Saturday, October 30, 2004

London Day 1 - Orientation

"When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life," said Samuel Johnson... "for there is in London all that life can afford." I am happy to confirm for you that he was right.

I've spent the last week with the Mrs. in Londinium, as Julius Caesar called it, at the gracious invitation of my siniging sister-in-law Susie who studies here. For my own reference, I will outline each day of the trip below, with accompanying reflections, in detail.

Although as a rule I seek to avoid the standard "what I did today" blog entry, I can assure you that if ever there was a week of my life in which tracing my daily itinerary would be worthwhile, this was the one.

More DAY 1 - On our first day we got our basic orientation from Susie, and our friend Rick who traveled with us on the plane and all through the city. Rick even slept in my bag each night. If you haven't discovered Rick Steves' guidebooks, it is well worth your while. He's P.B.S.'s travel guy (sometimes they air his travel videos). His aim is the to avoid everything that reeks of the American tourist, and he hits the right balance between travel-smarts and excellent historical and art-historical information. Has a book for every major European city too.

We swung by Buckingham Palace, and though the changing of the guard and all that stuff is fun, what was really interesting to me was the monument in front of the palace. There she is, a massive statue of Queen Victoria inscribed, "Regina Imperatrix," with an imposing monument complete with pillars stretching the square for each of the Continents the Brits once dominated. The culture binge that we enjoyed in London was for the mostpart possible thanks to the fact that the empire at its zenith, as it was under her, had the chance to "acquire" such an astonishing amount of arifacts and art. Then we swung by the Cabinet War Rooms (which we toured later), an amazing testimony to the most intense moments of that next century, when Victoria's empire would be whittled back down to the size of an island.

The Victoria and Albert Museum, with German Blitz-damage on the side of the museum still visible, was particularly impressive because it made the trip to London feel like a trip to Europe. Because some Londoners couldn't afford the Grand Tour (the maraschino cherry to an aristocrat's education), the V&A commissioned plaster casts of many major Continental pieces (such as Michealenagelo's David and Ghiberti's doors) to scale! And to think I considered myself educated in art history (which was my major) without seeing how big all this stuff actually is. Standing before so many of these works (incuding a sawed in half Trajan's column!) humbled my inflated estimation of contemporary media's power to persuade, and took another whack at the ol' chronological snobbery. Furthermore, before contemporary Christian's try to re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-reinvent the wheel with new "visual" ways of presenting the faith, let's just take at least a little time with this stuff. There's a reason they called them Old Masters.

Also at the V&A was Thomas Beckett's reliquary and many other goodies. But imagine my surprise upon leaving the place to see this just a block away. If you're having trouble imagining my surprise, let me help you. I really like John Henry Newman, the famous 19th cent. convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism, who developed a (in my mind much more exciting) theory of evolution ten years before did Darwin.

I was tempted to spend the rest of the day and night riding around on the top story of the London busses, which have a right to be the town's signiature mode of transport. They're a blast (and at night are basically a moving party). More commentary on each day will follow as I find the opportunity. Do stay tuned...