Sunday, November 1, 2015

How an Awkward Outsider Viewed London

The Day I Hung Out With George Eliot and Robert Browning

            With one foot on Lewis Carroll and the other on Henry James, I stared up at Geoffrey Chaucer. I was in Westminster Abbey, and after having sauntered through most of the church, I finally reached Poets' Corner. Here, starting with Chaucer, is where 40 writers are buried, along with memorials for important British writers resting elsewhere. Combing the floor by Chaucer's tomb, I began looking for familiar names.
            Before me was the memorial for George Eliot, really Mary Ann Evans, nestled snug between the stone commemoratives for Dylan Thomas and W.H. Auden. Her stone was a perfect little square and a shade between black and gray, fittingly the exact color a regular number two pencil would produce. In white lettering, the craftsman made "George Eliot" the largest print, with her real name underneath. Running clockwise around the perimeter of the square was a quote from her first novel, which I then read by turning round and round.
            Elated and motivated to keep searching Poet's Corner, I was ready to find another name. Scanning the neutral colored plaques, I met Robert Browning two tombstones down and one to the left. This was his actual grave, with his skeleton deep under the church's floor. His gravestone was designed with a white marble frame on the outer edge and an inner frame of brown and cream marble. The center of his stone was a red rectangle with slightly curved top and bottom edges. Written in gold, his name shined with a flower perched above it. While reading on the tomb that his wife is actually buried in Florence, a large black sneaker marched across the flower. Stunned, I reached to pull my glasses' cleaner from my coat pocket and wash the wet mark. 

America in London

            I look down and my phone does not believe that I am in London. The time in the corner is correct, 9:40am­­­, but most of the screen is trying to tell me that I am at the airport, and it is ­­­­­3:40am. I try to assure my phone that I actually got on a plane and left for somewhere, but refreshing the screen does nothing. I curse my phone, muttering that I did leave the country, and put the technology away.
            I look up and see a statue of President Abraham Lincoln. For a split second, I wonder if my phone was right. The first sign that I could still be in America should have been coming across a small, circular billboard of American actor Ben Stiller while looking for the tube the day before.
            Or maybe I am just in England. America would not have been possible without England, since England is what our ancestors separated from. It never occurred to me, though, that tour guides in England would know of historic Americans who attended their churches. I am in London specifically and looking at Southwark Cathedral where William Shakespeare worshipped and his brother is buried. When coming to London, you expect to see the cathedral Shakespeare attended, but you do not expect to hear your tour guide announce that John Harvard, the founder of Harvard University in America, also attended that church. As the bus rolls on, I hear that Harvard's parents owned a pub in London back in the day. They raised their son and that son grew up to open one of the largest Ivy League schools in the United States. I am shocked, but know that I should not be. The United States is a baby country, compared to England and many others. We were founded when we separated from England, therefore our founders came from England and England is in our blood.           

            I feel resolved, and settle myself back in my seat to enjoy the churches. My guide talks some more as we pass the Tower of London. Apparently, William Penn was baptized in the church overlooking this great tower before founding our state of Pennsylvania. 

Londoners and their Royalty

            The swarm of visitors crowding around Buckingham Palace’s black gates did not surprise me. Peering in, everyone was trying to get a closer look at where the Queen of England lived. Across the road, hundreds of people stood around the Victoria Memorial, waiting for the ceremonious changing of the guards.
            What I was surprised by, however, were all the British accents. Pushing through the horde of people, I heard a mother and her daughter talking about the palace in distinctively native voices. I saw a man hold his son above his head, telling him in a chipper English tone that this was where their queen lived. Pulling myself along, I perceived a few different accents, most of them the various British accents of London. Why would people native to England line up an hour early to see this reoccurring formality?
            I shook my head as I walked back to the Victoria Memorial. This large marble statue has their former queen's depiction on the front, with angels and people surrounding her. A golden statue that seemed to catch all of the light in its polished paint stood on top in a victorious stance. Britain made this for Queen Victoria, which forced me to realize that I didn't know the last time America designed a statue for one of our presidents.
            I've always known that we Americans complain about our elected officials more than other countries criticize their rulers, and perhaps England truly loves their royalty. In a culture rich with history, it's understandable why their traditional ceremonies would still get them animated and waiting out in January's chilly wind. Sitting back on the bus, I jotted down these notes. Maybe we Americans are too harsh on those with power, and we need to consider all that they accomplish.
            As we left Buckingham Palace, our tour guide informed us of King George IV and how he was voted Britain's most useless monarch. Possibly, I was too quick to judge the Londoner's enthusiasm for their current queen as unconditional loyalty to all kings and queens. Londoners are human like us, after all.

Global Modern Art

            Cardboard boxes spray-painted in blue, orange, red, and gray formed the shape of a mountain with one shoe precariously climbing the stones. Then, about eight fish tanks with gold rims were stacked together in two rows. Diagonal from these pieces of art was an old car engine bedazzled in shimmering blue, placed on top of a dusty shelf. This was London's Tate Modern exhibit on Energy and Process: Contemporary Sculptures, and that was not all.
            Walking into this exhibit of assorted objects, I met a colossal silver platter with stainless steel kitchen instruments piled on one half. I wondered if these pots, pans, buckets, and spoons were glued to each other, or just thrown to the side. Trying to see the thought behind this piece, I moved in closer, but all I saw was what I would imagine finding in a giant's pantry.
            I don't know what I was expecting to stumble upon inside Tate Modern, but I was not anticipating being reminded of America's depictions of modern sculpture art. Our television shows poke fun at this so-called "junk art," and I have seen characters just dig through the trash and glue a cluster of items together for an art exhibition, ultimately winning for their genius designs.
            I turned towards the corner of the room and found a man sitting and reading between two of Tate Modern's pieces. Since I had seen men and women sitting in boxes for modern art on American television shows, I was not sure if this man was an art piece as well. I made sure to pop by this exhibit later, and mystifyingly observed that he was still there.

Church Service to an Atheist's Daughter

Because they gave me a script—
lines to say, stage directions to perform—
sit stand listen read
these words in St. Paul's Cathedral,
in Southwark Cathedral,
in Temple Church,
it wasn't strange.

Pretty stained glass props
enclosed the platform and beyond—
set the scene for Jesus' passing,
tell tales with the actors.
Light Act I with their candles and flames.
The audience was all thespians, all
an old school Greek chorus, in unison, monotone,
interactive musical.

We recited after the organ whined,
sang its own sad lines,
and no one knew I wasn't
a Luther-man.
The play wasn't
alien or foreign or off
until everyone but me knew
to sing verses not written in the
pamphlet handout script—the lines
artistic directors in red bathrobes passed around,
and it became improv. I
don't do improv,
and it was time to turn in my script,
exit stage left,

out the wooden
theatre doors.

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