Sunday, 11 July 2010

London, England (or, My Love Affair With My New iPhone)

It is easy to think that Britain is small and that British destinations are close together. After all, it is only 94,060 square miles, including Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and England together, which makes it larger than Idaho but smaller than Oregon; if it were a US state, it would be the 11th-largest in the union. Undertaking a trip to or from Cornwall quickly reminds you of the nation's size:

(The route from Falmouth (A) to London (B). This cross-country trip takes approximately 5 hours, give or take a half hour, by either car or train. This also outlines the quirky shape of the country--we basically live on a peninsula on a peninsula, which definitely makes you feel remote.)

A couple weeks ago, my husband was attending a conference in London, and we thought it would be nice for me to join him in order to celebrate his birthday in the city. This was supposed to be a nice, short trip, but in reality it was quite exhausting. I started out by catching a train at Falmouth Town station to Truro. One interesting thing about this train is that it is only a single car long--so really, it isn't a "train" at all, strictly speaking. Another interesting thing is that it passes through Falmouth Town station to drop off passengers, continues down to Falmouth Docks, then comes back through Falmouth Town again about 10 minutes later to pick up more passengers before heading to Truro. I had never taken this particular train before, so I kept feeling very paranoid about what was taking the train so long down at Falmouth Docks. I knew it was the end of the line, and that the train had nowhere else to go, but I also couldn't figure out why it was so late in returning. Because I would have to buy a whole new ticket if I missed my connection at Truro, I got increasingly nervous as each minute ticked by. Finally, I pulled out my new iPhone, the traveler's greatest companion, and looked up the number for a taxi service. I decided to give the train 4 more minutes (until 10 AM) before making the call; just before the deadline, it showed up. Crisis averted.

One of the many wonderful things about the National Rail system is how you can save quite a bit of money by buying your tickets early and then picking them up from a machine at the station of your choice. When I got to Truro, all I had to do was visit the automated ticket dispenser in the front of the building, stick in my credit card, and have my tickets for both legs of the trip printed out for me--no lines, no fuss. I even had time to grab a cup of tea to take on board with me.

People here travel by train quite a bit, because it's often the most convenient and affordable method of travel. They are very nonplussed about the whole idea of train rides, but even after undertaking many (including some seemingly endless ones), I still find them quite remarkable. I think I am particularly thrilled with trains because I am used to driving such long distances in a car--it took me 7.5 hours to drive from either Haverford or Williamsburg back to my parents' house in Ohio, and I always found it quite taxing to spend a full day concentrating and staring into the searing sunlight, worrying about maniacal drivers and where I was going to find a toilet in the middle of rural West Virginia. With trains, though, there is no work--you sit down and let someone else do the driving, during which time you can read or play on your computer (electric outlets are even supplied) or listen to music or just stare at the countryside. It is very relaxing.

Because I was traveling during lunchtime, I had visited Tesco the night before and stocked up on snacks. One of the great joys in life is picking out travel snacks; you have to be very careful in your selection because these can really make the journey that much better, or, if they aren't satisfying enough, they can make the miles drag on. Sometimes I am feeling particularly healthy when I pack food, and the next day when I am driving, when I get an urge to have chocolate or Cheetos or Coke, I feel quite depressed to find only apples and Triscuits and bottled water. This time around, I did a good job, and I felt very pleased with myself as I munched on a tuna sandwich (sorry to everyone around me for the smell!) and cheddar crackers and fresh raspberries.

My iPod made itself useful again during the journey--I passed the time listening to music and playing games. After a while, the train's course took us close to the shore during low tide, and I was able to do some birding. I am not all that great with sea- or shorebird identification, but luckily I had my handy British Birds app and was able to use my phone to help me identify what species I was seeing. There were some new species to add to my list--not necessarily my total "life list," but at least my British list:

(A whimbrel. We have the same species in the US. That bill makes it pretty unmistakable, and I got a nice profile view of this guy.)

(A black-headed gull.)

(A little egret.)

There were also some other interesting little birds that I didn't get a very good look at because we were moving too fast, and there was an enormous flock of swans hanging out in the mouth of a tributary. Not a bad haul for some casual birding done at 50 mph.

When at last I made it into London, my first order of business was to procure an Underground ticket so that I could get from Paddington to Waterloo Station. I have discovered that the easiest way to travel by Underground is to plan everything out beforehand. Although there are maps in the station, they do not always tell you all the information you need to know. Also, Underground stations can be massively crowded, and it is not easy to bully your way into the group of people already standing at the map, or find a nice quiet corner where you can consult a pocket map. One thing that is wonderful about the Underground, though, is how easy it is to buy tickets--there is a nice little picture showing you which destinations are in Zone 1 vs. Zone 2, etc., so there is no guessing and no calculating.

I did not need to meet my husband for a couple hours, so I anticipated that I would get to Waterloo Station and then do something entertaining--have a walk by the river, do a little shopping, sit down for a cup of tea, etc. I did not factor in two important concerns: my unfamiliarity with navigation in London and the fact that it is very hard to become found in London once you have become lost, thanks to the extreme confusion of its layout.

I had planned my route down to the minutest detail the night before, using Google Maps. I knew what road I needed to exit onto from the station, I knew what turns to take and what roads I would pass, and I knew how long it would take me to get there. Unfortunately, and not for the first time, Google Maps led me astray. It directed me towards a route that was physically impossible on foot, despite the fact that I had asked for the "on foot" rather than the "by car" option. It also made the assumption that I'd know what roads I was walking on, which is impossible in London because only about a quarter of the roads actually have signposts. On top of this, they meander in bizarre directions and occur at multiple levels because there are bridges everywhere. Another error, this time on my part, was the decision to pop into nearby Waterloo Train Station to use the facilities before heading off into the city. Once I was in there, I could not seem to get out. Every time I tried an exit, I either found myself on a dead-end road, or waiting at an elevator that seemingly had no buttons, or going back out the way I came in--none of which I wanted to do. I must have spent about 15 minutes wandering around and around and around, getting angrier by the minute. I finally made my way out to the street, but by that time I had become disoriented and ended up heading in the wrong direction.

After a bit, I had the sneaking suspicion that I was not going towards the South Bank, as I desired, but, rather, into the heart of the city. I whipped out my trusty iPhone and pulled up the GPS function to help me get reoriented. Eventually, I got pointed in the right direction and headed back the way I had come. Unfortunately, my travails were not quite over. In the near distance, I could see the building that I needed to reach (it was conveniently labeled in large capital letters across the side). I had to cross a bridge in order to get there, or so I thought, and the further I proceeded along the bridge, the more I noticed construction signs and roadworks paraphernalia. Before long, the sidewalk had completely ended, and I was left with two options: run across two lanes of traffic in the middle of London but stay within sight of my destination, or head back the way I came and start at square one. Obviously, the only choice was to dash across the traffic. Luckily for me, the cars disappeared for the briefest of moments, and I rushed across to my destination. After seven hours of travel, I had finally arrived.

London always seems to be experiencing odd weather when I visit it, and this trip was no exception. The first couple times I was there, it was unseasonably cool; this time, just to balance things out, it was unseasonably warm. When you are outside, warm weather is quite pleasant in London. For instance, for my husband's birthday dinner, we were able to get a table outside along the South Bank promenade and enjoy the warm summer breezes while watching the motley population of London wander past. I didn't even need to wear my jacket. Afterward, we strolled along the river and then up into the city, taking the long way to Victoria Station. We wandered around the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, then across the grounds of both Westminster Abbey and, my favorite, Westminster Cathedral:

(Westminster Cathedral, located off Victoria Road. I stumbled across this by accident a few years ago when I spent spring break in England. It is quite rightly called "one of the great secrets of London.")

One of the things I like about Europe is the combination of new and old--you turn a corner and find a 19th century statue or an 18th century mansion or an 11th century church. We got a great sense of this juxtaposition--or intermeshing, depending on how you look at it--while we strolled.

We stopped by another restaurant to have dessert, and I felt quite cosmopolitan to have eaten dinner in one location and dessert in another. It was quite a culture clash, too--Japanese noodle soups for the main course and then Italian mousse and sorbet to end the evening. I suppose that is a nice way to celebrate the diversity of London--which, incidentally, is something else I really like about that city. This is not to denigrate the variety in US cities, where there is unmistakable diversity--all the continents are represented, there is a whole rainbow of hair and skin colors and a huge variety of clothes and music. But in the US, the immigrants I've met are usually of fairly well-known nationalities that are relatively well-represented throughout the country and in other large international cities. In London, on the other hand, there are large communities of people from places I can barely locate on the map; you hear languages you can't even being to identify and see traditional fashions that are so unfamiliar they might as well be from an alien world. Going to London is a great way to remind yourself of how huge this planet is, and how many things you still haven't seen or experienced.

With our food eaten, we proceeded to Victoria Station and then Clapham Junction, from whence we made our way to our lodgings for the evening. Do you remember a while ago when I said that heat in London is pleasant when you are outside? Well, there is a reason I made that distinction: Very few places in Britain have air conditioning, partly because of the age of the buildings and the greater level of environmental consciousness here, but mostly because it is usually unnecessary; even in the warmest months, it is never that warm here (by the standards of most countries, that is), and you can make yourself pretty comfortable by opening a few windows to catch the breezes coming off the water (whether that be river or sea). However, the weather occasionally gets warm enough for long enough that it can become pretty stifling indoors. My husband had spent the entire day in a giant stone building with no AC, and when he came out he was as sweaty as if he'd gone jogging around the block a couple of times. Our lodgings were similarly uncomfortable; there was only a window on one side of the room, so we could get no flow of air, and the two of us spent the entire night as far away from each other as the bed would allow, in order to reduce the amount of heat shared between us. Needless to say, we were a bit tired when we woke up the next morning.

Nevertheless, I was relatively excited because I was going to spend the morning at the National Gallery while my husband attended the last bit of his conference. I went with him to the conference building (he showed me how to get there without dodging traffic on bridges) and checked my luggage at the cloakroom so that I could wander unencumbered. Surprisingly, I did not have any navigational issues getting to the Gallery; at one point I thought I'd gone astray, but my iPhone GPS correctly encouraged me to stay the course. When I got to Trafalgar Square, just outside the museum, I was surprised at how different it was from the last time I saw it. Admittedly, that was about 11 years ago, and my memories are a bit hazy, but it had quite a bit more activity then. Since my first visit, the authorities have banned the feeding of the Trafalgar pigeons, which is a real shame since that may have been the highlight of my previous trip--for a bird-lover, having "wild" birds land on various parts of your body is pretty exciting. Anyway, I vaguely recalled street vendors and artists and throngs of tourists, but either those are gone forever or I arrived too early, because all I could see this time around were the fountains and statues; it was actually quite sophisticated and pretty.

Because I was so efficient in my navigation, I arrived almost a half hour prior to the museum's opening, so I sat down outside and passed the time by reading. Someone had placed a bag of old bread on the lawn of the museum, and a flock of pigeons were busy gorging themselves, which allowed me to relive some of my Trafalgar memories a bit. After a while, the museum officials came to unlock the gates/doors and I was one of the first people in the gallery. This turned out to be a very good thing, because the museum got increasingly busy as the day went on--tourists and school groups showed up to fill the rooms with the noises of shuffling feet and whispered comments and art history lectures. It was nice to have the echoing rooms virtually to myself for a while, though I imagine that the museum guards--one of whom was positioned in each room--found this to be a bit unstimulating (what a boring job that would be--sitting all day and watching people wander around a room).

The National Gallery has a truly amazing collection of pieces, and I only just cracked the surface during my nearly three hours there. Because there is just no end to what an iPhone can do, I whipped it out and took some notes on my favorite pieces:

(Francisco de Zurbaran's "St. Margaret of Antioch."

(Salvator Rosa's "Witches at Their Incantations." This was a surprisingly dark painting--which I mean not in terms of its subject matter, which is metaphorically dark, but its colors, which were so dark that the images were difficult to make out. The digital image here actually provides a clearer view than I got in person.)

(Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato's "The Virgin in Prayer." I do not particularly love this representation of Mary, because, as I've mentioned before, I prefer the Renaissance style where everyone looks kind of sickly, but I have never seen such a vibrant blue in my life--it looked unreal. Apparently the pigments required to make this color were quite expensive back in Sassoferrato's day.)

(Unknown Flemish painter's "Cognoscenti in a Room Hung With Pictures." When I was little, both my grandma and mom had these alphabet books where each letter of the alphabet got a scene crammed full of items that began with that letter. I used to love those books, because it seemed like you could look at the pages forever and not see everything in them. This painting reminds me of that. There were some high school-aged students wandering through during a class trip, and one of the girls brought over a friend to show her this painting, which I thought was pretty cool. I can't imagine any of my high school contemporaries caring enough about a painting to discuss it with a classmate.)

(Cornelis van Haarlem's "Two Followers of Cadmus Devoured by a Dragon." I was interested in this painting because it was so gruesomely detailed--you could see the brain stem in the decapitated head, and the puncture marks of dragon's claws and teeth. Pretty hard-core.)

(A follower of Rembrandt's "A Man Seated at a Table Reading in a Lofty Room." Pithy title, huh? Apparently, for many years it was thought that this was one of Rembrandt's early works. Only recently did the experts change their minds and decide that this was painted by someone who was mimicking the style that Rembrandt used while working in Leiden. If I could have purchased any of the paintings in the museum, I think I would have chosen this one, despite the fact that it really is as dark as it looks here.)

At this point in my wanderings through the museum, I had become rather hungry and so I went down to the cafe and enjoyed a tasty cream tea--rather ironic since cream tea is a relatively Cornish tradition, and here I went all the way to London to partake in it. In any case, I stopped by the gift shop in order to browse the postcards. Unfortunately, with the exception of the last painting mentioned above, none of my favorites were on offer in postcard format. However, I did stumble across a postcard of this:

(Jan van Eyck's "The Arnolfini Portrait." This is one of the first paintings/artists that I learned to recognize without the help of a label.)

Well, imagine my surprise to learn that I had come very close to leaving the National Gallery without seeing one of its most famous and beloved images, and one that I've liked for many years. I stopped by the info desk and got some directions, then headed back upstairs and took an extremely circuitous route through about 10 different galleries before finally arriving. Luckily, the room was still pretty empty. There were a couple ladies in front of the painting, but they moved aside after one of them repeatedly leaned in so close to the portrait that the guard asked her to leave. I had the painting all to myself for a few minutes, and could examine the mirror and the reflection and the signature (but not as closely as I would have liked to, because I knew the guard was a bit edgy). There were several other van Eycks in the room as well, and they were all very interesting. A couple paintings away, I found this:

(Rogier van der Weyden's "The Magdalen Reading." You can tell this is Mary Magdalen because of the jar of ointment beside her--the ointment with which she anointed Christ's feet. This painting was originally part of a larger work, which is why the guy behind Mary has no head and why the cabinet behind her is cut off. I was surprised at how many pieces in the Gallery were incomplete--what kind of maniacs allowed such fine artwork to be dismembered over the years?? Still, it's good that the museum rescued them from further desecration.)

As I retraced my footsteps out of the van Eyck room (did they purposely hide such a famous painting in a tiny corner of the museum?), I found a few more choice pieces:

(Saints Genevieve and Appollonian, and Christina and Ottila, as painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder--or Lucas "Crunch," as my iPhone decided to interpret my text, though since that's the only mistake it made during my trip, I'll forgive it. These were from the St. Catherine altarpiece and were originally positioned on the backs of the shutter doors so that the object would still be decorated even when the doors were closed. If these were the backs of the doors, I'd love to see the fronts.)

(Cosimo Tura's "A Muse (Calliope?)." This was thought to be one of a series, and this one would have been positioned high up in the room, hence the high vanishing point.)

By the time I completed this second circuit, it was time to leave again in order to meet my husband. I would definitely like to go back to the National Gallery and see some of the post-17th-century stuff, which I didn't really make it to during this visit. One thing I noticed about this museum was how many truly enormous pieces it had--things that were life-size or bigger, which would have decorated rooms from ceiling to floor. This definitely contrasts with the paintings in the Scottish National Gallery, which tended to be relatively smaller (though still, by the standards of what I have hanging in my own house, fairly large). Even for the pictures whose style or content I did not particularly enjoy, I had to be impressed by the sheer scope; I can't even complete a small doodle on a sheet of paper, so I can't imagine doing something that would fill a whole wall.

Once I left the museum, I headed back the way I came in order to meet my husband for lunch. Or, at least, I thought I did. Actually, I managed to take a road that ran parallel to my original route for a while, but then went off at an angle. It didn't take me long to notice that I was not passing the same businesses I had on the way in. At this point, you may be thinking that I get lost an awful lot, and that's not entirely true--I do get lost occasionally, but generally I have a very good sense of direction. I have a tendency to trailblaze whenever I go places--if I encounter construction or a traffic jam on my intended route, I just take the first turn and then wander around until I get where I want to go. Generally, this works quite well for me, and, if nothing else, it is never boring. However, it is hard to orient yourself when you are surrounded by buildings that obscure the sky, and when the sun is covered by clouds. Also, London is just totally disorganized because it did not begin as a planned city with nice, straight roads laid out on a grid; it grew organically as people wandered in from the surrounding countryside and set up shop (sometimes literally) wherever they could find space.

Of course, it is not an option to look confused or turn around and retrace your steps, because that makes you look totally uncool. Instead, you can pretend that you are sending a text message or scrolling through you music database and, instead, (can you see where this is going?)...use the GPS on your iPhone. I discovered that I was approaching a bridge that was on the opposite side of the building than the bridge I had taken when leaving that morning; in other words, I was about to complete a full circle. Heartened by the simplicity of this route, I proceed blindly ahead, only to surprise myself by arriving at a construction site where the sidewalk suddenly ended. Yes, I had taken the same bridge as the night before, only from the opposite direction. The truly annoying thing here was that I could have been on the side of the bridge with the sidewalk, had I just crossed a bit earlier at the pelican crossing, as they are called here in the UK. I didn't think that would be necessary, so I didn't, and here I was being forced to run across two lanes of traffic, AGAIN. The trouble I can get myself into.

After another nice outdoor meal in the sun, we headed back to Waterloo Station to meet my husband's cousin for a quick drink before taking the train to Falmouth. When I say quick, I mean very quick, because we only had about 20 minutes before catching our connecting ride on the Underground. As we rushed off, I felt sure that we were going to miss our train, so imagine my surprise when we showed up at Paddington and found that all trains were either delayed or completely canceled. The first thought through both my husband's and my minds was that there had been some sort of terror attack. Luckily (for most people), that was not the case. Instead, someone had been hit by a train at Twyford about an hour previously, and the mess was still being cleaned up. After a bit, we were told to board the train at Platform 5, where we had another surprise waiting for us: Everyone from the 2 PM train was still on there, having been delayed by the accident; we, the 3 PM crowd, were joining them, rather than replacing them. Luckily, nobody from the previous trip had been booked into my seat, and there was an empty seat next to it, so both my husband and I got to sit down. The same was not true of dozens of other people, who either had to stand in the middle of the aisle or sit on their suitcases out in the hallway next to the toilets. It was a very cramped and uncomfortable ride for the two or so hours until we hit Exeter, at which point the crowd had thinned out sufficiently for everyone to have a seat and for us to manage the trip to the buffet car in order to get some tea (what's a train ride without a nice cuppa?).

When I got home, I was rather morbidly curious about the whole idea of someone being killed by a train. In my neck of the woods, this generally happens for one of three reasons: 1) People mistakenly think they can outrun oncoming trains at crossings, 2) People blunder into rail/road intersections because the crossing aren't marked well enough, or 3) Drunken idiots and kids walk along the tracks and somehow fail to get out of the way of approaching trains in time. In the UK, train fatalities are fairly common, both because there are so many miles of train tracks and because the platforms can become so busy that people accidentally get knocked off. Then, of course, there are people who commit suicide by train, which would have to be particularly awful for the family and friends left behind. At first, I could find almost no information about this particular fatality, other than some notices that trains had been delayed that afternoon. After a few days, however, I was uncovered a writeup of the story on the BBC, and it was much more scandalous that I had anticipated: A man had stabbed his wife to death in the morning, and then committed suicide by jumping in front of the train that afternoon, leaving the couple's 13-year-old daughter an orphan. How depressing is that? It made me feel very guilty about complaining about something as meaningless as the cramped conditions on the train.

After that, we made it back to Falmouth without further incidents, and I am glad to say that we are here to stay for a while. I'm feeling a bit exhausted from all the long train rides and navigational difficulties, and I am quite happy to wander around the well-labeled streets of Falmouth and avoid bridges under construction.

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