Sun 12 Oct 2008
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My month in London is complete. Sincerest apologies for not writing sooner, but being in London left little time for anything other than what we needed to do and exploring the city on our own.
Arrival in London was one of the more overwhelming experiences of my life. A sleepless flight (perhaps a product of having a cup of airplane coffee right before trying to sleep–needless to say, I wasn’t thinking) and a roughly 10:30/11am arrival at Heathrow made for an exhausting first day. The idea was to get us acclimated as quickly as possible and to get us past our first day of jet lag, which resulted in my being awake for over 24 hours. The adrenaline served me well for the first few hours, during which we had to find a specific stop on the London Underground (aka the Tube) and take note of the area in which we were in. The stop my roommate and I had to find was Liverpool Station, a spot in a more financial district of the City of London. However when we returned from Liverpool Station amid the crush of London citizens leaving work and rushing to the pubs, the adrenaline began to wear off, and exhaustion and panic set in.
I believed that making the transition to London life wouldn’t be difficult coming straight from New York City, but I couldn’t have been more incorrect. Growing up in New York, I never realized how overwhelming a strange city could be when you didn’t know the streets like the back of your hand. I was terrified. I didn’t know where I was, where I was going, and I had suddenly realized just how far I was from home, and for how long I would be away. The combination of exhaustion, panic and jet lag is a nasty one that can really only be remedied by a restful sleep or communication with people from home. When I returned to the hotel (and after dinner at a nearby Indian restaurant at which the waiter was very excited we were from America and enthusiastically suggested things to do and brought us some brandy “on the house”…he was very fond of that saying) I promptly fell asleep on my bed with my computer in my lap. I woke up several minutes later in a panic because my computer’s battery had died and all I wanted was to get in touch with people from home and I couldn’t figure out how the plug adapter I had bought worked. I had to go to my professor for help…hah.
I slept like a rock that night (and really every night thereafter as well). Our schedule was packed and we regularly had to rise before 8am, and you must understand how difficult that is for 25 nineteen-, and twenty-year-olds. Perhaps if I had written an entry every day, I could go into detail about every experience, but if I were to do that it would turn into a 500 page memoir, so here’s what we saw (I will go into the ones that I found most moving or interesting in more detail): a boat trip down the River Thames to Greenwich to visit the Maritime Museum and the prime meridian, a visit to the Museum of London preceded by a walk through Roman London, experiencing a Morzart Requiem and clarinet concerto at St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square, a visit to the Notting Hill Carnival, a walk through the City of London, a visit to the National Portrait Gallery, a walk through the neighborhood in which we were living, Bloomsbury, a play called Let There Be Love, a visit to Stonehenge and Bath, Westminster Abbey, a play called Her Naked Skin at the National Theatre, a walk through Southwark, South of the Thames, the Tate Modern, a tour of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and a production of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, a walk along the Thames with Lord Leslie Griffiths, Baron of Burry Port and a tour of Westminster Palace, followed by a tour of St. Paul’s (including a walk up the 538 steps to the top of the dome) and Evensong, a meeting with Robert Hannigan, Security Adviser to the Prime Minister, experiencing the Proms at Royal Albert Hall, a trip to the East London Ragged School Museum, “Late at the Tate” at the Tate Museum, a day trip to Oxford, Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Globe, a visit to the British Museum and the Charles Dickens Museum, Mayor’s Question Time at City Hall, an exploration of the Tower of London, a walk in the East End to experience some of London’s fantastic diversity, two Harold Pinter plays at the National Theatre, A Slight Ache and Landscape, the musical production of Billy Elliot and finally, a trip to Hampstead Heath, followed by a visit to Regents Park and Harrod’s.
Now, if you’ve managed to make it through that extensive list, I’m impressed. When people we met along the way asked us what we had done in London, our response was, “What haven’t we done in London?”
I found that I never quite adjusted entirely to the London way of life, but I’ve a feeling that part of this can be attributed to the fact that we were staying in a small bed and breakfast and living out of a suitcase for nearly a month. However, my slight discomfort did not prevent me from being utterly fascinated by the city. I was blown away by the amount of sites there were to see and how much there was to experience.
I had no trouble identifying my favorite part of London. I loved the walk along the south bank of the Thames. Walking over Westminster bridge, we had a spectacular view of Westminster Palace (the Houses of Parliament) and the London Eye. Then, walking east along the river, we had a beautiful view of the city skyline, including the Gherkin, and my favorite, St. Paul’s. I am completely fascinated by Christopher Wren’s fantastic structure. You may have seen photographs of St. Paul’s through the fire and smoke of the Blitz (an impressive presence amidst so much wreckage and mayhem), and cathedral is no less impressive in the 21st Century. It dominates the skyline, towering over the structures around it (it is not in the financial center of the city, which I’m pleased about because some of the buildings there may dwarf the cathedral). It looks powerful, like it is presiding over the rest of the city, keeping watch over one of the most powerful cities in the world. The view from the top of the dome was breathtaking, although a bit unnerving as well. I’ve unfortunately (and most definitely) inherited my father’s fear of heights, so the narrow walkway at the top and relatively low railing made me a little uncomfortable. Fantastic view, though.
The number of museums in London is astonishing, as well. My favorite was the Tate Modern, probably because it made me feel like I was at MoMA back home. There was a fantastic exhibit of urban vs. studio photography with some beautiful photographs, both of models and unsuspecting passers-by. The museum itself is in a massive out-of-use power station directly across the Thames from St. Paul’s so that the two structures almost mirror each other. Granted, St. Paul’s is a much more beautiful show of architectural expertise than the atrocity that is the Tate Modern.
I also enjoyed exploring London’s East End. This section of London is certainly it’s greatest display of its incredible diversity. It is now mostly Bengali and Somali, with a huge Muslim population. Brick Lane, a small street with a lot of history, is lined with Bengali restaurants and sari stores and the occasional mosque. However, it is also adorned with some hip clothing stores and the occasional up-scale restaurant and real estate office. These, as I’ve learned from experiences in my neighborhood, are sure signs of gentrification. The area is a fantastic example of how people can mold their surroundings to fit their needs. There was a restaurant on Brick Lane claiming to be the “Oldest Restaurant on Brick Lane!” and it had been established in 1971. All the stores and restaurants looked fairly new, testament to the fact that the current population in the East End is a relatively new one. The area once had a huge Jewish population, which is now nearly completely gone. It is only a matter of time before the neighborhood changes again…
I had very mixed feelings about London. While it may not be my favorite place in the world, I was still fascinated by it. Never had I been in a place that had so much visible history available to anyone visiting, and the number of attractions in the city was astounding. Even after being there for a month, I still don’t feel that I got to see nearly everything the city has to offer. I’m looking forward to making some day-trips to London while I’m in Norwich and visiting some of the museums again and visiting things I didn’t get to see. Cheers!