Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Entries Tagged as '2010 Amy'

Greeting at the Norwich Cathedral

May 3rd, 2011 · No Comments

Every Monday morning (and some Wednesday afternoons) I volunteer at the Norwich Cathedral.  My official title is that of a “Cathedral Greeter” but in reality my duties are far vaster than that.  When I met with Canon Pastor Richard Caper and Juliet Corbett in early April they told me that they were having trouble engaging the youth of the community in the Cathedral and that they thought that I would be a good person to help try to fix their problem.  They decided that I should work as a greeter – a job that involves me talking to every person that comes into the Cathedral during my shift – so that I could be a demonstration of how the Cathedral can appeal to all ages, not just the elderly who tend to volunteer there.  So, after what was quite possibly the most awkward hour of my entire life (coffee with the Canon Pastor took an hour but we talked for maybe a grand total of 35 minutes; the rest was uncomfortable silence with an occasional comment about the weather; he was quintessentially English and reserved and I was the nervous young American who was afraid to appear to brash and aggressive), I was put in touch with David Strawgner who runs the greeter program at the Cathedral.  A few days later David gave me a call and asked me to come in so that I could get to know the Cathedral and so that we could arrange what days I would be there.  David turned out to be a delightful older gentleman who has more passion for the Cathedral than most people have for their families.  After an intense afternoon of seeing the ins and outs of the Cathedral and writing down every factoid that a visitor might want to know (ranging from where the bathrooms are to hidden mason marks around the Cathedral) I was given my badge and told to show up at 9:30 the following Monday morning.

My first day, 18 April, I arrived fifteen minutes early armed with my official Cathedral volunteer badge and a somewhat nervous smile. I walked into the Hostery (the new more modern part of the Cathedral which is where visitors enter and where the greeters are stationed) and met up with David.  David introduced me to Mandy, another greeter and my coconspirator for the morning, who has been disabled all her life and had been volunteering for almost a year.  She said it was one of the two weekly activities that she does outside of her convalescent home.  She also told me that she volunteered as a greeter as a means to try and build self-confidence.  David, who was also with us to show me the ropes for the morning, told me about another woman who comes in during the week that was seeking the same self-confidence that Mandy was.  The woman in question had been in an abusive marriage for many years and the Norwich Battered Women’s Shelter had sent her to the Cathedral to try and help her build not only her self-confidence but also her basic ability to interact with people as well as to regain her sense of self.  According to David, as the months passed, this woman had learned to smile again and to be herself.  I was beginning to get the sense that this was the true purpose of the Cathedral – not to act as a popular tourist destination, but to help the people of Norwich with whatever personal demons they were facing.

My morning went without a hitch and I quickly got my schpeel down to a science: “Good morning!  I’m Amy, I’m a greeter at the Cathedral, and here are a few things you should know…”  I then tailor my speech to whomever it is I’m talking to.  If it’s families with young children I point out the labyrinth outside in the cloisters which is a great place for families to play when the weather is nice; if it’s older couples I talk about the history of the Cathedral and the evolution of the newer parts of the complex (the hostery, the loqutery, and the refectory have all been redone in the last few years) as well as the conservation work that’s currently going on; and for everyone else I answer questions, give helpful hints for the self-guided tour that we hand out and generally try to give the impression that the Cathedral is a warm and welcoming place.

During my first shift I mentioned to David that classes were over for the year and I was looking for more to do with my days so he told me that I should come in on Wednesday afternoon as well.  Two days later I returned and worked with a lovely retired lady who had been volunteering for the last six months. She told me more about David, who was busy elsewhere at the time (he was finally convinced that I could welcome people without scaring them off).  It turns out that David is finally starting to feel his age and that being at the Cathedral only makes it worse.  His wife has begged him to stop volunteering (he is there all day, every day, constantly on his feet and on the move).  But, David loves the Cathedral and refuses to leave it behind.  He loves meeting the children that come through (he says that they remind him of his many grandkids) and welcoming strangers to the building he loves so much.  This afternoon I also had my first encounter with what I’ve come to recognize as The Eccentric Old People Of The Cathedral (my term and not one I share with most the people I come across as they do tend to fit into this category).  Basically an EOPOTC is an old and but impossibly interesting person who comes to the Cathedral.  They tend to come alone (although there have been exceptions to this, see below) and are looking less at the Cathedral and more for an opportunity to interact with strangers.  They are, without exception, an endless source of factual information as well tidbits of wisdom about life in general.  EOPOTCs have quickly become the highlight of my time at the Cathedral and I harbor the hope that someday I can grow up to be one.  While much of the basic facts of history are recorded in textbooks, the true tradition of Norwich –its tales and its character — are the possession of the EOPOTCs.  They are the protectors and distributors of the stories of Norwich (and Norfolk in general) and they seem to possess this honorable sense of duty to impart what they know to the next generation as well as to act as sponges, collecting new information to be stored in the annals of EOPOTC history.  They are the oral historians of England.  They are also undeniably and unabashedly fun and can always be relied upon to elicit a smile.  My first EOPOTC I found wandering around the hostery furtively glancing over his shoulder every few minutes as if he were afraid of something.  I went over and asked him if I could help him in any way and he desperately asked if I recognized him.  When I answered in the negative a look of relief rushed over his face.  It turns out that 76 years ago, when he was just a “young lad,” he had been banned from the Cathedral for acts of “hoolaginism.”  He staunchly refused to define “hoolaginism” to me or to in any way clarify the reason for his life long ban but he was clearly bemused by both my American-ness and my confusion.  We chatted for a little while about Norwich and then changes he has seen in the community over his life-time and then he wandered off.  That same afternoon was a funeral for a prominent Norwich businessman who had died suddenly and unexpectedly the previous week.  First of all, I’ve never seen the Cathedral this crowded (before I started volunteering this term I had spent time there just looking around).  Second, I took one of my first lessons at the Cathedral in the eccentricities of British culture: men in yachting clubs wear the most colorful jackets I have ever seen.   In homage to their fallen brother, men of all ages and sizes had donned yellow, blue, and black vertically stripped blazers that had bright pink satin lining.  It was like watching a herd of mourning peacocks.  They were a walking oxymoron: solemn in attitude but bright in dress.  There aren’t quite words to describe it but my fellow greeter and I decided that it was probably better that way.

The next Monday I came in and was informed that, as it was a bank holiday, Mandy could not be there (she could not get transportation on bank holidays) and that another lady, Allison, would be with me for the next two weeks.  First, Allison turned up an hour late.  But when she did get there she walked into the hostery wearing a sundress, massive straw hat, fishnets, and combat boots like she owned the place.  Allison is probably in her late thirties and she splits her time taking care of her elderly mother and a gentleman who is blind and an amputee.  However, Allison’s true passion is art and when asked what she does, she says she’s an artist.  It was a slow morning (there was an organ recital, which meant the main doors of the Cathedral were open and who wants to go through the hostery when the huge main doors are available), so Allison and I spent our shift chatting about everything from art in Norwich to medieval history and my focus of study (i.e. gender history).  Allison is well on her way to becoming an EOPOTC (she is full of fun facts but at the same time a bottomless pit of curiosity; she grilled me for the better part of our shift about medieval history, Latin, and life as an American).  I am sure that someday she’ll pop in just to chat with the next generation of Cathedral greeters and to impart stories of the olden days when she worked at the Cathedral with a somewhat shy but enthusiastic American student who knew a thing or two about medieval history.  Nevertheless, she is extremely interesting and absolutely loves interacting with the people who come through the Cathedral.  I also met my second EOPOTC.  He was an older gentleman that I talked to for about half an hour and who could list every parish in Norfolk, its founding date, and how tall the tower was.  Someday I hope to be such a font of information.  He was one of those people who gives you the impression that he has forgotten more than you will ever know.

The next Monday I came in and was, once again working with Allison (who was, once again, over an hour late).  David was not feeling well so he left me in the hostery alone (for the first time ever!!!) to be the sole representative for the Cathedral.  If a slow morning is one where maybe 5 or 6 families wander through, Monday morning can only be described as dead.  I was so excited to be the first (and only face) that people met when they walked into the Cathedral – I had two cups of coffee (they give it to the greeters for free) and a huge smile – and no takers.  When Allison came in at half past ten she was the first person I had interacted with since David left.  However, people started pouring in (there was another organ recital but for some reason a majority of the visitors came through the hostery instead of the church doors).  Monday also marked meeting my favorite EOPOTC (they really are a majority of our customers) to date.  This man came in with his middle aged daughter and from the moment I saw him I knew that he was going to be something special.  He was wearing bright yellow trousers, a pastel pink bowtie, and looked like Uncle Charlie from the children’s book Thrump-O-Moto by James Clavell (if you’ve never read it, go do so immediately).  He introduced himself  and assured me that he did not need the self-guided tour pamphlet for the Cathedral, as he was a trustee of it (and as it turns out everything else in Norwich including the Millennium Library and the Sainsbury Centre).   When he realized that I was an American studying medieval history at UEA he became much more interested and talked to me for a good hour about Norwich, the buildings, the community and the general area as his daughter smiled in the background looking as though she could not wait for him to stop talking.  Nonetheless, he was incredibly interesting and incredibly excited that I was getting involved with the Cathedral.  He gave me his business card and asked me to get in contact with him if I was at all interested in getting a backstage tour of most of Norwich’s cultural sites (as a trustee of everything – no joke, he listed every building and organization I had heard of in Norwich – he promised that he could show me anything I wanted).  I did not take him entirely seriously until I pulled out his business card this morning to write my blog and I noticed the initials “O.B.E.” after his name.  “Order of the British Empire, eh?  A surprise, actual, knight!?”  I googled him.  Turns out he was sheriff of Norwich and a local real estate mogul who sold his company a few years ago for a vast amount of money and has dedicated his life to making Norwich and its culture more accessible.  I fully intend to give him a call and see what I can learn.

I am going to continuing volunteering at the Cathedral until I leave in early June.  I absolutely love it.  It is undoubtedly the highlight of my week.  I have learned so much about the Cathedral itself, but more importantly about the people of Norwich.  It has been eye-opening to interact with so many people from all walks of life: the tourists who come to see the haunting architecture, the bird watchers who flock in to observe the peregrine falcons that live in the Cathedral tower (coincidentally enough they’re hugely popular right now as one laid an egg on Easter just as the Pastor was talking about rebirth…gives one goosbumps), the EOPOTCs who just want to talk to someone, the scared young couples looking at the Cathedral as a possible location for their wedding, the movie crew that comes in and out (the Cathedral is closed next week for filming of James and the Giant Killer starring Ewan McGregor – yeah, I get to meet him!!), my fellow volunteers (who are possibly the nicest people I’ve ever met and who function as a sort of large family) and everyone else.  In particular, spending so much time with David has given me a new perspective on what it means to truly love a building and the people it houses as well as a new definition of loyalty and dedication to a cause.  I’m sure that as the weeks go on and I continue to spend more time at the Norwich Cathedral I will not only learn more about the people I interact with, but about Englishness in general.  Not to belittle Kate Fox, but I have learned more from my 20 hours at the Cathedral about Englishness and the English community than I did from all of her long explanations about British culture.  I am beginning to realize that while some lessons can be taken from other people’s writings and observations, others can only be learned through human interaction and life experience.


1 April 2-3: Meeting with Canon Pastor Caper

6 April 3-4.30: Tour and initiation with David

18 April 9-12.30: Greeting

20 April 2-4.30: Greeting

25 April 9-12.30: Greeting

2 May 9-12.30: Greeting

Total Hours: 15.5; with time done on 13 April (see other blog) a total of 20.5 hours.

Supervisor: David Strawgner

Tags: 2010 Amy · Churches and Cathedrals

Easter with Strangers

May 3rd, 2011 · No Comments

My first day at the Cathedral (not in my official capacity of greeter), involved working with local children during an open day full of Easter activities.  I started by helping groups of kids make Easter baskets that they would later use to collect chocolate eggs in the herb garden.  I really enjoyed the experience for two reasons.  First, I love kids.  They crack me up and these were no exception.  Second, I love Easter.  This is the first year I have not celebrated Easter with either my family or friends.  At home we typically make a big to do about it – we go to church in the mornings, dye Easter eggs in the days leading up to Easter Sunday, and have what can only be described as epic Easter Baskets.   At Dickinson I get two Easters.  I celebrate one with my close friends (this typically involves eggs, baskets, and a home made brunch) and with the family I nanny for (Isabel, the little girl I watch, starts celebrating Easter weeks in advance with daily egg hunts).  I was a little disappointed to know that this year I would probably go to mass on my own and then come back to UEA.  Thus, being at the Cathedral and celebrating it with a multitude of very excited children absolutely made my day.

A few days before my morning at the Cathedral, Juliet Corbett had emailed me and asked if I minded doing something separate from my Dickinson colleagues.  She asked if I would work at the Garden of Gethsemane station where I would give a short speech to the children and then help them make clay models of what made them feel afraid.  The speech I gave discussed how Jesus must have felt alone and afraid in the Garden of Gethsemane when the disciples fell asleep the night he was arrested.  I was then supposed to ask the kids to tell me what made them feel afraid.  I had forgotten how original young children could be and I got answers ranging from spiders and school bullies to sausages.  What is scary about a sausage is beyond me, but it definitely made me smile.  By the time I closed up my station, even though it was not quite Easter and I was with total strangers, I felt like I had been party of a family celebration.

After everything was tidied up all of the volunteers for the day met with Juliet to talk about what we felt went well and what we thought could use improvement.  While I did not have any suggestions (I felt like the day had gone smoothly and that the kids seemed really happy), the open forum truly made me feel like part of the Cathedral community.  Even though there was a range of people we all had this common ground: we were there because we enjoyed the Cathedral community and spending time with children.

Date: 13 April 2011

Time: 10am-3pm

Hours: 5 / Total: 5

Supervisor:  Juliet Corbett

Tags: 2010 Amy · Churches and Cathedrals

Theatre? Theater? What the heck, none of it is really British!

September 20th, 2010 · 1 Comment

I have attended four shows in my time in London: The Merry Wives of Windsor, 39 Steps, the Habit of Art, and Les Miserables.  I have searched and searched to find a common thread that all four would have to define the theatre in England and have yet to come across it.  There are some thematic similarities (thank you very much Jesse for pointing out the cross dressing), but overarching commonalities that I could use to define London theatre are difficult to find.

The first play that we saw in London, The Merry Wives of Windsor, was understandably a tourist trap.  It was at the New Globe (a touristy place if I’ve ever seen one) and therefore, I had pretty low expectations.  I expected a good piece of slapstick Shakespeare and that is exactly what I got.  I got a “genuine” Shakespeare experience – I stood right by the stage, listened to flippant German teenage tourists mock the English actors, and got in a good laugh.  While there was some genuine real life Brits in line in front of us (I got to witness a queue-jumping situation that would have made Kate Fox dance with joy), I felt like I was not at a real English theatre event.

39 Steps was, for me at least, the most real English theatre I witnessed.  As it was a matinee, there were distinct groups of English people, namely a group from a convalescent home and a very large group of school children.  The audience was very much stiffly British and listening to the aid in front of me explain the humor to the most ancient woman I’ve ever seen made me feel the most immersed in British life I had been to that point.  The most telling sign that I was truly experiencing British theatre was the rampant irony used in 39 Steps – most of which, I would like to point out, completely went over my head (I only knew that something funny was going on by the chuckles of my fellow theatre goers).

The Habit of Art might not have made that much of impression on me simply because I did not enjoy it.  Like most theatre I’ve participated in back home, it struck me as an upper class audience out to enjoy a night of snobbishly intellectual theatre that they could go to a cocktail party and brag about.  I know that during our tour our guide pointed out how they try to make the theatre financially accessible to everyone, but it was not something that I felt the ordinary Joe could go into an enjoy.  The topic required some degree of literary knowledge, the humor was highbrow, and the audience was mainly fashionable and wealthy people who I would guess visit the theatre frequently.  Overall, I felt no real connection to either the play or my fellow audience members.

Les Miserables was perhaps my favorite piece of theatre.  While, like The Merry Wives of Windsor, it was definitely geared towards tourists, I finally felt like I was somewhere where half the humor (and there was not much humor to choose from) was not going over my head.  I could sit back, relax, pay attention to the lighting (thanks Rick!), and enjoy a night of good music.  I loved that Les Miserables was not attempting to be anything more than it was and because of that, I was able to loosen up and enjoy the show.

The four shows that I saw in London were all enjoyable and filled their own niche in the theatre community.  Together they said nothing grand or profound about British theatre but individually had a lot to offer in terms of cultural explanation.

Tags: 2010 Amy · Theatre

After A Pint, It Doesn’t Matter Where You’re From

September 20th, 2010 · No Comments

While many of my fellow students have lamented in their blogs that they feel least comfortable and most like they have to behave like the British at pubs, I feel completely the opposite.  Yes, there have been some pubs that I’ve wandered into and definitely felt like I was completely out of place but I never felt like it was because I was an American – it was almost always because of my age.  The only time I have ever just left a pub because I felt so uncomfortable was after we went to the Globe and we were by far the youngest patrons to wander into this particular pub.  Besides that one instance, my experience with pubs has been overwhelmingly positive.

I openly admit that what I know about beer and cider could fit in a teacup.  I am most definitely no connoisseur of alcoholic beverages – I know what I think tastes good and what makes me wrinkle my nose and that is about it.  This lack of knowledge has led me to become one of those people who every time they walk up to the bar to order has to ask about every single one of the items on tap.  While I thought this would probably to trying to any bartender’s patience, I have found that so long as its done in a friendly manner pub workers are happy to help me find something that my undistinguished palate will enjoy.  I experienced the pinnacle of helpful bartender at The Court on Tottenham Court Road.  The last time I was there the bartender spent ten minutes with me just figuring out what exactly I would like and even though it was incredibly busy, she did not once look impatient or try to rush me along.  While I am clearly an American and completely uneducated on the finer points of British beverages I was treated with respect and patience and is exactly why The Court has become my favorite pub.

I have visited several pubs that I quite like – the George on Fleet Street, the Marlborough Arms, and the Rising Sun, to name a few, and they all have different positive qualities to recommend themselves to me (the George has Murphy’s, the Marlborough Arms is homey and the evening bartenders are friendly and recognize regulars, and the Rising Sun has a quintessentially British atmosphere).  However, while these are all good pubs with good drinks and friendly service, they are not great.  The difference for me, as an American, is the degree to which I feel continually welcomed.  At many of the pubs there is the sense that as a patron, while I am welcome to come and enjoy myself, I have an obligation to be quiet and to stay at my table and not mingle with the other patrons.  Kate Fox points out that pubs, unlike American bars, are not places to go meet new people, but even the possibility of accidentally interacting with anyone besides who is in my group is terrifying at most of the pubs I have been to.  And this fear is not reserved for me as an outsider – other English people are terrified to interact with their neighbors, even if it is an interaction as small as trying to fit through a small space to get to the counter.  At the Marlborough Arms I have seen patrons walk 15 feet out of their way to avoid asking people to scoot their chairs in 3 inches to get to the bar.  This is what makes The Court so unique.  Maybe it’s the loud American music always blasting from the speakers or the younger crowd that tends to frequent it, but The Court is a place where this “social dis-ease” is eradicated.  I do not have to live in fear of asking someone to scoot in so that I can get by (a lot of the time fellow patrons anticipate my journey by and move out of the way without prompting – a gesture that usually involves a friendly smile and a “cheers”) and where eye contact with someone I don’t know doesn’t make me a pariah.

I find pub culture absolutely fascinating and I am so sad that it took me so long to find a pub where I feel so at home.  My time in London has helped me develop an understanding of what exactly I need to do at a pub and how I ought to behave and I am hopeful that I’ll find a place in Norwich that proves to be just as friendly and light hearted as The Court.

Tags: 2010 Amy · Pubs

The Protestant Purification Vs. Christopher Wren: A Love Story of Irony

September 20th, 2010 · 1 Comment

When Henry VIII split from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534 after he instated the Act of Supremacy he had no real intention of actually repudiating Catholic ideals (for more information go here).  He maintained the highly ornamented and ritualized structure of mass and design of churches and chapels.  However, after he died and Anglicanism came into its own under his son, Edward VI, churches were stripped of their decorations and a strict and Spartan design was adopted.  While throughout Anglican history the form of worship and the tenets evolved with the monarch, Protestantism has maintained a more austere stance on the level of decoration within a church.  Catholicism, on the other hand, is famous (or in some schools of thought, infamous) for its lavish decorations, rich priestly garbs, and overall sumptuous appearance.  The pinnacle of this over-the-top wealth is the site of the Holy See – the Vatican is a treasure trove literally overflowing with priceless paintings, sculptures, and breathtaking frescoes.  Just like the Vatican – the center of Catholicism – St. Paul’s Cathedral (a central symbol of Anglicanism) is overrun with artwork, statues, and mosaics dedicated to celebrating the life of Christ.

When I first walked into St. Paul’s I was struck with the irony that this great cathedral presented.  I had expected Westminster to be decorated past the usual point of Protestant sobriety, after all it did start out as a Catholic church, and the same went for the Abby at Bath; I did not expect this from St. Paul’s.  The current St. Paul’s Cathedral, built by Christopher Wren, was never a Catholic church and so does not have this excuse to pardon its grandeur.  Instead of adhering to the typical ideals of a Protestant church (a lack of idolatry and an overall more simple and modest atmosphere), St. Paul’s rivaled any Catholic church (with the exception of the Vatican).  I was surprised by the overall un-Protestant nature of the Cathedral.  Everywhere I looked, in every spare niche, nook, and cranny, was ornamentation of some sort.   This highly structured aesthetic was not contained in just the architecture – evensong was a series of highly ritualized acts.  From the initial procession in (scepters and all) through the singing to the end with the parade out, the structure of the ceremony was both beautiful and archaic.  While I was sitting there I reflected upon the fact that the service I was listening to was sung in the same manner it was 400 years ago (with the exception on the presence of female deaconesses).  It was both a humbling and confusing experience.

On the opposite side of the expectations spectrum, the Catholic mass I attended was performed in a modern and simplistic manner.  The chapel was just a little side room in the Newman House – a building that would have been easy to miss just walking down the street save for the flags put up to celebrate the upcoming arrival of the pope – and the actual chapel itself was noticeably bare.  There were small figures marking the Stations of the Cross, a small and ugly bust of Cardinal Newman, an alter, and one painting of the Madonna and Child.  This was a far cry from the reputation of ornamentation that the Catholic Church is saddled with as well as a telling foil for the overwhelming décor of St. Paul’s.

This comparison and its ironic implications got me thinking about what exactly the difference is between the Cathedrals and Abbeys of the Church of England I’ve visited and the Catholic service I attended mean.  It seems to me that Christopher Wren was not focusing on designing a building that was a place to worship God and to adhere to a particular brand of faith – he was more creating a symbol of England at its most lavish time (we learned all about the excesses of Restoration England on yesterday’s walking tour) that would call out to all who saw it how great, mighty, and powerful England was and still is today.  It is less a place of worship for God than a hall of worship for England.  I have not visited any Anglican churches that are used as community places of worship instead of as monuments and I am curious to see if the local churches in Norwich have the same level of ornamentation or whether they adhere to a simpler, more Protestant appearance.

Tags: 2010 Amy · Churches and Cathedrals

Parks and Recreation

September 19th, 2010 · No Comments

The fact that London is 25% green absolutely boggles my mind.  I love that the English place such an emphasis on green open areas, even in the middle of their capital.  One of my favorite days during our trip here incorporated an afternoon in Regent’s Park.  After my walking tour I went to the park, armed with a book and a sunny day.  I then sat there for an hour and read.  And while I did not get much actual reading done, I experienced something far more important – the breakdown of English cultural barriers.  It started when someone’s puppy wandered over to me.  Instead of calling back their dog, the owner just smiled at me and kept going, trusting that I would respect their pet and that it would go back to its owner when it so desired.  This complete warmth towards a total stranger is not something I had experienced yet in the usually reserved London public sphere.

This breakdown of reserve was apparent the more I walked around the park.  Everywhere I looked there were older gents playing with their dogs, mothers entertaining their children, and couples walking around paying more attention to each other than to their beautiful surroundings.  While Kate Fox always talks about the English “social dis-ease” the atmosphere of Regent’s park was completely the opposite.  Both at Regent’s Park and at St. James’ Park the wealth of examples of the English comfort, not with just themselves, but with those around them, showed more warmth than I am accustomed to in Los Angeles.  It is almost as if the British use their parks as a place to escape the normally tight social boundaries regarding affection and interaction with strangers.

Parks also serve to remind the English that they’re inherently country folk.  In times of crisis throughout English history (like the Plague), those who could afford to would flock to the countryside and to their agrarian roots.  The English find safety in green open spaces and in city filled with smog and where everyone is in a constant rush, there has to be an emphasis these parks.  These parks help make London English and help to remind English Londoners that they are English.

Tags: 2010 Amy

Religious Tolerance – A Refreshing Realization

September 14th, 2010 · 5 Comments

As someone who is fairly religious I have spent a large amount of time in London contemplating religion – something that I think many of us have done and which is a large theme in our course.  Thus far I have been to the building of or attended a religious service in a mandir, a mosque, a Catholic mass, evensong at St. Paul’s, and after today, a synagogue.  As a practicing Catholic, I expected to feel very at home at both the Catholic service I attended and evensong (given how many similarities there are between Anglicanism and Catholicism).  However, even sitting through a mass that I have sat through every Sunday for the last 20 years I felt completely alien.  While the format of mass was the same and prayers were the same, the level of participation and tone of the homily were unlike anything I had ever experienced.

On Sunday, when Mary, Mary Kate, Jamie, and I walked two blocks to the Newman House I had pretty low expectations as to what mass would be like.  The mass put on at Dickinson every weekend is quick, easy, and low on congregational participation.  Back home in California, my church puts a large focus on intellectual exploration of scriptures and does not discuss controversial issues.  Instead, on Sunday I attended a service where everyone was active and where I heard an extremely rousing and inspiring homily.  The priest completely ignored the gospel for the day (which was the famous tale of the prodigal son) and discussed the upcoming papal visit, general English views of Catholicism, homosexuality, and the previous mistakes made by the Catholic Church.   The priest discussed the lack of positive press about the Catholic Church in England and tied that to the English fear of popery – he even made continual jokes about how the English still see the Spanish armada sailing across the Channel to turn them all back to Catholicism.  He then spent a long time discussing homosexuality – a topic that never EVER came up in my more conservative Church (which is ironically enough considered very liberal among Catholics in the area).  He said that it was unacceptable and sin to denounce anyone, including members of the LGBT community.  He argued that just because we are Catholic we are not allowed to hate or discriminate.  He stemmed his next point off of this idea – he said that we should not look at the Catholic Church as infallible.  He made the point that we cannot pretend that the priest abuse scandal didn’t happen and that we must admit that the Catholic Church mishandled the debacle.  His over reaching message, however, was tolerance, acceptance, and education about Catholicism.

The idea of education leading to tolerance and acceptance has been the general message of most of our visits to religious institutions.  Both the mandir and the mosque were exercises in religious education and both of our guides spent a lot of time discussing religious doctrine and the need for understanding about different religions.  In the face of all the religious discrimination and controversy surrounding both the building of a mosque near where the Twin Towers once stood and the minister threatening to burn Korans in Florida in the United States, its refreshing and reassuring to know that somewhere in the world there is religious dialogue occurring and several different faiths are trying to bridge gaps and end violence and discrimination.

Tags: 2010 Amy · Churches and Cathedrals

Victoria and Albert Madness

September 6th, 2010 · 3 Comments

When going to the Victoria and Albert Museum the first rule is: do not get a map.  It is completely useless.  It will only make you more confused (if that is at all possible).  The Victoria and Albert is like no other museum I’ve ever been to.  Instead of the sparse but well cataloged rooms of the British Museum or the abstract instillation art of the Tate Modern, there is just “stuff.”  It feels as if one has stumbled into a very eccentric, very wealthy old man’s closet.  There is a vague sense of organization, but the curator has not stuck to a strict order.  Instead one is assaulted with a variety of priceless artifacts.  To top the disorganization of the rooms is the disorganization of the building itself.  The rooms flow into one another like a maze.  From the moment I walked in I should have known that it was going to be a completely new experience — immediately outside of the tube station there was an exhibit filled with treasures that would have been centerpiece at many smaller museums.  I then continued into the fashion exhibit which was filled with a barrage priceless vintage clothing from across the world.  From there we went through the sculpture hall to the one piece that I felt summed up the museum as a whole:  a book tower.  It was a multi-storied wooden structure just filled with a random assortment of books — everything from romance novels to Chaucer to Russian literature.  This disorganization and jumble of priceless and random books should have been an indicator that my day was about to get a lot more impressive.

(courtesy of http://www.vam.ac.uk/things-to-do/blogs/11-architects-build-small-spaces)

The madness of the Victoria and Albert reached its pinnacle in the Medieval and Renaissance section where upon a cursory browsing I stumbled upon a little journal tucked away behind a wall.  This journal was not accompanied with any great display or paired with a painting or some other artifact — it stood on its own.  This unassuming little book turned out to be a Da Vinci journal.  If it had not been for the presence of a gold plaque indicating that it was something special I would not have even read the explanation.  However, it was a room full or gold plaques and priceless artifacts and it was a completely fluke that I stopped and looked.  From this point on, I just gave up.  I was too incredulous to take the Victoria and Albert seriously.  In a world where small local museums are starving for artifacts the Victoria and Albert have so many that they just cannot display them to their full potential.  I personally wish that the Victoria and Albert would loan out items to eliminate the clutter and share their wealth.  This would make the museum less overwhelming and it would allow more people to view more fascinating treasures.

Tags: 2010 Amy · Museums · Uncategorized

Coolest Old English People Ever

September 3rd, 2010 · No Comments

For a former empire, the British sure do like to only acknowledge the wealthy white people who inhabit this relatively small island.  The National Portrait Gallery was wall to wall dignified important white people.  For the most part I did not come across images of other ethnicity or socio-economic class.  Everywhere I turned I saw another sleepy-eyed English man or woman gazing down on me.  While this lack of diversity was a little distressing (where was Gandhi!?  He was a great subject of the British Empire!), once I got past this I loved every second of the National Portrait Gallery.

Image taken from Wikipedia

I encountered my favorite painting early on — a magnificent portrait of Elizabeth I (1535-1603) by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger from 1592.  This image of Elizabeth standing atop the world was a beautiful example of Elizabethan portraits.  The Latin inscriptions (translated as “she gives and does not expect,” “she can but does not take vengeance,” and “in giving back she increases”) were fantastic examples of typical courtly sucking-up.  I enjoyed these phrases in particular because Elizabeth was not known for her patience, humility, or charity.  These stock sayings speak more to the traditions of the Early Modern Era than the character traits of this Tudor monarch.  The other aspect of this portrait that caught my attention was her dress.  This style of gown, a trademark of the later part of Elizabeth’s reign, is frequently referenced in modern culture, for example, the Fairy Queen in the last act of the Merry Wives of Windsor that we saw a few nights ago wore a replica of the gown in this portrait.  That this style, which appeared very late in her reign, has become a byword for Elizabethan fashion seized my attention.  I had not realized that by the time this portrait was painted, Elizabeth was old and no longer appeared like the young flawless beauty seen in this portrait:  instead of porcelain skin she was pock-marked, instead of brilliant red-hair she was going gray.  I found this distortion of truth, particularly highlighted by the exhibit itself (this portrait appeared at the end of a series illustrating Elizabeth through her lifetime), fascinating.  All in all I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to the past at the National Portrait Gallery.

Tags: 2010 Amy · Museums

Modern Art and Misunderstandings

September 3rd, 2010 · 4 Comments

I first have to state that this is a blog about people watching, not art or museums.  My trip to the Tate Modern confirmed something I’ve suspected for a long time:  I just don’t get modern art.  I don’t get the art itself or the the people who do.  For the most part (there is some modern art I find appealing), I found that what I saw was trying too hard to say something and in the end, was communicating no message whatsoever to me.  Yes, paint splatter looks interesting, but to quote the seven-year-old girl who walked by me, “Daddy, I can do one of these!”  One exhibit, a series of pieces by Agnes Martin felt as if the artist looked as if someone had taken a bunch of American Apparel t-shirts, made them very large, and put them on a wall.  I just could not get a sense of “euphoria, contentment and memories of past happiness” (for more go here) from a series of stripes.

Taken from the Tate Modern Website

Once I had realized that I was not going to be spending my afternoon sunk into an emotional pit inspired by paint splatter and lumpy statues, I turned to people watching.  This activity confirmed what I’ve long suspected:  modern art officianados are the same no matter where you are.  There seem to be two breeds: those who actually know what they are talking about and those who do not but wish to appear like they do.  The first is a fairly respectable bunch.  They tend to be middle aged (with some exceptions, of course), upper middle class, educated, and most of all, unpretentious.  The other category is much more fun to watch: those who wish to seem cultured.  They tend to be young adults adhering to the “hipster trend” (the men are over groomed and the women are disheveled) and have a number of behaviors: there is the intellectual pose (involves leaning slightly back with a hand on one’s chin and staring intensely to the corner of a piece of “art”), and the catch phrase (a hurried “yeah, yeah, yeah” followed by some inane and impossible to understand comment about the power of a poka-dot).  This is not an exclusively English symptom — it transcends borders and appears in almost every single modern art museum I’ve ever been to.  I’m not quite sure what this says about modern art or humanity in general, but I do find a strange comfort in knowing that across nations people experience the same insecurities and behaviors.

Tags: 2010 Amy · Museums