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This week’s takes are mostly about listening and watching. Things will get interesting over the next few days, but probably mostly on Instagram – so head over there to keep up.

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In Our Time has sadly gone into its summer break, but it ended on a very high note with an excellent program on bird migration. What I particularly enjoyed about it was Melvyn Bragg’s infectious awestruck attitude about the whole business, which mirrors mine – How do they know?  – and the fact that he just couldn’t get over it, which is the proper attitude in the face of mystery. Secondly, the scientists on the program were all refreshingly honest about the answers to Melvyn’s questions, which most of the time involved a lot of we’re not sure and maybe and…we just don’t know. 

So much of the media’s reporting on science is couched in almost religious and certainly ideological certainty – a certainty which many, if not most scientists themselves would reject. I always enjoy the scholars on In Our Time, who are willing to admit what they don’t know and engage in respectful disagreement about what they think they might have a handle on.

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Also this week, I listened to In Our Time broadcasts on the poet John Clare, of whom I am ashamed to say I had never heard, and Hannah Arendt. 

The program on Clare was interesting because, well, it was all new to me, but also because of the material presented about Clare’s relationship with publishing. He was a farmer, and while we might think, “poor lower class poet rejected by the smart set,” in fact the truth was the opposite – ever since Burns, the search had been on for the next Big Country Poet, and it was thought for while that Clare might be the one. And then he ended up in insane asylums for two decades, sadly, probably because of manic depression.

The program on Hannah Arendt set her work in helpful context, with a great deal of discussion about how she was misunderstood by critics. In brief, the “banality of evil” is not an invitation to diminish evil, but an explanation of how evil can become just another job to do.

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And then I discovered a new BBC podcast program!

It’s called Science Stories and while the format is different than In Our Time, the general attitude and approach are the same, emphasizing the importance of  context as we seek to understand past scientific endeavors, which is something I appreciate so much, and is so refreshing, surrounded as we are in our media sea of context-free accusations, assertions, presumptions and fabrications.

And guess what? Religion is quite often part of the context – and might even be a paradigmatic framework for the context – and that is okay. 

On a science program!

So, for example, a program on Robert Grosseteste, 13th century Bishop of Lincoln and teacher, famously, of Roger Bacon. Grosseteste was, as many learned men of the time were, a polymath, but this particular episode of Science Stories focused on what the presenter termed his proto-“Big Bang” theory rooted in his observations of light and informed by his Genesis-shaped faith. It’s only 28 minutes and well worth your time. A taste:

Scientist: The story I was told when I was growing up was before 1600, all was darkness and…theology and dogmatism…and then suddenly Newton, Galileo, Kepler, who-hoa – all is light and Enlightenment and we get back on track with science. And you know, that’s never rung true because science doesn’t work like that – we all make little steps and we all, as Newton said, stand on the shoulders of giants. I think in Grosseteste, we’ve come across one of the giants on which the early modern scientists stood…..

….Presenter: And the motivation, certainly, for people like Grosseteste was ultimately a religious one, a theological one.

Scientist: Yes, it’s very clear that he would have been mystified by the question, “Can you reconcile your science with your religion?”  – he would have looked at you very askance and said, “What do you mean? That’s why I’m doing this science!”

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The episode on “The Anglo Saxon Remedy that kills MRSA”  was also fascinating, involving researchers who are exploring these 1100-year old books of remedies with the aim of not only figuring out the origins of these remedies but also their effectiveness.

As in the previous program, spirituality is given due credit and respect as are techniques and approaches we might want to initially wave off as nothing more than superstition – for example, chanting a rhyme or prayer in association with the application of the remedy. As the researchers pointed out, it was not mere superstition at work here – in a world without clocks, this would be a way of keeping time as you applied the compress or shook the mixture.

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My older son has been working a lot at night, so we haven’t been doing a lot of movies – two we have watched over the past week have been The Seven Samurai and Twelve Angry Men.  We spread out The Seven Samurai over two nights, although I think we could have done it all in one, in retrospect. It’s quite absorbing and didn’t feel at all like an almost 4-hour movie (as opposed to the Heston Ben-Hur which felt every minute of it to me during last year’s rewatch after 40 years, probably –  #confessyourunpopularopinion)

They really liked The Seven Samurai, and so I see more Kurosawa in our future, whenever we can manage another evening, which won’t be for a while, it looks like, what with travel and work. Probably The Hidden Forest, which inspired Star Wars, would make the most sense, although I’m more interested in Stray Dog. We won’t do Rashomon. 

Twelve Angry Men is, of course, much shorter – having begun as a television drama – and quite an efficient and compelling way to introduce a good discussion of appearance, reality, truth and integrity. There’s one simplistic psychological-torment-motivation subplot that was annoying and overwrought, but then that is par for the late-50’s course.

Oh, and one night after work, the 16-year old pulled Doctor Strangelove off the shelf and "amy welborn"took it in his room to watch it. Speaking of context, what I offered him afterwards was that early 60’s context of nuclear terror which led the young parents of a two-year old, living in Texas in the fall of 1962, to formulate a plan about what they’d do if the bombs dropped – a plan that involved an overdose of sleeping pills, as they calmly reminisced a few decades later. The grown daughter was startled, to say the least, but the fact that her quite traditional parents had felt driven to concoct such a plan showed how frightened people really were at the time. They weren’t building bomb shelters just for the fun of it.

Speaking of mid-century psychological-torment-subplots..

Kidding!

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Okay! Let’s have a saint!

Today is the feast of Kateri Tekakwitha. She’s in The Loyola Kids Book of Saints – a couple of pages of which are available online. 

 

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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As I noted in 7 Quick Takes…and have probably noted elsewhere, either passive-aggressively or outright grumpily, because of the 16-year old’s work schedule, this summer won’t have quite the travel theme as previous years…

But that’s fine. He needs to work and I’m already stupidly amazed at the difference in my bank account between now and last summer.

But just because three-week long trips are impossible this year, that doesn’t mean we’ll stay put. So this weekend…

Saturday was taken up with things around the house, then the earliest Vigil Mass to be found in town, since son had to work from 5:30-10:15 Saturday night and 9:30-6 on Sunday. The alternative would have been a 7 am Sunday Mass…and no one was really in favor of that, so a 4pm Mass it was, followed by dropping one off at work and then the other off at the movies and…what the house to myself for a couple of hours? Gee, when this school year ended, I didn’t think that was going to happen again until 2021 or thereabouts….

On Sunday, after dropping Working Man off (we only have one car at the moment – I have no plans to get another one until closer to the beginning of school), the 12-year old and I headed south and west a little to the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge.

We’d been there a couple of years ago, but didn’t return last summer, and so here we were.

The location is noted for the blooming of Cahaba Lilies:

The lily requires a very specialized habitat—swift-flowing water over rocks and lots of sun—and thus is restricted to shoal areas at or above the fall line. In Alabama, the Cahaba lily is restricted to the Black Warrior, Cahaba, Coosa, Tallapoosa, and Chattahoochee river systems. Plant bulbs and seeds spend the winter buried in the rocky riverbed. There the water’s current securely wedges the seeds and bulbs into the rock crevices. Leaves begin to emerge above the water line in mid-April, following the spring floods (dates are approximately two weeks later in eastern Georgia and South Carolina). Flower stalks develop after the leaves are fully emerged, with each stalk capped by six to nine buds surrounded by protective casings called bracts. Flowering commences in mid-May, reaching its peak in late May and early June, with sporadic flowering until late June.

There were still some in bloom (I didn’t get any closeups), although they are clearly at the end of the season.

The water was cold, but it was not crowded, and a little over an hour was enough for a beginning of the season sort-of-wild-swim.

I was a little nervous because the last time we were there, M had spotted a water moccasin in a rock crevice…but none this time made themselves seen.

But this fellow did:

amywelborn

It was sort of amazing. We were driving down the gravel road that led to the river, when M said, “Wait…is that an owl?” When he spotted it, it wasn’t as obvious as in this photo – it was lower, and on a log across some water, in the midst of forest. I really don’t know how he saw it, but he did, and since there were no other cars coming or going, we just sat there for a few minutes, watching him – and him watching us, which he clearly was, flying up to a higher branch to get a closer look, and never taking his very large eyes of us. I had the window open, but something told me I might want to close it – he was that intent on us.

Just a couple of miles down the road, after the river, we stopped at this park – the West Blocton Coke Ovens Historic Park. It’s just what it says.

“Blocton” was so named because of a huge block of coal found at some point in the 19th century. The area – all of this part of Alabama, really – had, for a time, a large coal industry, even after the Yankees came through. All of this industry (including in Birmingham, of course) produced the foundation of many of the ethnic communities in this area – the Jewish, Greek, Eastern European and Italian roots of Birmingham are as deep as any other and go right back to the beginnings of commerce and industry here.

So, as one of the historic markers I read along the way said, at some point there was a synagogue in this small town, on the street that is now lined with empty storefronts – and there’s an Italian Catholic cemetery in the area. I didn’t have time on Sunday to look for it, but I will definitely be back at some point this summer for the search for it and for the sign that marks the location of the synagogue.

(Rabbit hole warning – here’s an article from the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities about the West Blocton Jewish community…with a connection to famed Yankees announcer Mel Allen…)

The coke ovens park was simple and well done – the walkway runs in between two now overgrown ovens (go to the webpage to see what they would originally have looked like), where train tracks would have been. Ruins of any sort are always so intriguing to me – ruins of 5th century Rome or 19th century American industry. They are a continual reminder to me not to get too attached to my own endeavors…

After that, we stopped at a roadside barbecue place – it was decent, although way to saucy for me. I generally like my pulled pork dry and let me sauce it up myself as I see fit, thanks!

Today, the Working Man had a day off, so after a decent sleep, we headed north this time, to Hurricane Creek Park. M and I had tried to go there a year ago or so, I think, but at the time it was only open weekends, which I didn’t know at the time. It’s now open every day.

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It’s pretty interesting – north of Cullman, here’s the history:

In 1961, Buddy Rogers purchased 120 acres of land in Cullman County and got to work making a dream come true. Buddy was a decorated fighter pilot in World War II who spent time after the war studying aerial photography near Denver. There, he spotted and then fell in love with a place called Seven Falls. After returning to his home in Alabama he joined the Air National Guard and it was when he was doing some aerial photography for them that he spotted an area that reminded him of his beloved Seven Falls. He went back later on foot to explore and found another natural area to fall in love with.  Just off what was then the new Highway 31, a narrow gorge dropped 500 feet through massive rock walls, cut by a clear little creek that reached its widest point at the very bottom. All around were the rock walls of the gorge, only slightly obscured by virgin hardwood forest, pine trees, and wildflowers. He decided right then and there that he would make it his life’s work to create a park out of the land.

 

And he did – even constructing a cable car system, I presume, to get to the creek at the bottom.

The park is now owned by the county, and only minimally maintained, although whatever happens seems to get the job done.  I wish I’d read that blog post cited before we went, so we could have looked for the remnants of the cable car – more ruins!

But that’s okay – we’ll be back. It was a gorgeous, gorgeous spot – one of the more beautiful and easily accessible spots in an hour radius of Birmingham.

The rest of the week? Busy stuff. All those kinds of appointments that you put off during the school year that then get piled up either right after school ends or right before it begins again in August because you have all summer to take care of it, you know.  And then a trip to Atlanta for…argh…the National History Bee….and..I can’t even with that, it’s so ridiculous.

But New York City awaits….

If you have any interest in keeping up with these adventures on a sort-of-daily basis, follow me on Instagram, especially Instagram Stories. 

 

 

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When it comes to instant video social media-type stuff, I toyed with Snapchat a bit last year. I started mostly because my daughter wanted me to join so she could share Snaps with me, and then we went to Italy for three weeks, and I thought it would be an efficient way of getting and sharing video.

But I didn’t really like it that much, and when Instagram unveiled a similar feature – Instagram Stories – I tried it out and found I liked it much better. The most important difference to me between the two was that Instagram makes it very, very easy to share on Instagram Stories after the moment – with Snapchat, you can load up saved images and videos, but it’s a hassle and it doesn’t have the same look as the in-the-moment Snaps.

And so what Snapchat wants you to do is engage with the app in the moment – and I don’t want to do that. I want to take a quick photo or snip of video, save it for later uploading, and then focus on the moment of what’s happening in front of me. I didn’t want to have to be stopping and saying, “Wait, let me upload this to Snapchat.”  I prefer to just take my photos, and later, when the event is over, upload.

All of that is by way of introduction to a few words about who I am actually still following on Snapchat (besides my daughter) – it’s down to two:

Everest No Filter

and David Lebovitz.

David Lebovitz is an American Paris-based food writer – he wrote the book on homemade ice cream and has other excellent books, and his website is invaluable.  He uses Snapchat very well, and I really enjoy it – I don’t get into social media very much at all, but I do look forward to David’s daily forays through Paris (although he’s been in the US for a few weeks now – that’s interesting too) and his work in the kitchen.  He uses the medium very, very well.

I started following Everest No Filter last year – it’s the Snapchat account of Adrian Ballinger and Cory Richards. Ballinger is a climber, and while Richards obviously climbs as well, he’s also known as a photographer.  They started Everest No Filter last year as an account for people to follow them as they attempted to scale Everest (duh) with no supplemental oxygen.  Last year, Richards made it, but Ballinger didn’t – although not by much.

It’s Everest climbing season again, and so they are back. I have no plans to climb Mount Everest, nor do I have any other extreme sporting goals, but I am just hooked on the Everest No Filter Snapchat – it’s fascinating to learn about the work and effort that goes into a climb like this, and the two are very honest about the challenges. It is always thought-provoking to me to learn about people going through a great deal of effort to accomplish a goal and to wonder, for myself…what is worth that? 

If you don’t have and don’t want to bother with Snapchat, you can see a lot of the #EverestNoFilter stuff at their YouTube channel – they also periodically do Facebook Live events, too. The Everest No Filter website, with links to all their social media, is here. 

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Not Mount Everest:

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That’s Ruffner Mountain, about fifteen minutes from our house. It was part of last weekend’s adventures.

Car show was just at the park on the other side of the hill from our house. We walked there. 

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This week’s aural adventures centered around The North – the North of England, that is.

I discovered that last fall, Melvyn Bragg (of In Our Time) had presented a series of programs on the North of England – they are just excellent.  

A few highlights:

The Glories of the North concerns the “Northumbrian Renaissance” – the flourishing of intellectual, artistic and spiritual life of the early medieval period, centered on three things: The Ruthwell Cross, the Lindesfarne Gospels, and the Venerable Bede. It was quite moving, really.

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Northern Inventions and the Birth of the Industrial Revolution is self-explanatory, of course, but expresses a train of thought that Bragg has often elucidated on In Our Time and something that I – the product of a long line of humanities-type people on both sides – have only recently come to appreciate, especially as the fruit of homeschooling – the creativity and genius of those engaged in science and industry and, quite honestly (and he deals with this) the snobbery of elites who downplay these achievements – England’s greatest contribution to world history, as Bragg would say it – completely undervalued by elites.

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The Radical North offers a quick look (all the programs are about half an hour) on the reforming movements that came out of the North. What I appreciated about this program is the due credit given to religion – in this case, Unitarianism, Quakerism and Methodism.  In particular, the role of Methodism in the development of trade unionism and sensitivity to workers’ rights, a role which one scholar on the program quite forthrightly said was vital and had been unfairly downplayed by Marxist-leaning historians since the 60’s (Beginning with E.P. Thompson, whose Making of the English Working Class was the first non-textbook college text I ever had. I had knocked off my history major freshman requirements in the summer, so I was able to take an upper-level history course the winter of my freshman year – it was a junior-level course on the Industrial Revolution, and oh, I felt so special, in there with the older students and no more schoolbooks, but instead the thick, important feeling Thompson in hand.

He even took us on a field trip to a textile mill that was, somehow, still operating somewhere in East Tennessee. )

So Thompson – you dissed the religionists, but the sight of that cover still gives me a frisson of excitement that even I was welcome in a world of intellectual engagement with Important Things.

It was worth doing.

So yes. Take a listen to The Matter of the North.  It’s worth your time. 

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Perhaps you saw it earlier in the week...and perhaps you didn’t. So here it is, the cover of my next book, coming out in August (they say):

amy_welborn2

Secondly, since May is Mary’s month, it’s a good time to read a free book about her, originally published by Word Among Us, now out of print and available in a pdf version here.

Amy Welborn and Michael Dubruiel

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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Hey! Sorry for the lack of an update…I was pretty wiped out last night and I realized two things: First, that my habit of late night blogging this trip was working to stimulate my brain and mess with my already messed-up system and making sleep very difficult. Secondly, I realized that I will have 9 hours or so on an airplane in a day or so, and I can do lots of writing then – finish it all up, basically. So I’ll do that. You can expect to see full reports and photos Sunday night (American time).

But in short, what we’ve done over the past two days:

  • Warner Brothers/Harry Potter Studio Tour – very good and much more interesting (to me) than the Universal Harry Potter stuff. I am not a PotterHead, but I don’t hate them, either, and contemplating how Rowling’s vision and hard work have stimulated the imaginations of so many is…inspiring and invigorating to me.
  • Spent  time last night (Friday) hanging out near a film set near our apartment. Talked to a couple of interesting people. Caught a glimpse of Daniel Day-Lewis.
  • Saturday: Younger son and I took a quick trip to the British Museum (4th time this week) to wrap up seeing the two major sections he had not seen yet, but wanted to most of all: the Americas. Then, with both, the Natural History Museum, Victoria and Albert – both quick, the first because it was mobbed  – it’s a free museum (as most of them are) plus it was a Saturday, plus it was the first day of the school holiday, so it was crazy. And they’re renovating things, so it was confusing. We didn’t stay long, but I did see a few interesting things that I’ll share later.
  • The Victoria and Albert was more interesting than I had anticipated. I had thought it was focused on “decorative arts,” so I expected little more than teacups and ceramic roses. But…wrong again.  We could have stayed longer and all enjoyed it.
  • But we were hungry.
  • Popped into the Oratory.
  • Then raced up around Hyde Park to Tyburn Convent.
  • Had a tour of the Martyr’s Shrine with a quite wonderful Sister.
  • Back up Oxford Street THROUGH MOBS OF PEOPLE. Today was the first day I really had a sense of “Yes, London is actually bigger than New York City.”  It was insane. 
  • Got back up to the apartment, ran down to St. Pancras Station to do some souvenier shopping, watched two young women gleefully break open their bottle of wine on the train back, then had, after my concern that can we fit everything into the suitcases? was assuaged, had the best dinner (for me) of the trip, at, fittingly, an Italian restaurant.

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A couple of observations:

First, my older son mentioned something today that I’d been thinking, but hadn’t voiced. He said, “Don’t you think the people here are…nicer than we’ve met in other places?” By which he meant on our travels in France, Italy, Spain, and yes even jovial Germany. As I said, I’d been thinking the same thing. The level of friendliness here reaches (dare I say) Southern American levels and even surpasses it. You might say sharing a language helps, although many, many of the clerks/servers that we’ve encountered are clearly not native English speakers. How can I explain it? Let’s just say…that attitude of mystifying frosty indifference we’ve become accustomed to in which store clerks dare you to touch their stuff, and in which you live in continual low-grade fear of not-exact-change induced-rage…is not a part of life here.

Secondly…I don’t know how long it would take us to be here to get us to not feel as if we are in the middle of a movie or television show. I suppose it is because when your only exposure to English life has been decades of seeing it on screens, and you’ve watched a lot of it…when you find yourself surrounded by people chortling about their mates and calling you “love” you start looking for David Tennant or Judi Dench.

Like this morning: we were eating breakfast in a small restaurant. There was a group of three older middle-aged men in business suits who were there before us. They got up to leave, chatting and waving goodbye to the server when they stopped and said, “Hold on? Did we pay?” And what followed were several minutes of high comedy with everyone playing just the part you’d expect: “50 quid each, you say? Har, har!”  And so on.

I suppose I’d get used to it at some point…but not yet.

Note: My phone didn’t charge properly last night, so I had to be stingy in its use during the day, and one of my sons has commandeered the camera…not that he doesn’t take good photos, but it doesn’t always match what I’d photograph, exactly…

Anyway:

Today, I went with my gut and we did not do Hampton Court Palace, and we set ourselves to wandering instead, and it turned out well.

We ate breakfast – not full English, because no one in this group wants blood pudding or baked beans for breakfast or really, at all. I had pegged a place called The Breakfast Club, but once we got down there, we discovered it is very popular, with about fifteen people in line on the sidewalk…so scratch that. We ended up down the block at this place, and it was fine. And we did pay. (Our server was Portuguese but had spent a lot of time on the west coast of the US and Canada working cruise ships, and now here he was in London – it’s good for my kids to encounter folks in this way and get a clue into the varied kinds of lives that people lead – and that includes them, if they choose.)

After a quick walk through of Piccadilly Circus – definitely underwhelming – I guess I expected it would be like Times Square, for some reason? Not that this is a good thing I was looking forward to, but more of a point of curiosity. All that put us close to Leicester Square, and even if Lego Land is no longer on our itinerary, it is still hard to pass up a Lego Store, especially  when it is billed as the “largest in the world.”  O…kay.  I find that claim hard to believe. Lego stores are never huge, but still. Yes, it was larger than the one in Birmingham, of course, but I’ve been in the Lego store in Chicago, and it strikes me they were pretty much the same size, even though London is spread out over two floors. But they do, of course, have Big Ben…in Lego.  (there’s a video on Instagram)

London Lego Store

This put us close to the National Gallery, so over we went, joining, once again, hoardes of French teens and British small children in matching yellow safety vests.  Mind you, there is no required admission to the National Gallery – or any of the major museums in London.  I didn’t’ want to spend hours and hours there, so we focused on periods we particularly like and renowned pieces, including Holdbein’s The Ambassadors, and were probably there about 90 minutes.  I have to say, that I particularly enjoyed this painting – it’s a depiction of a scientific demonstration of vacuum, with a pet bird in the glass vessel, being deprived of air. Every face is worth studying, every gesture, and the little girls’ reactions are wonderfully done.

experiment on a bird - National Gallery

The artist’s subject is not scientific invention, but a human drama in a night-time setting.

The bird will die if the demonstrator continues to deprive it of oxygen, and Wright leaves us in doubt as to whether or not the cockatoo will be reprieved. The painting reveals a wide range of individual reactions, from the frightened children, through the reflective philosopher, the excited interest of the youth on the left, to the indifferent young lovers concerned only with each other.

The National Gallery is free….don’t be surprised if I don’t run by again to contemplate this one some more.

Oh, I also liked these four huge paintings in one of the foyers – The Four Elements by Joachim Beuckelaer – they represent the elements via the food they produce (or, in the case of fire, how they are cooked) – and in the far background is a small Biblical scene as well. In “earth” – the Flight into Egypt – “water” – Jesus appearing to his disciples by the sea of Galilee – “air” – the Prodigal Son – and “fire” – Jesus with Martha and Mary.

At that point, we headed down and over the pedestrian bridge that ends near the London Eye to Southbank. I had heard about an “Art of the Brick” exhibition that had recently opened – we eventually found it, and the good thing about so much being free in London is that you’re willing to shell out probably too much for something like this.  As usual, the wow, that’s a lot of Legos factor dominates the experience, but I was surprised that there was actually a bit more to it – there were a couple of pieces that were mildly thought provoking. Anyway, it was thirty minutes, it was on the way, and there you have it.

We strolled along the Thames, got snacks, popped into a few shops, watched people….

Sand sculptor on the banks of the Thames.

…and proceeded to the Globe. I don’t think I had blogged yet about my Globe decision – they are currently doing Othello (inside – they don’t start performing outside for a few more weeks), and the production switches the gender of the soldier Desdemona is suspected of sleeping with…so..nope.  But I did want to see the place, even though it’s “fake news” as one of my sons kept saying…only on site since the 90’s. But the tour was educational, anyway, and worth the time and money. Next time we’ll see a production…and I hope there is a next time, we’ll see. The RSC is doing Julius Caesar up in Stratford right now, and I so wish we had time for that…but we don’t.

From there, a few more blocks over to the Borough Market – we got there just in time – a bit after 4 – to get some very good bites. (So just a note – if you see that the closing time of this market is listed as 5pm, don’t stroll up at 4:45 expecting to find any food. Every stall was busy packing up by 4:30). By this time, my phone was completely dead, and I didn’t want to be juggling the camera while we noshed, so too bad. Just know that we had boureka (filled phylo) from Baltic Bites, chicken and other things from Ethiopia, some South Indian bites, some sweets, various samples of cheeses and cured meats..and a discovery that what is called salt beef is not as good as it smells. One son thought he would really like a sandwich, but I had him get a sample first, and he immediately made a face. “It’s ….squishy.”  Disaster averted.

We stopped into Southwark Cathedral, where we saw the memorial to Shakespeare and a few other things, and heard a bit of a boy choir rehearsal. Evensong was scheduled for 5:30, which was not too far off, but Southwark is far off from our apartment, and everyone was ready to go. I could have pushed it, because I really would like to experience evensong before we go, but you have to know your audience, and that extra half hour would have probably pushed things.

Dinner? Quick, cheap pizza here. It’s right next to some World Muslim Center, so it was interesting to see a large group of Muslim women come in, dressed in a full variety of garb, from niqab to hijab.

There is no lack of seemingly great dining everywhere…London truly does seem like foodie heaven…but when you’ve been on your feet all day…and feel as if you met your Foodie Cred for the day with the street food market – a quick, decent pizza is just fine.

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Hey – this will be short and photo heavy because it’s the end of a long day and my computer is very weird tonight. I don’t know how long I’ll have…

Sleep was a challenge for me last night, so I had little of it, it came to me late, and I didn’t awake until 9:30, after having Stern Conversations the evening before about Waking Up Early and Hitting the Ground Running.

The plan was to do the Tower of London, and everything I’d read indicated it was really best to get there early to beat the crowds. They opened at 10 am today, and I almost changed plans, considering we wouldn’t be able to get there until around 10:30…it’s good I didn’t. After all…it’s the end of March, not summertime. Lesson learned. Relax. 

Our first stop was the Tube station where a very helpful attendant helped us with the Oyster Cards – as I said yesterday, getting one for me would be no problem, but loading youth fares on them involves official effort. We then hopped on the train and took off for Tower Hill – a very easy ride.

I had purchased the membership in the Historic Palaces, which meant our entry was already paid for and we could skip the ticket lines. When we arrived, the lines were sort of long – maybe each ten deep – so we could just move past that and walk right in – there was no line at the entry gate.

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We walked up right as a Yeoman Warder tour was beginning. These are offered all day, constantly, and judging from our experience, are excellent. There is no reason, it seems to me, to ever pay for a separate tour to the Tower of London – what is offered as part of the ticket price would be difficult to improve on.

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(For short video go to Instagram.)

The tour began in the courtyard, and made three stops, ending in the chapel. The focus was on history, of course presented in the basics, but with good detail, balance and some humor that never descended into the Awkward Lameness that marks so many tour guide efforts.  The chapel portion is centered on those who were executed on the Tower grounds, on Tower Hill and are buried in the chapel. At the very last, the guide explains his own background and role, and what the requirements are to even be considered to be a  Yeoman Warder – 22 years in active military service, achieving a high rank and with (it goes without saying) a clean record.

(The portion of the chapel where St. Thomas More’s and others are interred is not open until 4:30 daily  – up until then, tour groups rotate through the chapel continually. We were there earlier, so didn’t get in there, but hope to return at some point this week. You can gain access to St. Thomas More’s cell, but special permission is required, and I am not able to plan ahead enough to do such a thing, unfortunately.)

Once the tour is over, you are free to explore on your own. The Crown Jewels are the main attraction, of course, and the warnings are out there about Long Lines, but for us at this time of the year, it was a walk-through. No waiting at all.  It is interesting to see, but the American Boys were more puzzled by the grandeur than anything else.

The White Tower (the main, central, iconic building, built by the orders of William the Conquerer) contains various rooms with armor – if you have ever seen any substantial armor collection, it will be of the mildest interest. We stopped for another free tour talk in St. John’s Chapel in the White Tower – the oldest Norman chapel still in use, they say – this talk given by another employee, not a ….. It was fine, although a lot of basic history was repeated – I had thought it would be more about the chapel itself.

The other main attraction, beside the ravens (which are enormous) is the Beauchamp Tower, a sad place that looks down on the execution grounds, the walls of which have the etched graffiti of many who were imprisoned there.

We had a meal at the museum café, which was quite good – the boys had fish and chips, I had potato and leek soup.

Crowd takeaway: it was busy, and was much more so by the time we left than when we had arrived. There were several school groups, ranging from high schoolers who seemed to be French and German, and several groups of little English schoolchildren. I mean – like six years old.

By then, it was about 2:30, which gave us time for an initial look at the British Museum.  We rode the subway back over in that direction, and had two hours there before it closed, which was fine. (They ask for a donation, but there is no admission). Today, we hit the Ancient Near East and European rooms – the Sutton Hoo was a main destination – then down to see the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon Marbles before we were driven out. We’ll return in a couple of days to explore some more.

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I figured out how to do panorama!

We then walked down to the theater showing Matilda to see about tickets for tonight – turns out, they are dark on Mondays, and I don’t know why I didn’t know that. My other want-to-see was An American in Paris, so we walked up, got tickets – the cheapest were under 30 pounds…can you get tickets to a Broadway show for that? – and then found some food. We settled on a little French hamburger place called Big Fernand that was staffed by the most enthusiastic, lovely group of French young adults. They were charming and very much aiming to please. The hamburgers were okay – Five Guys is better….was the report (and there are many Five Guys in London….) We made our way back to the theater, with stops for Kinder Eggs, and then at the drug store for things like shampoo and toothpaste, and finally a Muji stop – I love their notebooks – very plain and very cheap – and to the theater.

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Okay. I was pretty excited to see this show.  An American I Paris is one of my favorite films and I adore Gershwin. I had actually followed this production since its debut on Broadway, read a lot of reviews and I knew that there some varied opinions out there. I knew it wasn’t a slavish recreation of the movie. But that was okay! I was open to new things. And the beginning, which seemed to me to be a stylized evocation of postwar Paris, was different, but well-done. I didn’t mind it..

But.

I’m going to tell you…I didn’t like it. I’m not crushed, just a little annoyed.  I actually want to think about this and write something substantive because I think the differences are culturally revealing. It was also bizarre in some ways, and many times, I wondered, Who thought this was a good idea? Not that there was anything strange that violated the non-existent American in Paris canon, but the reimagining of the story was forced, belabored and almost infantile, compared to the maturity of the original.

I’ll just note this here, more for my own sake, so I don’t forget: When you look at pop culture over the past forty years, the dominant theme of everything seems to be Breaking free of parental expectations to carve my own unique path.  Unbelievably, this even invades An American in Paris.

Grow. Up.

But beyond what I think are interesting and telling thematic differences I suppose what I saw tonight was the homogenization of talent. There were no distinct voices or faces – everyone looked, acted and sang in the same way. Everyone would get an “A” but you wouldn’t remember a single distinctive thing about them. Well, as I always say after an experience like this – at least I got that out of my system. I’d been wanting to see it since it opened, and now I have. And maybe I’ve saved you some money.

So! That was fun!

(How did the boys react? I think they were mildly entertained, a little bored, but not resentful of the experience, thank goodness. It wasn’t the most fun they have ever had, but they didn’t fall asleep and were in good spirits after….)

Then about a fifteen-minute walk home, and my race against the computer to get this to you.

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Well…we made it.

An amazingly smooth, albeit miserable trip.

How does that work, anyway?

Everything goes well, there is not a single glitch, it is an amazing thing to cross the Atlantic in seven hours at any point in life, but especially when you are reading a book about the travels of a woman who took six weeks to do the crossing, and so you are very grateful and in awe of it all, but still…

…it’s miserable, in its way.

The smooth parts?

We flew out of Atlanta (why? Cheap fare – $400/apiece – plus, the last time, we flew international in and out of Birmingham, we almost missed the Atlanta-Birmingham flight at the end because of customs delays, and it’s pretty agonizing to be delayed in that way when you’re just a two hour drive away from home….) and had TSA PreCheck, and slid through security like butter. There was no one in line. Walked right up, tossed the bags on the belt, no shoes to be removed, no laptops to be taken out, and boom, we were through.

All flights were on time. No inexplicable prison sentences on the tarmac. Very good.

"amy welborn"

The transatlantic flight began in Philadelphia, which I had dreaded because Philly, unique among major airports, I think, has no rapid transit between terminals, and my main memory of flying international out of Philly involved waiting for buses. Usually rain was part of the picture, too.  But not this time! Well, the rain was, but no bus. Just some walking between two connected terminals, which was fantastic.

The British Airways flight was not quite as posh as previous experiences. There’s a bit of cost-cutting there, it seems to me. The plane was older, the seatback entertainment system took a long time to start working and they didn’t offer as many little knick-knacks as we’d had on previous flights – toothbrush, cunning little tube of toothpaste, etc. Not that I cared, since the wine was still free, but it did seem to be a more US-type of flying experience than European this time.

The flight wasn’t full up, but it wasn’t empty either. Lots of children, all well-behaved, including one family with five kids…all boys but for the one little girl.  #ShePersisted.

I don’t think I slept. I started to watch a little bit of Jackie, then found myself both wondering why it had been made and thinking that if I kept watching it, I had no chance of sleep at all.  Which I didn’t anyway, as it turns out. The boys did, a bit, but I’m pretty sure that I didn’t. It was one of those experiences in which when the flight takes off I’m thinking well, this is more comfortable than I thought. I’m pretty tired right now. I think I’ll easily be able to go to sleep!  And then four hours later, it’s …I’M GOING TO DIE IF I CAN’T STRETCH OUT…I AM NEVER TRAVELING MORE THAN TWO TIME ZONES AWAY AGAIN. I AM NOW BEING PUNISHED FOR BEING AN PRIVILEGED FAUX CHRISTIAN AND I DESERVE IT.

So, the zombies arrived at Heathrow around 7 AM. Immigration took about fifteen minutes to go through. There was an interesting side area – not completely cut-off, but clearly marked off by line-marking ropes aIMG_20170326_075855nd attended by a security employee, in which were guided several definitely Middle-Eastern looking folks, including one entire family.
We took the Heathrow Express into town – if we were a party of three adults, getting a car might make some economic sense, but given it was a Sunday morning (therefore off-peak) and I was the only one who had to pay, it cost 15 pounds to get into the city in fifteen minutes…

The train took us to Paddington, from which point we took a cab to our apartment, which is in Fitzrovia. The driver IMG_20170326_082835definitely took a bit of a scenic route…that’s the advantage of having a maps app on which you are following along as you ride in the back seat. I didn’t argue with him, though…but I think there is no doubt he added about five minutes to the route.

Traveling to Europe from the US, the big worry is always the First Day. Flights arrive in the morning, you’ve probably not slept, but if you’re not going to be totally messed up, you have to stay up, forge through and reset your body clock. Stay! Awake

Well….

 

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It is really not a trashy area – refuse is from a renovation of a nextdoor restaurant.

We were very lucky this time, in that our apartment owner was very, very generous, and let us check in at 9am – and yes, that’s how long it took us to get from Heathrow into town. We landed a little bit after 7, and were there waiting at the apartment by 8:45. Not much time at all.  I don’t know what we would have done if we couldn’t have done this, for we were all exhausted. I had thought about going to Mass in the morning, but just looking at the boys after the owner had oriented us, I thought…it’s 9am. This is stupid. There will be Sunday evening Masses. Let’s go to sleep.  In beds.  For I knew that even with a 3 to 4 hour naps, everyone would still be tired at the normal bedtime, and it would be fine.

(And they went to sleep around 11 tonight…so I think it worked)

We awoke around 1, shook the sleep off, cleaned ourselves off, and set out for a little bit of an orientation. I didn’t have a plan, except I’d seen Mass was at 5:30 at the Cathedral, so I thought we would shoot for that. We just wanted to get out, walk around, and meet London. So we did! I’ll list the route in bullet points…

  • First, stroll over to British Museum. I thought we might pop in for a moment, but the line for security was pretty long. We have all week, and are planning to go a couple of times…no hurry.
  • Not far from the museum, we noticed street cleaners hard at work, and thought it very odd for a Sunday. They were cleaning lots of grass and such from the streets. What was this? "amy welborn"We walked a half a block and saw – dozens of folks in Edwardian dress, waiting to board buses – obviously movie or television scenes had been filmed. For some reason, my camera was weird at that moment, and all my shots were very blurry, but you can get a sense here. I did a little research, and I’m guessing what it might have been at work was a new television version of Howard’s End.
  • By then, everyone was hungry, so we just grabbed a couple of paninis here. It was basically the first place we saw that wasn’t a McDonald’s, Starbucks or pub. It was okay. It was food.
  • Then to Covent Garden, which sent me into boring discourses about My Fair Lady. We watched a street performer."amy welborn"

 

  • Saw a"amy welborn" very long line for an ice cream place. When I returned back to the apartment, I saw that the gimmick was soft-serve ice cream presented on cotton candy clouds. I told the boys and their response: Gross. 

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  • Wandered to Trafalgar Square, watched some street performers, saw chalk art, peaked in St. Martin-in-the-Fields.
  • Then down Whitehall, saw the back of Parliament, took a look
    at the Thames. By then it was 4:30, so I thought we should start over to the Cathedral.
  • Arrived at the Cathedral about 5, took a look around at all the side chapels while an organ recital was wrapping up. One gets a very good, clear sense of what it means to "amy welborn"

 

be an English Catholic from the design and décor of the Cathedral – the side chapels are all dedicated to saints important to the spread of the Faith in the British Isles, as well as the English Martyrs.

  • The church was almost full for Mass, and the usual very Catholic crew. Lots of Asians, older and younger people, children. The music was mostly chant, with a couple of hymns, all led by a cantor and organ. The priest chanted much of his part. The only jarring musical element was the ridiculously loud organ accompaniment to the peoples’ chant responses. The priest didn’t have to be accompanied, so the effect was::

Priest:  (melodic, but not very strong chant and unaccompanied)  The Lord be with you

ORGAN BLAST

People:  And….(nothing more heard as it is all sucked into the Organ Vortex)

I am not a fan of organ accompanying chant except in the most subtle way, and this was just crazy and quite jarring…and would not lead anyone to think of chant as prayer, as it jolted and banged about the Cathedral.

  • Caught the Tube at Victoria back home. I should have purchased an Oyster Card this morning, but I didn’t, thinking I surely could this evening…and if it were just me, I could have, but having two children/youths complicates things and necessitates assistance, which was not available at 7pm on a Sunday evening. So we just paid full-fare, but it was a quick trip back and worth it.
  • Quick grocery stop for second Kinder Egg purchase of the day (for those unfamiliar with the Kinder Egg saga, this is a candy which is illegal ….illegal in the United States, and even considered contraband. If you get caught bringing it in, it will be img_20170326_150818.jpgconfiscated. Because it has a toy in it. It’s not as if the toy is actually embedded in the chocolate. There’s a chocolate shell, then a kind of hard to open plastic egg which holds the toy. Anyone who chokes on it…would probably have choked on other things first before they ever met a Kinder Egg. Anyway, for some people, getting Kinder Eggs is a highlight of travel outside the US…for some people…)…and some other supplies.
  • Back to the apartment. Various attempts were made to watch the Gators online, all unsuccessful, so that challenge was abandoned (as it turns out….allIMG_20170326_203152 for the best) and we went out to find food. We settled on a popular chicken chain – Nando’s – at it was very good. Excellent wings!
  • On the way back, I was stopped by a Chinese couple looking for their hotel. They had a printout from Booking.com, but couldn’t locate the place, even though they were on the right street. I showed them my phone and asked if they had a maps app, and I admit I was surprised that they didn’t. So I got it up on mine, and it turns out they were only a couple of blocks away, so we accompanied them (maybe not a faux Christian after all! Redemption?)  to the hotel and everyone wished each other a happy stay in London.

Tomorrow…the plan is the Tower, but we’ll see!

More photos on Instagram…and don’t forget to look at Instagram Stories for some different photos and short videos. 

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