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Today is the feast of St. Anselm, medieval philosopher and theologian.

I will always, always remember St. Anselm because he was the first Christian philosopher/theologian I encountered in a serious way.

As a Catholic high school student in the 70’s, of course we met no such personages – only the likes of Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Man of La Mancha.

(That was a project senior year – do a visual project matching up the lyrics of “Impossible Dream” with the Beatitudes. JLS had been Sophomore year. It was a text in the class. It was  also the year my religion teacher remarked on my report card, “Amy is a good student, but she spends class time sitting in the back of the room reading novels.” )

Anyway, upon entering the University of Tennessee, I claimed a major of Honors History and a minor of religious studies. (Instapundit’s dad, Dr. Charles Reynolds, was one of my professors). One of the classes was in medieval church history, and yup, we plunged into Anselm, and I was introduced to thinking about the one of whom no greater can be thought, although more of the focus was on his atonement theory.

So Anselm and his tight logic always makes me sit up and take notice. From B16’s General Audience talk on him:

A monk with an intense spiritual life, an excellent teacher of the young, a theologian with an extraordinary capacity for speculation, a wise man of governance and an intransigent defender of libertas Ecclesiae, of the Church’s freedom, Anselm is one of the eminent figures of the Middle Ages who was able to harmonize all these qualities, thanks to the profound mystical experience that always guided his thought and his action.

St. Anselm Of Canterbury Painting; St. Anselm Of Canterbury Art Print for sale

St Anselm was born in 1033 (or at the beginning of 1034) in Aosta, the first child of a noble family. His father was a coarse man dedicated to the pleasures of life who squandered his possessions. On the other hand, Anselm’s mother was a profoundly religious woman of high moral standing (cf. Eadmer, Vita Sancti Anselmi, PL 159, col. 49). It was she, his mother, who saw to the first human and religious formation of her son whom she subsequently entrusted to the Benedictines at a priory in Aosta. Anselm, who since childhood as his biographer recounts imagined that the good Lord dwelled among the towering, snow-capped peaks of the Alps, dreamed one night that he had been invited to this splendid kingdom by God himself, who had a long and affable conversation with him and then gave him to eat “a very white bread roll” (ibid., col. 51). This dream left him with the conviction that he was called to carry out a lofty mission. At the age of 15, he asked to be admitted to the Benedictine Order but his father brought the full force of his authority to bear against him and did not even give way when his son, seriously ill and feeling close to death, begged for the religious habit as a supreme comfort. After his recovery and the premature death of his mother, Anselm went through a period of moral dissipation. He neglected his studies and, consumed by earthly passions, grew deaf to God’s call. He left home and began to wander through France in search of new experiences. Three years later, having arrived in Normandy, he went to the Benedictine Abbey of Bec, attracted by the fame of Lanfranc of Pavia, the Prior. For him this was a providential meeting, crucial to the rest of his life. Under Lanfranc’s guidance Anselm energetically resumed his studies and it was not long before he became not only the favourite pupil but also the teacher’s confidante. His monastic vocation was rekindled and, after an attentive evaluation, at the age of 27 he entered the monastic order and was ordained a priest. Ascesis and study unfolded new horizons before him, enabling him to rediscover at a far higher level the same familiarity with God which he had had as a child.

When Lanfranc became Abbot of Caen in 1063, Anselm, after barely three years of monastic life, was named Prior of the Monastery of Bec and teacher of the cloister school, showing his gifts as a refined educator. He was not keen on authoritarian methods; he compared young people to small plants that develop better if they are not enclosed in greenhouses and granted them a “healthy” freedom. He was very demanding with himself and with others in monastic observance, but rather than imposing his discipline he strove to have it followed by persuasion. Upon the death of Abbot Herluin, the founder of the Abbey of Bec, Anselm was unanimously elected to succeed him; it was February 1079. In the meantime numerous monks had been summoned to Canterbury to bring to their brethren on the other side of the Channel the renewal that was being brought about on the continent. Their work was so well received that Lanfranc of Pavia, Abbot of Caen, became the new Archbishop of Canterbury. He asked Anselm to spend a certain period with him in order to instruct the monks and to help him in the difficult plight in which his ecclesiastical community had been left after the Norman conquest. Anselm’s stay turned out to be very fruitful; he won such popularity and esteem that when Lanfranc died he was chosen to succeed him in the archiepiscopal See of Canterbury. He received his solemn episcopal consecration in December 1093.

Anselm immediately became involved in a strenuous struggle for the Church’s freedom, valiantly supporting the independence of the spiritual power from the temporal. Anselm defended the Church from undue interference by political authorities, especially King William Rufus and Henry I, finding encouragement and support in the Roman Pontiff to whom he always showed courageous and cordial adherence. In 1103, this fidelity even cost him the bitterness of exile from his See of Canterbury. Moreover, it was only in 1106, when King Henry I renounced his right to the conferral of ecclesiastical offices, as well as to the collection of taxes and the confiscation of Church properties, that Anselm could return to England, where he was festively welcomed by the clergy and the people. Thus the long battle he had fought with the weapons of perseverance, pride and goodness ended happily. This holy Archbishop, who roused such deep admiration around him wherever he went, dedicated the last years of his life to the moral formation of the clergy and to intellectual research into theological topics. He died on 21 April 1109, accompanied by the words of the Gospel proclaimed in Holy Mass on that day: “You are those who have continued with me in my trials; as my Father appointed a kingdom for me, so do I appoint for you that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom…” (Lk 22: 28-30). So it was that the dream of the mysterious banquet he had had as a small boy, at the very beginning of his spiritual journey, found fulfilment. Jesus, who had invited him to sit at his table, welcomed Anselm upon his death into the eternal Kingdom of the Father.

“I pray, O God, to know you, to love you, that I may rejoice in you. And if I cannot attain to full joy in this life may I at least advance from day to day, until that joy shall come to the full” (Proslogion, chapter 14). This prayer enables us to understand the mystical soul of this great Saint of the Middle Ages, the founder of scholastic theology, to whom Christian tradition has given the title: “Magnificent Doctor”, because he fostered an intense desire to deepen his knowledge of the divine Mysteries but in the full awareness that the quest for God is never ending, at least on this earth. The clarity and logical rigour of his thought always aimed at “raising the mind to contemplation of God” (ibid., Proemium). He states clearly that whoever intends to study theology cannot rely on his intelligence alone but must cultivate at the same time a profound experience of faith. The theologian’s activity, according to St Anselm, thus develops in three stages: faith, a gift God freely offers, to be received with humility; experience,which consists in incarnating God’s word in one’s own daily life; and therefore true knowledge, which is never the fruit of ascetic reasoning but rather of contemplative intuition. In this regard his famous words remain more useful than ever, even today, for healthy theological research and for anyone who wishes to deepen his knowledge of the truths of faith: “I do not endeavour, O Lord, to penetrate your sublimity, for in no wise do I compare my understanding with that; but I long to understand in some degree your truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, that unless I believed, I should not understand” (ibid., 1).

Dear brothers and sisters, may the love of the truth and the constant thirst for God that marked St Anselm’s entire existence be an incentive to every Christian to seek tirelessly an ever more intimate union with Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life. In addition, may the zeal full of courage that distinguished his pastoral action and occasionally brought him misunderstanding, sorrow and even exile be an encouragement for Pastors, for consecrated people and for all the faithful to love Christ’s Church, to pray, to work and to suffer for her, without ever abandoning or betraying her. May the Virgin Mother of God, for whom St Anselm had a tender, filial devotion, obtain this grace for us. “Mary, it is you whom my heart yearns to love”, St Anselm wrote, “it is you whom my tongue ardently desires to praise”.

And from a letter to the Church in Aosta, on the occasion of the 900th anniversary of his birth there:

To Anselm “a boy who grew up in the mountains” as his biographer Eadmer describes him (Eadmer, Vita Sancti Anselmi, I, 2) it seemed impossible to imagine anything greater than God: gazing since childhood at those inaccessible peaks may have had something to do with this intuition. Indeed, already as a child he considered that to meet God it was necessary “to climb to the top of the mountain” (ibid.). Indeed, he was to understand better and better that God is found at an inaccessible height, situated beyond the goals that man can reach since God is beyond the thinkable. For this reason the journey in quest of God, at least on this earth, will be never-ending but will always consist of thought and yearning, a rigorous process of the mind and the imploring plea of the heart.

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john baptist de la salle

Today is the feastday of St. Jean-Baptiste de la Salle, the 17th-18th century French priest, founder of the Christian Brothers, who revolutionized education.

In brief:

Jean-Baptiste de la Salle (1651-1719) is one of the most important figures in the history of education. As the founder of the Institute for the Brothers of the Christian Schools – not to be confused with the Irish Christian Brothers – he showed a revolutionary fervour for the education of the poor.

In teaching techniques, too, he was an innovator, insisting on grouping pupils together by ability rather than by age. Against the traditional emphasis on Latin, he stressed that reading and writing in the vernacular should be the basis of all learning.

Equally, Catholic dogma should lie at the root of all ethics. Yet de la Salle also introduced modern languages, arts, science and technology into the curriculum. Of his writings on education, Matthew Arnold remarked: “Later works on the same subject have little improved the precepts, while they entirely lack the unction.”

From a LaSallian page:

John Baptist"john baptist de la salle" de La Salle was a pioneer in founding training colleges for teachers, reform schools for delinquents, technical schools, and secondary schools for modern languages, arts, and sciences. His work quickly spread through France and, after his death, continued to spread across the globe. In 1900 John Baptist de La Salle was declared a Saint. In 1950, because of his life and inspirational writings, he was made Patron Saint of all those who work in the field of education. John Baptist de La Salle inspired others how to teach and care for young people, how to meet failure and frailty with compassion, how to affirm, strengthen and heal. At the present time there are De La Salle schools in 80 different countries around the globe.

An excellent summary of the life of the saint can be found at a webpage dedicated to a set of beautiful stained-glass windows portraying the main events.

Not surprisingly, de la Salle left many writings behind. Many, if not all, are available for download at no cost here. 

All are of great interest. De la Salle wrote on education, of course, but since his vision of education was holistic, he is concerned with far more than the transmission of abstract knowledge or skills.

You might be interested in reading his Rules of Christian Decorum and Civility.

It is incredibly detailed. Some might find the detail off-putting or amusing. I see it as a fascinating window into the past and a reminder, really, of the incarnational element of everyday life. The introduction to the modern edition notes:

De La Salle sought, instead, to limit the impact of rationalism on the Christian School, and he believed that a code of decorum and civility could be an excellent aid to the Christian educator involved in the work of preserving and fostering faith and morals in youth. He believed that although good manners were not always the expression of good morals, they could contribute strongly to building them. While he envisioned acts of decorum and civility as observing the established customs and thereby protecting the established social order, he envisioned them more profoundly as expressions of sincere charity. In this way the refinement of the gentleman would become a restraint on and an antidote to self-centeredness, the root of individual moral transgressions as well as the collective evil in human society.

A sample:

Decorum requires you to refrain from yawning when with others, especially when with people to whom you owe respect. Yawning is a sign that you are bored either with the compabruegel-yawning-man.jpg!Largeny or with the talk of your companions or that you have very little esteem for them. If, however, you find that you cannot help yawning, stop talking entirely, hold your hand or your handkerchief in front of your mouth, and turn slightly aside, so that those present cannot notice what you are doing. Above all, take care when yawning not to do anything unbecoming and not to yawn too much. It is very unseemly to make noise while yawning and much worse to yawn while stretching or sprawling out.

You need not refrain entirely from spitting. It is a very disgusting thing to swallow what you ought to spit out; it can make you nauseated. Do not, however, make a habit of spitting often and without necessity. This is not only uncouth but also disgusting and disagreeable to everyone. Take care that you rarely need to do this in company, especially with people to whom special respect is due

Also of interest might be two books on religious formation, gathered here into a single volume. The first centers on the Mass, and the second on the prayer life of a school.  The first was intended, not just for students, but for parents and the general public as well, and once again, offers a helpful and important piece of counter evidence against the ahistorical claim that the laity were not encouraged to “participate” in the Mass before the Second Vatican Council.

Of all our daily actions, the principal and most excellent one is attending Mass, the most important activity for a Christian who wishes to draw down God’s graces and blessings on himself and on all the actions he must perform during the day. jeanbaptistedelasalleNevertheless, few people attend Mass with piety, and fewer still have been taught how to do so well. This is what led to the composing of these Instructions and Prayers to instruct the faithful in everything relating to the holy Sacrifice and to give them a means of occupying themselves in a useful and holy manner when they attend Mass.

To begin with, we explain the excellence of holy Mass, as well as the benefits derived from attending it. Next, we point out the interior dispositions that should animate our external behavior at Mass. Finally, readers learn the means of focusing their attention fully during the time of Mass.

Following this presentation, we explain all the ceremonies of holy Mass. Finally, this book suggests two sets of prayers, one based on the Ordinary of the Mass, the other on the sacred actions performed by the celebrant during Mass. Thus the faithful can alternate between both sets of prayers without growing overly accustomed to either one. Those who prefer can select the one set they like best or that inspires them with greater devotion

 

 

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The last day of a trip like this is always bittersweet for me.

I am so ready to go home, but not.

I’m ready to return to ordinary life: driving my own car, sleeping in my own bed, not spending so much money, cooking in my own kitchen, getting back to work.  Enough experience. Time to process.

But after a week in a new place, another sort of life has become familiar, and you find pleasure in living it.  After a week, you know the neighborhood just a bit, and more importantly, you know what you don’t know, so you know what you’d like to know, and you see more and more interesting corners and crannies that invite exploration. It’s not just a confusing blur anymore. It occurs to you that the square around the corner could be more than just a lovely green space you rush through on your way out or wearily trudge through on your way back from the day. The people sitting on the benches with their books at the end of the day or their coffee in the morning? That could be you, living that way, with that in sight, with that around the corner.

There’s just a sense of – now I know the basics. Now I get the lay of the land, finally. Now I can start digging deeper….

"amy welborn"

But then it’s time to go.

So with no real plan, and a lot of regrets about what hadn’t been seen yet, we set out Saturday morning.

The younger one and I went out first by ourselves. He had one more area of the British "amy welborn"Museum waiting for him, and the older one was more interested in sleep, so M and I set out to try to get to the museum as soon as it opened, do an hour there, and return for the other.

He grabbed a coffee at Caffe Nero (see my food post), we walked to the bus stop and in a couple of minutes, were at the museum.

(We could have easily walked the whole way, but it would have taken twice as long – twenty minutes instead of ten – and we needed those ten minutes.)

The destination was the two rooms dedicated to the Americas. So, not much meat, as Spencer Tracy once said, but what was there was cherce.

The Central and South America exhibit was his focus, because that’s his interest, and has been for several years now. He was very excited by the pieces, spent a lot of time here. These turquoise headdresses and masks were, even I could see, quite something.

 

We caught the bus back, found the brother up and ready to go, so we set out.

I’d decided that we might as well hit the one major tourist type area we’d not gone to yet – Kensington and Knightsbridge, where there’s a collection of museums – the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, the Victoria and Albert as well as the London Oratory.  What I had thought was that we could spend time there and then try to get across Hyde Park in time for the advertised 3:30 tour of the Martyr’s Shrine at Tyburn Convent. I was a little confused by how that tour worked, so I had emailed the convent the previous evening and the Mother Prioress responded, answering to yes, just show up and ring the bell, and they would give us a tour.

That was the plan – and no suspense – it worked out fine, with a bit of a rush at the end because of slow restaurant service – but the actual visits to the museums flipped a bit from what I’d expected.

When I thought about what we might do on this trip, neither the Natural History Museum or the Science Museum were on the list. We have been to so many and that’s not why I was going to London, although the former does have a historical component. Plus, the Natural History Museum advertises a “Spirits Tour,” which is not, as you might think, a survey of whiskey and gin, but rather preserved specimens. That would have been interesting. The trouble was, I could never get the online reservations thing to work, and by the time I really applied myself to the task of trying to reserve a spot, it was Friday evening, and no more phones would be answered until Monday.

So – essentially – since it was free admission, I thought that it might be worth an hour of our time and my nature-loving son was interested, so that became our first stop.

We took the subway down, and as we disembarked, I got my first intuition that this might not be a breezy time. There were mobs of people. Strollers wheel to wheel. We followed the signs and fell in behind a huge group of German adolescents – dozens and dozens, with no way to get around them, no escape. Fortunately, they started to peel off into waiting tour buses, so I knew we wouldn’t have them to contend with at least.

But we did have all the other families of London and probably surrounding areas. Of course. I should have expected no less. It’s free. It was a Saturday, and it was the first day of English schools’ spring holiday.

The other problem was that the Natural History museum is undergoing renovations, and honestly, I couldn’t make any sense of the layout, and the crowds didn’t help. After about twenty minutes, we agreed that this wasn’t a place we were interested in staying – with no regrets!

We did see a couple of interesting sights though – first the fossils were good, and the story of the discovery of the amazing marine fossils by Mary Anning was interesting.

Secondly – this.

 

My photo isn’t great, so go here to learn more about it. It’s a collection of dozens and dozens of stuffed hummingbirds, a display dating from the early 19th century. I have never seen anything like it.

Next to it were some vintage displays – natural history museum exhibits the way they used to be – and I liked them. Very straight forward, very matter-of-fact.

I looked at the one on the right, and all I could think of was Do the chickens have large talons?

Our experience in the Natural History museum led us all to agree, without hesitation, that we’d skip the Science museum, and head to the Victoria and Albert.

Well!

I wrote elsewhere, I think, that even though I had read about the V & A, I still didn’t really get it, and thought I would mostly see teacups, evening gowns and sideboards. Well, no.

First, I knew this was there, so I made it our first destination – and it’s certainly worth a look. So very strange.

Tipu's Tiger

Our search for this piece led us through the Asian rooms, which were substantive and well-done. We spent some time then in the European medieval rooms, which had some wonderful pieces including:

"amy welborn"

It was used in Palm Sunday processions in Germany.

"amy welborn"

P1010915

 

And an amazing collection of sculpted altar pieces.

It was lovely to see them, but a little sad to see them in a museum.

Short version of our trip to the Victoria and Albert Museum: it was a mistake to save it for last, and as an afterthought…

People were getting hungry, so we started looking for a place to eat along….road. I noted the Oratory on the way, and reminded them that we’d pop in there after we ate. This area is very wealthy, so there weren’t a lot of inexpensive options – the one McDonald’s was out the door – so we backtracked to this pub. There I had a steak pie and boys had burgers – the kitchen was slow – probably overwhelmed – but the service was very good and the food was tasty.

But…by then it was three, and we needed to get across Hyde Park by 3:30. I’ll remind you that I wasn’t quite sure how this worked. The convent advertises daily tours at 10:30, 3:30 and 5:30, so I suppose I expected something formal and very scheduled for which we Must Be On Time. So we got on a bus  – after a quick look in the Oratory, which is gorgeous – and then around up to the Marble Arch stop, where we disembarked, ran, found the Convent, found the way in to the chapel…and sat.

amywelborn

Ready for Passiontide veiling at the Brompton Oratory

There was, of course, a Sister in Adoration, and a few other people praying, including a person (I am presuming it was a woman) completely and rather mysteriously shrouded in black crouched in the back pew. We waited in prayerful silence for about ten minutes when I decided that this just wasn’t what we were supposed to be doing. I found a back door to the chapel, peaked through it, and saw an actual entryway to the convent itself, complete with a bell to ring. Oh. So I rang it, and after a minute, a sister peaked out, rosary in hand. I asked if we were too late for the tour, thinking that it had already started, but it was clear from her response that this was a per-your-request type thing, and the tour times merely meant was that this was when you were invited to show up and request a tour. She told us to go back into the chapel and wait, which we did, and after five minutes, she reappeared and took us down.

If you don’t know the history of the Tyburn Martyrs, go here. The convent dates from the early 20th century, and so the Martyrs’ shrine is not in any specific place of martyrdom (that is down the block) but collects relics and images and is a place to remember and pray.

The sister, who was from Africa, gave us an excellent tour. It was somewhat rushed because Vespers was to be prayed at 4:30 – so unfortunately, we didn’t have time to linger and really take a close look at the relics. But it was quite something for all of us to be told the stories of the Tyburn Martyrs, who were killed for their Faith by the State 400 years ago there close to the spot where it happened,  and to have this narrated by a Sister from Africa.

We never did get to Westminster Abbey, but who cares? This experience was a far better defining moment and far more relevant to who we are and who we are striving to be, ever so fitfully.

We stayed for Vespers, then moved on. We walked for a bit down Oxford Street – a big, busy shopping road, and, well…the strength of the Muslim presence in London became very evident at that point. Oxford Street was crowded with shoppers, and probably two-thirds of those surrounding us were of Muslim/Middle Eastern origin. It was an education, and thought-provoking.

We ended up down by Parliament, just for one last look at Big Ben and all that, which we got, but it was such a mob scene, that there was no reason to linger, so we hopped on a bus for the drive up towards our apartment.

Big Ben LOndon

Riding back, I had my strongest understanding of the size and busy-ness of London. The crowds from Parliament all the way up through the West End on Tottenham Court Road were reminiscent to me of Times Square crowds.  It didn’t inspire any desire to disembark and linger.

We did eventually get off at the Goodge Street stop, one stop before our regular point, Warren Street. There was a bookstore nearby, and one of mine was hankering for the second volume in a series he’s reading, so I thought for sure they’d have it – they didn’t, but it was, I admit, quite wonderful to be in the quiet of an enormous bookstore, to be amid people looking through books, to see a man carrying a stack of five books for purchase.

(I ended up buying it on Kindle…but when we returned, I got it from the library for him, and returned the Kindle book for a refund – which you can do up to a point after purchase, in case you didn’t know.)

Back to the apartment. They relaxed while I hopped back on the Tube and ran over to St. Pancras Station, to get a few souvenir food purchases from the Fortnum and Mason there. Quite posh, with fellows in morning coats to serve. I hope it’s worth it!

Then back, and time for our last dinner in London.  They were sort of lobbying for Nando’s again, but I drew the line. My choice tonight, I said, so I chose the little Italian restaurant on the corner across from the apartment – Trattoria Monte Bianco. It was lovely. The place is small, the menu is limited, but what we had was excellent. A generous platter of salumi and fromaggio. The boys split pappardelle and Bolognese, while I had some lovely ravioli stuffed with meat and a good wine. The staff was spectacular – all Italians, friendly and helpful.

Then back…to pack and go to sleep.

I’ll not do a separate entry for the very last day, but just knock it off here.

I had hoped to get to Fr. Jeffrey Steel’s church, Our Lady of St. John’s Wood…… In fact, I had told him we would be there, but in the end, I just couldn’t manage it. We needed to leave on the Heathrow Express from Paddington, and there was the whole luggage thing to deal with, so ultimately I decided that an early Mass near us would be the best.

We walked over to St. James for the 8:30 – it was a no-music Mass, quiet and reverent. Perhaps 50-60 in the congregation, somewhat multi-generational, even not including us, and with a generous sprinkling of South Asian congregants. The homily was excellent, and I would like to hear all homilies preached in serious, well-tuned British accents from now on, thanks.

"amy welborn"

A Little Sister of the Poor spoke at the end of Mass, which was good for the boys to see – we have the Little Sisters of the Poor in Mobile, and they often come up here to make appeals. Once more, all the way in England, we experience our universal Church.

One of the things I liked was that the priest mentioned that Holy Week schedules were available in the back, and he encouraged – strongly encouraged those present to take a stack and share them and invite anyone and everyone to join them for the services.

Maybe an idea for your church? Get those schedules printed and encourage folks to spread the word?

Breakfast time because when it’s a travel day, you never know the next time you’ll be able to eat, and since it’s on a plane, even though it’s British Airways, you never know the quality of what will be put in front of you.

So a relatively full breakfast at Patisserie Valerie, which is a chain.  Then back to the apartment, where we did a final cleaning, crossed paths with the owner coming to do his cleaning, went round the corner, caught a cab, got to Paddington and hopped on the Heathrow Express.

The flight back went smoothly. I much prefer the flight back than the flight over. When I fly to Europe I feel such pressure to sleep and such anxiety that I won’t sleep and I’ll be exhausted on the first day so of course….I don’t sleep.  On the way back, none of that matters – I don’t have any concern about myself or others sleeping. I did a little writing, read the copy of the Spectator I had purchased in the airport, and then watched stuff. First, I binged on National Treasure, the Robbie Coltrane 4-episode series on a beloved British comedian accused of rape. It was very good, although flawed, and I need to think about it more. Some very arresting images. It just felt – a little shallow, I think. Then I re-watched several episodes of Veep. Although the last season had its problems, I think – the original producer left and it shows – the rapid-fire insults and banter was much more forced and artificial this last season – it’s still hysterical.

Landed, went through immigration – took about fifteen minutes, then to the car and a two-hour drive back home, which was fine. They immediately passed out, so it was a quiet drive, and I much preferred being in control of my own destiny rather than waiting at the Atlanta airport for a flight back to Birmingham that might or might not be delayed.

(And in case you are wondering, the burned/collapse interstate bridge is not on the way from the Atlanta airport to Birmingham, so it didn’t affect our travel)

Home by 10pm, and while exhausted, still amazed and grateful to live in a time in which I can breakfast in London in the morning and be in my own bed halfway around the world at night. I can’t quite grasp it, and am sure that I don’t appreciate it as much as I should.

One last post coming, with some closing thoughts, before we get back to Business as Usual around this place….

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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.

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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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Another full, good day, with a few twists and turns. I’m feeling bullet-pointish about this one today.

  • Still not up early enough to justify a sit-down breakfast. I got pastries from here, which were very good, they ate, and we set out.
  • I had been thinking St. Paul’s to begin today, but then I thought…we need something img_20170328_113957.jpggrabbier – so Churchill War Rooms it was – a very immersive experience in the underground bunker used by Churchill and his war cabinet, parts of which had been sealed up in August 1945 and left untouched for decades.
  • There was a bit of a wait – if I were coming during the summer, I would definitely purchase tickets ahead of time. They have to limit the entrance because the spaces are narrow and small.
  • An audio guide is provided with the ticket, and it is necessary to get a good sense of what you are seeing. In addition to the the offices, meeting rooms, bedrooms and dining area, there is a substantial Churchill Museum which is very accessible to those not deeply familiar with the Churchill story.  An excellent museum.
  • On the way, we’d seen the horse guards at…the Horse Guards Grounds…and the pelicans at St. James Park.
  • This area of London was teeming with schoolchildren today – scores and scores of mostly French teens and lots of younger British children…as well as American college students.
  • We spent a lot of time in the museum, and after decided to head up to the apartment for a little bit of a break. We picked up lunch on the way – shawarma at a short string of street food vendors not too far from our apartment. I also went in and grabbed a meat pie from the fast food purveyor Gregg’s and found it…really good. Disturbingly good.
  • After our break, it was requested that we return to the British Museum, to pick up where we left off yesterday. So we took a lot of times with Egyptians today – they are spread out on two floors, with the funerary material being on the second floor and statuary on the first. I was fascinated mostly with the huge scarab and the wall paintings from the tomb of Nebamun – I could not get over the detail and beauty of the birds in this.

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  • I had noticed that the British Library was open until 8, so I thought it would be a good moment to see that – so we rode the Tube up. I was surprised it was a newish building – it was not what I expected!
  • Anyway, the exhibit of treasures (which rotates from their massive holdings) was fascinating. From John Lennon’s scribbling of the lyrics of “It’s a Hard Days Night” on the back of a child’s birthday card for Sean to hand-written scores by Mozart and Tallis to gorgeous illuminated manuscripts to a manuscript of Tess of the D’Ubervilles…it was time very well spent.
  • (And free, of course…as is the British Museum, remember)
  • (No photography allowed in the exhibit)
  • We walked back to the apartment – it was about a mile – and had dinner at the fish and chips place downstairs. I am shocked that they are liking fish and chips, but in the end it is fried things, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. The thing is, the fish is so very fresh, it is not fishy at all – they are getting cod, so the flavor is quite mild.
  • After that, they chilled out, and I wandered a bit, going in the opposite direction from which we’ve been normally setting out, and discovering a whole other aspect to the neighborhood and a whole other set of shops and restaurants.
  • A very subtle difference between English and other European stores – in France and Italy, as I recall, all shops have prices for their goods in the window – usually on a card near the displayed clothing, purses, or what have you. The English shops don’t do that. Nice things in the windows,s but not a price tag in sight.
  • But they’re not selling knives to kids!

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  • British culture may be as whacked about some things as any other western nation, but at least they aren’t stupid enough (yet) to pretend that the Bible doesn’t matter culturally. Prominently and helpful displayed in the British Museum gift shop:

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  • We were going to do Hampton Court Palace tomorrow, but honestly…I’m not feeling it tonight. I’m thinking that we need to just stay in the city, and maybe make tomorrow a Day of Randomness. We’ll see.
  • (The weather has been great. I didn’t wear a coat today, and was very comfortable.)

 

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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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