies.
We started with the National Gallery, England’s largest art museum. Before I continue, let me share a couple of fun photos from outside the Gallery (since no cameras are allowed inside).
Back to the Museum. I can hear you thinking, “haven’t you exhausted the kids on art?” Perhaps, but I know from reading research on education that repetition is key to retention. But how do you make the new museums not feel like deja vu? We have developed a pattern that I really like. Armed with a Rick Steves guide on my iPad, we hit the masterpieces and avoid attempting to see everything. While this is not really my favorite way to visit a great museum, it makes sense to avoid museum overload. As we walk from highpoint to highpoint, we also talk about what we are seeing and asking what the paintings remind them of. Virginia won huge points by spotting a painting and saying, “that looks like a Caravaggio!” (it was not, but the style was incredibly similar).
We have also continued our martyr count for the pre-renaissance works. These works are essentially all commissioned by the church, so they feature Bible scenes and prominent martyrs. The biggies are St Jerome (who pulled a thorn from a lion’s paw and beat himself with a stone for penance) and St Sebastian (who became a human pin cushion after being shot with arrows) and St George (who killed a dragon). Our final count, 9 St Jeromes, 8 St Sebastians and 5 St Georges. Wiley and I were disappointed. Sebastian (our favorite) was leading late, but a room practically dedicated to Jerome turned the tables at the end.
At this point, I feel a need to share an art-related story from when Terrill was 7 years old. I was wearing a very colorful shirt that looked like paint splatter when we were giving cookies to all the Minis (campers age 7-9) at camp. One of the girls said “Steve Sir, your shirt looks like a Jackson Pollack!” I was so impressed with her knowledge. I then asked the rest of the campers “What a great observations. Does anyone else know who Jackson Pollack was?” Two hands went up, the girl who had made the comment and Terrill! I swelled with pride. Here was evidence of the cultural education Susie and I had provided our children. With great excitement, I looked at my daughter and smiled.
“Terrill Ma’am, will you please tell everyone who Jackson Pollack was?”
“Yes, he is the African-American judge on American Idol!”
After the museum, we joined the Evans and went to the Tower of London.
We saw the Crown Jewels, instruments of torture, armor and tons of history. The highpoint was the Beefeater tour. The Beefeaters are the royal guards. At first glance, they look somewhat silly. I, however, have learned that they are an impressive lot. Each of them has served at least 22 years in the Armed Services. They then go through an elaborate vetting process to be selected in the guard. To give you an idea of the status of this position, the head of the guard (called the Constable of the Tower) is the position given to the Duke of Wellington after he defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.
The Beefeaters are also trained as humorous and engaging tour guides. Ours took a particular liking to Virginia and kept asking her if she was following him. Here they are together:
We took our London hosts out for a meal as our kids babysat theirs. We enjoyed a delightful Indian meal and the boys got their children to bed within 10 minutes of the target time. In short, a successful evening.
Tomorrow will be St Pauls, the Globe Theater, the Tate Modern, the Millenium Bridge and “War Horse” (an award-winning play).