Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Communication of the Dead - Westminster Abbey

Back-post from
15 June 2013

“The communication / of the dead is tongued with fire beyond / the language of the living.” 
T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” 
The words that mark his memorial in Westminster Abbey.

It’s almost impossible to let go of my obsessive need to accomplish – to not waste a minute of time, to record every instance. This morning, I tried to shut it off. I let myself sleep until 930, mosey down to the common room for coffee and toast and relax a little.

My primary goal of the morning is a visit to Westminster Abbey, another site I disregarded on my original London excursion. Another day, another cathedral – this is London after all.

Rick Steves correctly advised me to chose the cash line (over the credit line) to get in the doors of this imposing building, but both lines moved surprisingly quick for a Saturday morning, just a couple years after the most recent Royal Wedding was held in this very space. (The first was in 1100!)

Entering the cathedral overwhelms visitors, as I myself do what each person has before me – touch my chest and let my jaw fall open.  It is stunning, and its place in British history cannot be overstated. For almost 800 years, this has been the site of nation-changing weddings, funerals and mention coronations.      

I’m not in the building for three minutes, barely getting my orientation, when I notice a wall plaque for Alfred Russel Wallace, a 19th century British explorer, geographer, anthropologist and biologist. Although a somewhat overlooked scientist, Wallace not only explored and described the flora and fauna of unknown regions of the world in the 1880’s, he also developed a theory of evolution independent of his contemporary Charles Darwin. Some suggest that Darwin was pushed to publish his On the Origin of Species primarily to beat Wallace to the punch. Although Wallace is buried in Dorset, as he wished, the plaque was placed in Westminster two years after his death, in 1915.

I’m still thinking about poor Wallace and the short-end he got in British history when I find myself standing on the stone marked for Darwin himself. I immediately wonder if Wallace’s scientist bros purposefully had his plaque added just a few feet in front of Darwin’s grave so he could be first at something. My hands shake and clench at the desire to break the rules and take a picture, but I can control myself. I’m honored and awed to be standing here and wish desperately that I could talk to the grumpy old Darwin and tell him what he means to me. I’m secretly glad that I skipped this stop when I was 19, because there’s no way it would have felt this special.

Nearby the rests stone of Charles Lyell, another scientist and contemporary of Darwin (a friend and mentor, really).  Among kings and queens, I also find a Isaac Newton, a brilliant dedication to William Shakespeare (who is buried in Stratford-Upon-Avon) and a memorial to T.S. Eliot, among other influential poets and writers. The list of rockstars who are buried or memorialized here would take up a whole post, but go ahead and check Wikipedia

Westminster Abbey is a place that can make you feel both tiny and inspired at the same time. To mingle with history in this close proximity really is to communicate with the dead. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

I Did Not Find The Steak That I Was Promised

While enjoying a proper pint at the Cat Tavern (I`ll give you three guesses why I stopped into this tavern), the smell of freshly fried fish and chips is pungent, but theres also a dog walking around, and you know how I like a bar-dog. There is no music for a while, and then there is Green Day. Perfect.

I refer to my beer as a "proper pint" because the glass which holds the beer is not the thick walled illusion pint from home. You know, that glass into which you could empty a can of Miller Lite and it would threaten to overflow? No, this is a proper pint of beer, in what I think of like as an extra-wide kitchen glass. The kind of glass that rich people drink lemonade from at big-hat backyard parties.

A Biker-looking dude with a beard that could be tucked behind his large metallic belt buckle advised my purchase when he eyed me scanning the tappers.

"`ere, I`ll `elp: You`ve got Guinness; Cider; rubbish; beer; beer; beer." 

I chose the Dophin Amber by Sunny Republic; because thats what he was drinking, and apparently was not considered to be rubbish.

My seat at the bar provides me with a direct view of the kitchen, where I can see an "INSECTOCUTER" which is exactly what it sounds like - a machine that makes bugs adorable. But, cute bugs or not, I`m happy that I brought my lunch with me from London to Salisbury.
this image is creepy looking due to user error. my apologies.

Yes, I traveled to Salisbury solely to visit a Tavern named for a cat, but Salisbury also happens to have a couple other amazing attributes like a bad-ass cathedral built in the early 13th century, and the best surviving copy (of 4) of the Magna Carta. Who knew?

Sadly, there was no steak.

The trip to Salisbury had been a success. The cathedral is absolutely stunning (for any of you Pillars of the Earth fans, this was one of the cathedrals that inspired the tale). For 800 years this building has stood, inspiring people to god and really making everything else in town look puny. That it houses one of the few remaining copies of the document which influenced all modern governments is just a feather in its buttress.

The massive grounds hug the cathedral walls, and allow for tourists and students from the Cathedral school to rest and enjoy lunch in the shadow of an eight century old building.

A historic cathedral, a priceless historical document AND a Cat Tavern? This was the start of a pretty good day!

post script: part of me wondered if Cat was short for Cathedral; but there was definitely a picture of a feline on the sign, and no sign of a connection to a church in the living room-like decor.

A Run Through London

14 June

You really see a lot more of a city when you get lost. In fact that's how Columbus discovered America, and how 20% of movie meet-cutes happen.  When my shoes were laced and my chrono set, I felt less like an American in London and more like a runner looking to knock out some miles. A painful stiffness in my neck, undoubtably from the awkward rest of a hostel bunk bed, and my chronic travelers dehydration (beer > water), told me immediately that the the run would be short. I just wanted to do two or three miles. I reminded myself that I could run as short or as long as I wanted. I was on vacation.

My beloved hostel sat on the south side of the Thames, very near the Westminster bridge which dead ended at Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. As I rambled over the bridge with my short strides and soft footfalls, I imagined that this view - the iconic tower and the seat of the government- was a part of my daily run.

Bridge after bridge criss-cross the Thames like stripes across the back of a snake. From south to north, east and then south again, I ran. Navigational signs pepper the city, mostly at the locations of the bike share stations, known to some locals as "Boris" bikes for the mayor who procured them. I slowed to check the signs often and geared myself toward the Globe Theatre and the Tate Modern museum.  As I approached the eerie smokestack that interrupts the south bank skyline from the converted warehouse that serves as the city's modern art haven, I burst out in laughter recalling my sister and I perusing its exhibits, realizing how much we didn't "get" modern art, on her visit to London while I studied here.

I ran along the cobbled streets surrounding the Globe, and peered through the metal gates in front  decorated with tiny sculptures of Shakespeare's greatest characters.

Figuring I could just weave my way back through the neighborhoods, rather than returning to the riverfront walk, turned out to be an error in judgement. Up and down and around tiny twisty streets, trying to move myself west, trying to avoid moving south, I ran.  Eventually, when I finally approached my hostel,  6 miles later, I felt like I could do anything.

There's A Reason Why It's Called That

14 June...continued...visiting my favorite thing on earth.

Exhausted and still stiff-necked, I debated heading back to the hostel to recharge as my train from Salisbury pulled into London's Waterloo. The hostel was so close, I reasoned, a little rest couldn't hurt. But, oh, it can hurt, I contradicted. What if I let the tired set in and never make it back out, wasting a half a day in London!?! Deciding without making a decision, I boarded the tube and headed out in another adventure.

There wasn't time left in the day to tour an entire museum, but I didn't need to. This was the perfect time to visit my favorite historical artifact in London, and maybe the world: the Rosetta Stone. It can be hard to comprehend the age or significance of a piece of art, or a historical monument, but the the first time I laid my eyes on the Rosetta Stone my mind was blown [insert hilarious visual of trendy "mind blown" gesture here]. This stone, which is actually a small portion broken off of a larger tablet, or Stella, contains a message from Ptolemy IV to the people of Memphis, Egypt in 196BC. It was discovered in 1799 many miles away from its original location. Scholars maintain that it was likely transported to be used in building - being a nice solid stone with some scribble on it- since it had outlived its original use, the way you write your list of bills to pay this month on the back of an unpaid parking ticket. The story of the creation, age and discovery of this ancient stone is cool enough on its own, but what historians were able to do with it takes the fricken cake.

At this time, the late 18th century, the brits were pretty enamored with the mysteries of Egypt. It was foreign and new, so different from their own world. The only problem was that no one had any idea at all what all those little signs and pictures on tombs and artwork were talking about. A lot of experts assumed that hieroglyphs weren't a language at all. Just a primitive communication tool - look, a picture of a bird! That means there were birds! But the Rosetta Stone changed everything. The message I mentioned that was carved on the stone? It was more complex than just a message. In the section of the stone that was found, the same message was written 3 times - to make sure everyone in town understood it (think "Caution Wet Floor! Cuidado Piso Mojado!" - it saves a ton of money on lawsuits). The three languages used were Greek, the language of government, Demotic, and hieroglyphs, which were pretty much out of style by then, but like I said, these folks were playing it safe.

What this means is that historians had a key, a legend for reading the hieroglyphs. The Rosetta Stone could only do so much on its own, it took supremely talented scientists 25 years to learn to read the language of the hieroglyphs, and then modern folks began to understand the mysteries of ancient Egypt, and to learn that the society had been an advanced culture, experienced in math and science.

This stone, this piece of carved rock that has been in the British museum for over two hundred years (I wonder what the gift shop was like then!) changed history, and we can see it, Up close (if you push through the "eh? A rock? I don't get it?) touch it (well, the perfect replica across the hall that's for geeks who really want to touch it!) and begin the understand that every day we are unlocking history - that's why we keep looking for keys.

Revisiting my old friend, the Rosetta Stone was a moving experience. It reminded me why I seek so many answers- because they are there if we look hard enough.

After the closest thing I can have to a religious experience, I was ready to take a break. The cafe looked lively and the sandwiches decent, so I parked myself on a bench on the museum's beautiful main floor and enjoyed dinner. It was nearing dark, and I had already accidentally purchased a Rosetta Stone laptop sleeve (oh the multiple levels of meaning!!) so it was time to head home. I happily returned to the hostel to enjoy a pint, and think about all the history I had lived that day.

*does it make more sense why the wildly popular language software is called Rosetta Stone now?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Arriving in the Homeland

13 June 13

The rickets set in immediately. 

London hasn't seen the sun since the Norman Invasion and this day is  as cloudy as the day it was born. Dressed in black and gray, I match its gloomy countenance, my foreignness only given away by my excessively American Northfaced apparel.

Relatively well rested for an overnight traveler, and anxious to get my journey in order,  the moment the airplane aisle cleared I politely passed my seatmate whose Willy Nelson braid shifted softly in the aftermath of my departure. 

Customs stood unusually empty for one of the busiest airports in the world, and the UK welcomed me with open arms. Well, the cold, soulless, Dementor-like, open arms of the TSA.  Off to the train! The Tube ticket booth challenged me. The warning I received stateside proved true when the unmanned ticket booth refused to accept my American credit card, heartily backed by failing financial institutions. Thankful I had obtained GBP from the bank at home, I obtained a fare card to central London with minimal shame.

As I remembered, London's tube is tiny but immaculate. One of many touristas, I cradled my bag tightly to my body and apologized emphatically to everyone it tripped. The Cockfosters-bound Picadilly line train travelled through central London (as we Americans call "downtown"), and with a single Transfer deposited me a mere 300 meters from my hostel. Now I only had to conjure the ancient and antiquated rules of the metric system to understand how far that was. (A little US-centric joke for you all.)

On the flight, I had decided that I'd skip "dinner" in favor of sleep, and indulge in the ready-made breakfast I'd be served before landing in London, instead. Unfortunately, my eyes we still open when dinner service came around, and it just didn't feel right ordering a vodka sprite but refusing the sustenance. 

I poked at my mystery meat, in its appropriately mystery sauce,  inhaled a creepily warm roll encased in plastic, and took my chances on a plastic wrapped brownie that turned out to be award-winning. 

The low-grade cell-phone-sized tv on the back of the seat in front of me ( god I feel 21st century and spoiled saying that) refused to show anything in my native tongue and I took that as a sign to try to sleep. I turned it off, and in my trademark in-flight move, I pulled my hood over my eyes and wedged myself into a "sleep position."  After a couple of hours of repositioning and fighting the sandman, my body gave in. By the time I roused, Willie Nelson was licking his breakfast plate clean and the bright light of the morning illuminated the interior of the aircraft.

It was 130 (1330) when I arrived in the neighborhood of the Walrus- my bar/hostel on the South bank of London- 30 minutes prior to checkin time. After the predicable near-miss with a London double decker bus, I planted at a coffee house and order an unsweetened Americano. I was grateful for the caffeine, but I can admit that I was using this coffee house for its wifi. The wifi situation seemed simple enough. I confirmed the existence of the wifi with a sign on the door, checked with the barista that there was no password, and attempted to log in and contact my family and friends. Except, I can't. I obtained the login information and a contact code, and they asked me to confirm my code by test message. The text message is not a luxury I have here in phone-free London. I give up on wifi, and go back to the Americano. Ironic. I know.

I relax and try to bask in the moment - I am in a coffee shop, in London, hearing the joyous cacophony of Brits going about their business unbeknownst that they are in the presence of an interloper. 

Although I surely stick out, I savor my ability to drink espresso like this Is my side of the pond. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Journey Begins With the Me of Ten Years Ago

Notes from the pace bus 
12 june 13

The blue and white bus lurches as it moves, almost pendulum-like, from a speedy cruise to a grinding halt and back again. I don't dare look out the city sooted back window, but I imagine the tornado predicted by our local meteorologists is right behind us, turning the sky green in our wake like tinted cellophane pulled tight over a summer bowl of potato salad.

Because my office is Scroogey with the holidays and skimps on the employee bonuses, it was shocking to receive an email earlier than afternoon notifying us of an early dismissal due to the incoming storm. The idea of being released from our cubicles due to the weather caused a slight panic. How severe must this weather system be if we are offered more than the usual single pea to split between us for Christmas dinner?

Faced with a surprise early dismissal on a regular day, and I would have huffed and puffed about the inconvenience, pushed around some papers on my desk, and then been the last one to leave -  struggling to his send on just one more email.  I'd eventually head homes to wait out the storm in my one bedroom apartment, coaxing the cat to lay by me and delightedly watching episodes of Antiques Roadshow.  On this not-regular day, I changed into track pants and a hooded sweatshirt and shut down my computer. I loped over to the train station with an absurdly large neon pack strapped to my back like an overloaded urban bicycle delivery guy, and waited for a westbound bus.

On this not-normal day, I conjured the me of ten years ago, and headed toward  the airport to board an overnight flight, ready to travel and hostel solo in Europe for the first time. 

A doomsday superstorm stalking chicago seemed like jut the way to start this adventure.

Stay tuned for more...

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

It's Marathon Time

Some decisions are made before you realize it. You tell a friend you'll try to stop by a party, but you never write it on your calendar. You look into your sweethearts eyes across the length of a car's front seat and whisper, "I think I'm starting to fall in love with you" but you already know .

For me, running a marathon was one of these decisions. I started running in 2007 out of peer pressure and the eternal desire to lose a few pounds. I'm not particularly competitive, but when my sister started running and ran a marathon in that same year I figured it would only be a matter of time before it was my turn. The next year I ran a ten miler, and I thought a half marathon was next. On my way (but in no hurry) to 26.2.

Then I had a little back pain, which lead to a lot of back pain, which lead to the emergency room. At 27 it looked like my marathon dreams were over - I had a herniated disc in my back and walking was my immediate challenge.

The pain of the herniated disc was trumped by the pain of a broken heart. I was dumped and i was stuck flat on my back. In my self pity, I cried into my beer more than once about how I'd never love or run again. It was a dramatic, selfish, and contemplative time. As my heart healed, my back healed too and I started running again. Maybe I ran farther or faster. Maybe I was trying to prove that I was not broken, or just trying to lose the 10 pounds I gained during my sad and injured summer.

I wasn't broken. Not my back and not my heart. In the 4 years since, I have had so much love and so many miles. I started slow but then a 5k, 8k, 10k, 15k, a half marathon. Another half marathon.

The decision was made in 2007 that I'd run a marathon. 2013 is the year I'm doing it.