Friday, August 8, 2008

Goodbye, My Dear England (Part VII)

Tuesday came much too early. My train was to leave at 6:30 in the evening, and I wanted to get a full day in before that. Unfortunately I didn’t start as early as I wanted because a ridiculously rude Irish guy in the hotel decided he was going to punish everyone because of a disagreement he had with someone and went to bed very late (and loudly), left his light on the entire night, and got a phone call early in the morning which he felt he must share with the entire room. I didn’t have the most restful night in the hotel, but I have learned decisively never to do the dorm-style thing again no matter how much cheaper it is. Seriously the rudest guy I’ve met in Europe. Even ruder than the Spanish. But he’s proven to be a major exception, especially of the Irish whereas a non-rude Spaniard were definitely be the exception.

First thing on my itinerary was the Tower of London, the famous fortress used by kings of England since Edward II back in… a long time ago. For me it is best known as the place that Bloody Mary held her sister, Elizabeth, when she suspected her of treason.

Here are a few photos of the castle:

This is the scaffold where so many famous people from English history met their fate. Interestingly, it was only for men. There was a smaller, less public scaffold for women traitors to the State (such as Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey, Mary Queen of Scots, etc.)

Our tour guide was amazing. He had an incredible sense of humor (or is that “humour”?) and, after discovering I was from America, did a jolly good job of welcoming me “home”.

Traitors’ Gate, the gate coming from the Thames. Mary had Elizabeth brought this way because she was afraid Protestant resisters would rescue her if she was brought by land. Elizabeth, it is rumored, wouldn’t walk up the steps until she had declared her innocence and her guards agreed with her. Elizabeth just happens to be a fascinating historical character for me, and my second favorite character from the Reformation time period, so this was an awesome experience for me.

London Bridge! Again, I didn’t explore because it cost simply too much (and I was tired of walking). Instead I had a cup of tea roughly underneath it right next to a lovely little boat harbor (habour?). And yes, the British do enjoy Starbucks.

My last stop was Covenant Gardens, the famous setting of the opening for My Fair Lady. Eliza was, I believe, sitting beneath this alcove when she was confronted my Henry Higgins for her ghastly pattern of speech (“It’s ‘aouh’ and ‘garn’ that keep this wretched girl in her place/not her dirty clothes and wretched face… This is what the British population/calls an elementary education!”)

And I was out of time and on my way back to the train station. As I boarded the eurostar, I felt a pang of sadness. London does feel a bit like home. But I find that everywhere has a bit of home and a bit that is strange and other-worldly. The sadness, I think, was because I had only had four days. Next time I will spend longer and get farther away from London.

That’s all! Hope you all enjoyed this little mini-series of blog entries and, once again, I do apologize for not getting them on earlier. Next up: My great Europe Tour!

English Countryside (Part VI)

On Monday morning, I took the Tube northwards to meet some of my friends whom I had met in Scotland last year. Susan and Geoff have been in and out of contact ever since March 2007 when I met them on my trip to Iona. There they fulfilled one of my longtime dreams by inviting me out for a lovely tea by the sea the day before we left the island. It was the only day the sun came out for more than an hour. I was excited to see them again and was surprised at how our friendship picked up exactly where it had ended. Neither of them seemed to have changed a bit, but Susan asked me if I had gotten taller. I told her I didn’t think so, but I may seem like it since I wasn’t hunched over trying to stay warm (it was freezing on Iona, and we always trying to stay warm).

They took me to a place where we could look down and see the City of London all the way to the South Downs (which are actually ups). Here are some random pictures of my day with Susan and Geoff:

And once again we had a lovely tea together. This time they took me to a semi-stately-home of England, and we enjoyed the heavenly nectar with some biscuits in a lovely English garden. It was absolutely amazing.

Hotel Horror/Sunday Rest (Part V)

Saturday evening proved to be the worst experience of my trip to London. The directions to my hotel were absolute rot, and what should have taken 30 minutes to find took about two hours. I finally stumbled into the wrong hotel out of desperation and found that it was, indeed, the right hotel. The name on the Internet/emails was not the same as the one on the building. The correct name is only above the reception desk. Then I was checked in by a nice gentleman who could barely speak any English (no, America isn’t the only country with that problem) and absolutely no French. He gave me my total for the stay (weird to pay when arriving, I thought) which included one extra day’s stay. When I asked him about it, he did a lot of clicking around on the computer and finally told me he had no idea and I could ask the receptionist in the morning for a refund. I was so tired I said that was fine. Then I went to my supposedly male-only dorm room to discover not only that someone was in my bed, but that the someone was indeed a female someone. I found an empty bed (her bed, as it turned out) and finally went to sleep. Needless to say, I was not impressed and vowed to try to find a different hotel for the next night and call my credit card to refuse payment. But the next morning I was served a very large English breakfast and realized that I simply wouldn’t find another hotel for less than the £15 ($30) I was paying that included breakfast like that. I spoke with the receptionist (who also could barely speak English) about my bill, and she informed me that I would still be required to pay for the extra day. I later had the hotel manager refund it for me. It’s nice to know other countries have problems with service and sheer stupidity as well as my own dear America-Land.

Sunday morning, after my tangle with the receptionist who didn’t speak English and discovering that the advertised “free tourist information” was, in fact, pay-per-15-minutes Internet access (which I used but refused to pay for), I walked nearly over a mile to St. Augustine’s Anglican Church (supposedly the closest Anglican church to the hotel) for the last 20 minutes of their service. Afterwards I did make it to the International Christian Center (Assemblies of God) for the complete second service starting at noon. It was an interesting coincidence because I had been attending Christian Center in Brussels which is also associated with Assemblies of God. Only I found out later than the American AoG (which is what was in Brussels) aren’t at all associated with the British AoG. Whatever.

At this church, I met a lovely Irish woman, Mary, who chatted with me for several minutes while the first service was finishing up. Later she invited me to sit with her when she saw me sitting alone before service started. That was really very nice. I can’t tell you how many American churches I’ve sat in, awkwardly waiting for someone to approach me and welcome me to service and extend a hand of friendship. Mary did that right off the bat, and I had the feeling she would have invited me over to dinner except she was being driven home by someone else. An interesting contrast to one experience when, after 2 years of attendance at a certain church and never having visited anyone else’s home, the greeter, whom I had passed every Sunday for two years, asked me if I was visiting. Let this be a lesson to myself, who doesn’t tend to be the social type with people I’ve never met: a kind word and greeting can mean a lot to someone. Genuineness is also generally a plus and, if possible, invite people into your home to get to know them.

Sunday afternoon I walked around Wembley, which is in West London just west and a little north of the City of London. I read some Bonhoeffer in a nice park where I was asked first if I was a tramp and, when I said no, that I was a tourist, was I then an illegal immigrant? I laughed and asked the kid if they had a lot of illegal immigrants from the U.S. I got no response so maybe they do.

In the evening I arrived, a little late, to St. Michael’s Anglican Church for evening Mass. It was a small service, only about six people total, but it felt very warm and intimate. I was in for a few shockers, but overall I found the service quite refreshing. Afterwards I asked the priest, who also doubled as the organ player, if he would like to go out for tea and a bit of conversation. He counter-offered a drink at the Vicarage, which I accepted without it clicking that he had invited me into his home. Father Peter, as I ignorantly called him (he later told me to drop all titles), proved to be an excellent example of generous Christian hospitality. Though I only had two glasses of orange juice (calm down CofO peeps), I found him to be the most giving, generous, and open person I had met in my entire time in Europe, with the exception of a wonderful Northern Irish family who has taken me in as one of their own back in Brussels. Perhaps British Christians are just like that? Or perhaps the Christian spirit of hospitality and community transcends nationality. I think that’s it. Our chat covered everything from religion, politics, education, society, and back again. Before either of us realized it, it was after 11:00, and we had talked for over 3 hours! It was a perfect end to a lovely Sunday in England.

My experiences with Mary and Peter taught me a lot about myself and the state of the current evangelical church in the United States as contrasted with the Church, both evangelical and Anglican, in England. Or at least my small taste.

West End (Part IV)

Hear them up in Soho Square, dropping H’s everywhere!

So sang the famous Professor Higgens in My Fair Lady. I heard a lot of people in Soho Square but not many were dropping H’s. Most were speaking French. But I did hear a bit of American-English. Silly place.

The statue is Charles II. Not sure what he’s famous for (I should know I’m sure), but he apparently built Soho Square. If you look closely you’ll see a pigeon on his head, and he’s covered in, uh, whitewash.

For my dear brother, I took a photo of this theatre (not cinema) that I had absolutely no desire to visit. But I did get a pretty good laugh out of the theatre fa├žade.

And here you can make out The Queen’s Theatre advertising their production of Les Miserables, which has been showing non-stop on West End for over 20 years.

At the risk of making many of my friends jealous unto sin, I will eagerly share that I did in fact go to see the evening production of Les Miz. It was the most amazing theatrical production I have ever seen, though that’s only because I had bad seats when I went to see Beauty and the Beast in Kansas City back in 2003. Now I want to read the book in its original French. If you’re not familiar with the story, you should be. Go out and listen to the Focus on the Family Radio Theatre version of it, the musical CD, or just read the book. Don't watch the movie with Liam Neeson. Somehow this story captures the reality of the human life on so many levels. The opposing character’s of Jean Valjean and Javert represent humanity’s two possible responses to the Grace extended to us. An excellent spiritual allegory that deserves not only a blog post but several books expounding on the gems of the story. Maybe I’ll do that sometime (the blog post, not the books).

Around the Old City (Part III)

After the Queen’s Mews, I had all afternoon to continue exploring London.

Below is Big Ben (again, sorry about the angle thing. I’m going to fix these before I print them). Off to the left you can see the top of the London Eye. I wanted to go up it, but there was a three-hour wait, and it cost something like £40 ($80), so I didn’t. London is an expensive city.

Sadly, Parliament wasn’t open yet (again, I was ten days too early), but here’s some photos of the outside:

That statue is Oliver Cromwell. Okay, not him really but his image.

And Westminster Abbey, which I also didn’t go into because the wait was over an hour and cost around £16 ($32). I did go into Saint Margaret’s Chapel, which is, I think, the official Parliamentary chapel. It was really cool but there was a sign saying “no photos”. I was the only one who obeyed the sign.

After not visiting the Eye of London, Parliament, or Westminster Abbey, I decided to have a snack and sit by the River Thames. Beautiful. This is actually right behind Parliament and part of the park I was in is fenced off as the private gardens for MPs. But the public can still see in! Unfortunately Parliament was already dismissed, so there wasn’t anyone wandering about.

After walking around a bit longer in the government area of the city, I decided to head to the West End. I was almost immediately accosted by a beggar around my age saying he hadn’t eaten in three days and couldn’t I please give him some money? I told him flat out no but that I would buy him fish and chips if he would show me a good place to get them myself. He agreed but the whole way there kept badgering me to just give him some money. I remained firm and refused. He finally admitted he didn’t really want food. I offered to buy him a drink, and he accepted that proposition by getting two. As he finished them, he promptly threw the cans on the ground. I was a bit shocked. And he kept asking me to just give him some money. Finally it came out that he wanted to hire a prostitute, to which I said that this was exactly why I wouldn’t give him my money. He wasn’t very happy with that but did show me a great place for fish & chips and a nice cup of tea!

The Queen’s Mews (Part II)

Sadly Buckingham Palace wasn’t open yet for guests. I was ten days too early. Depressing, I know, but I survived through tears and howls of anguish. What was even more depressing is that they were going to be hosting an exhibition on state banquets as a temporary exhibit. I would have enjoyed that. A lot. Oh well. I’m sure one day I’ll get to attend a real one with the Queen present! J (Bonus Points to whoever can identify the second tense used in my third sentence of this paragraph).

After a quick photo-prohibited tour of the Queen’s Gallery (a selection of paintings, furniture, jewels, etc. from the Queen’s personal collection), I went for a relaxing tour of the Queen’s Mews (stables). I was blown away by how many coaches the Queen has and the history and purpose of each.

I can’t honestly remember which this one was. There were several very similar: the Irish Coach, the Scottish Coach, the Australian Coach, the Glass Coach, and Queen Alexandra’s State Coach to name a few. Each had interesting bits about it. One of them is the Queen’s favorite because it has electric heating and cooling. Interesting for a horse-drawn carriage, eh? The Australian one was a gift from Her Majesty’s realm of Australia on occasion of her 50th anniversary on the Throne (I think). However, the Queen didn’t want Australian citizens to have to pay for it through taxes, so it was completely funded by donations.

I also found out why Wales is never represented on the flag, crest, or any other object of the United Kingdom, but England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland always are: Wales is a principality, not a kingdom, and therefore isn’t afforded equal status as the three kingdoms. Interesting to me since Wales now has its own Parliament and is, arguably, freer (more free?) than England within the United Kingdom (England still falls solely under British Parliament, with representatives from all four countries voting on issues that only affect England while each of the other entities has a local Parliament). British politics are interesting. And somewhat sad.

But onto the rest of the Mews! Here’s a royal carriage for young princes and/or princesses. It has been pulled by goats, sheep, donkeys, big dogs, and finally ponies.

Here’s the front picture of the huge State Coach used only at coronations or, sometimes, weddings. The Queen did use it on her Golden Jubilee as well, but that was the first time it had been used since her ascension to the Throne. Before I forget, the woman in the front was our charming tour guide. She has a beautiful accent and seemed to know everything about the royal family. Sadly, she had to deal with some spoiled Yankee brats in our tour. I wanted to ask their parents to PLEASE get them under control but, alas, I did not.

And here’s the side view. One of the British kings created this coach to rival Louis XIV of France, so that’s why it looks as if it belongs in Versailles rather than Buckingham.

The Greek god of the sea shows British navel superiority. All of the weapons illustrated have been broken to signify the end of one of the conflicts with France. I think it was the War of the Roses, but I’m not sure.

In case you were wondering, the wheels are, in fact, slanted; it is no fault of the picture-taker. This apparently relieves pressure on the axles so the wheels don’t snap under the several tons of weight. This coach is by far the heaviest in the Mews (probably the world) and has to have a team of eight horses to pull it!

There are only five cars in the Queen’s employ. Queen Victoria famously asked the Keeper of the Mews to please never allow those “horrible machines” into the royal stables. It didn’t quite turn out as she would have wanted; her son immediately added one or two for his use upon his mother’s death.

So that’s the Queen’s Mews.

Arrival in London (Part I)

First I must apologize for not getting these photos up sooner. Life gets busy in those changing times of life, which, for me, seem to come at least every three months. After my tour to London, I found myself in a shocking shortage of time. I needed to get packed up (which proved to be a lot more complicated than I thought), finish up project at work (which took more time than I usually spent at work), and say goodbye to many dear friends I had made in Brussels. Bright and early the next Saturday morning, only seven days after being in the same station on my way to London, I found myself leaving Brussels for France. Sadly, when I arrived in France I couldn’t get my wireless card to read the wifi signals in my hotel and other places. I felt like launching it out the window but resisted the urge. I am now writing this entry and saving it to my hard drive in hopes that someday soon I can post it on my blog. If you’re reading it, then I have probably done just that (or you’ve hacked into my computer to which I would have to say, “shame on you”). Anyway, the commencement of my exciting four days in London!

My train left Brussels at 6:50 in the morning on Saturday, July 19, 2008. I arrived in London at 7:53. Quick train, one might think, and it indeed was. But it wasn’t quite that fast. There is a one-hour time set back between Brussels and London that one has to remember, so really the train ride was two hours. Still pretty fast if you ask me.

I arrived just as the Old City was beginning to wake up. The perfect time, really. After a quick breakfast at the McDonald’s right across from the train station, I set off. It took me fully 2 hours to get my coordination, eat breakfast, purchase bus and metro passes, and arrive on Constitution Hill. Here she is:

Strange, I thought, since the United Kingdom doesn’t have a written constitution, to have, as the connection between Parliament and the Royal Palace, a monument called Constitution Hill. My apologies for the picture. My camera takes photos slightly angled (or I’m crooked myself, who knows?).

Next I walked up the path through the beautiful St. James Park toward Buckingham Palace. Below is my first glimpse of my first recognizable landmark in England!

Here are some “bobbies” guarding her Majesty’s palace from all manner of evil: terrorist, vandals, thieves, and, of course, the French:

And a Royal Guard.

As you can tell, it there weren’t any guards in the fuzzy hats doing the guarding. Not sure why not, but there you have it. I was back in front of the palace again at 11:30, but the Changing of the Guard was canceled because it rained a bit. I was disappointed, but there were so many people I don’t think I would have been able to see it anyway. And I’m not big on hanging around in large gatherings of people. Have I ever mentioned how much I hate people? I hate people. I love persons, but people are generally loud, rude, uncouth, and uncaring to an individual. Below is a picture facing the opposite direction of the palace, toward St. James Garden and a big monument that I should know the name of but don’t. As you can tell, there are still enough tourists.