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Only one substantive thing today, related to reading. Not surprisingly, this took me down a rabbit trail that ended up being quite absorbing and, in several strange turns, pertinent to the present day.

But first: Writing: Still working on an essay, which I hope to finish today, then on to the talk for Saturday. From the past – since it’s the feast of the Queenship of Mary – don’t forget that you can get my e-book Mary and the Christian Life – for .99 here. 

Reading: The only pieces of substance that I read were journal articles –  two available through “open access” at the Journal of Ecclesiastical History: “The ‘Affair of the Photographs:’ Controlling the Image of a Nineteenth-Century Stigmatic.” The abstract:

The article focuses on an episode concerning the photographs of the famous Belgian Louise_Lateaustigmatic, Louise Lateau. Examining the events leading up to the bishop’s decision to restrict the circulation of her portrait, it becomes clear that the ‘affair’ of 1877 was as much about creating her public saintly image as it was about controlling it. Studying the ecclesiastical response to grassroots initiatives adds a more religious perspective to the young field of celebrity studies and offers a more complex view on sanctity, and the role of the media and modern techniques in its creation, use and misuse.

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This, somehow, lead me to another journal article (also with open access) on a very specific topic – as journal articles tend to be – on the use of houses and memorabilia collections in canonization campaigns: 

In this article, I argue that the houses and memorabilia collections associated with venerated personages played an important role in campaigns to elevate popular, unofficial, saintly figures to the level of the blessed or even canonised saints. Two practices converged in these campaigns: the Catholic tradition of sacralising specific sites and endowing material remnants with special meaning, and the ‘museumification’ of memorial houses and collections. The focus here is on the use of material culture in the beatification campaigns for modern stigmatics (who carried the wounds of Christ). Of the hundreds of cases that were reported, only a few were beatified and canonised. The article concentrates primarily on one success story: the evolution of the German stigmatic Anne Catherine Emmerick (1774–1824) from a ‘living saint’ to her being officially blessed (2004) and the role that her houses and possessions played in the promotion of her cult following and image construction.

Whether you are interested in these particular areas or not, hopefully, even scanning these abstracts might remind you of something important: Our sense of the past (and present, for that matter) tends to be flattened into a series of inevitable narratives that fit neatly into whatever our contemporary ideological narrative is – that is just not the way it was or is. Digging into particular elements of history even from weirdly specific angles (like museum studies) sheds light on the past – and present – in valuable ways. In other words: things just don’t happen. People make them happen. 

By the way, a side road unrelated to canonization that popped out of these articles was the very bizarre case of the Bishop of Tournai, one Edmond Dumont. Bear with me and read along. You won’t regret it.

This is a translated version of the French Wiki page. Born in 1828, apparently brilliant, studied in Rome, ordained, and the volunteered for North American missions (inspired by DeSmet)  where he served in Michigan for six years before returning to Belgium because of health issues. Appointed to the see of Tournai, he was a vocal supporter of the papacy and of a more “conservative” angle to Catholicism among more “liberal” voices in the Belgian church. (And a supporter of stigmatist Louise Lateau.)

He generated hostility among his clergy, and an apostolic administrator was appointed by Rome. At this point, he became even more vocal, and, in the words of this biography of Leo XIII: “…influenced by the enemies of religion, with his mental troubles growing worse, he began to protest, ever more and more violently, by word of mouth, and in the Press, against the Papal decree. Having become a rock of scandal, acting in concert with writers most hostile to the Catholic Church, he almost daily poured out insult and outrage through the newspapers, exciting the faithful to the same insolence, insulting men clad in the highest dignities of the Church….”

The pope convened a commission to study the situation, and the recommendation was to depose Dumont – so he was. Deposed of any episcopal jurisdiction and stripped of his title.

But wait!

There’s more!

From something called Appleton’s  – a very detailed annual almanac of world events (here, 1883), we learn the following:

In Belgium, there was property associated with clerical offices, property which was passed on to successors. After Dumont’s power was diminished by the appointment of an apostolic administrator (but before he was deposed), the diocesan administrator decided it would be wise to protect that property, so he put them under the charge of one Canon Bernard.

“Although Tournai is the smallest and poorest of the six Belgian sees, yet the portable funds in the treasury amounted to more than 5 million francs. Canon Bernard, after that-escalated-quicklyfirst consulting [a member of the Belgian cabinet] ran away with the securities and accounts to America and deposited most of them in safety-vaults in New York and Boston. About 1,700,000 francs of the private funds of Monseigneur  Dumont were sent back to Belgium in charge of a Montreal attorney, named Goodhue, who was arrested on his arrival. The Belgian government applied for his [I think “he” here is Bernard] extradition and he was arrested at Havana and sent back to Belgium on charges of embezzlement.”

Bernard was tried and acquitted since his actions were under obedience to church authorities.

More detail here. 

Crazy. 

(I will say that there are a lot of pieces missing to the English-speaker here. Perhaps somewhere in Belgium archives there is a complete telling of this story, but there are so many gaps and questions – how did this ultramontane bishop turn into a rabble-rouser against papal authority? Was he really mentally unstable, or was that a story told by his opponents?)

Now, let’s look at that rabbit trail.

Regular readers are probably tired of me advocating for reading history as a remedy for despair in the present – but do you see why? Saying that corruption and sin have always been a part of Church life is not in any way a diminishing of current troubles, scandals and sins. But it does, I hope, moderate our temptation to despair and – this is important – see how the Church has dealt with corruption in the past – which it has, in varied ways, in varied circumstances, with varied results, including  – yes – removing and deposing bishops.

 

 

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Today, we took Monday’s lessons inside to a cooler place – the really superb National Museum of Anthropology.

 

 

The museum is located, along with many other sites, in the massive Chapultepec Park, Mexico City’s Central Park, but with more museums, a bigger zoo and…vendors. Dozens and dozens, lining the paths to both the zoo and the museum (and perhaps further – we didn’t venture beyond that area). This week is school holiday week in Mexico, so the park was thronged with families, and I’m guessing that the vendor scene is a feature of weekends and holidays – it was amazing. It was standard stuff, with not a lot of variety: candy stalls, taco stalls, toy stalls, spicy snack stalls, and face painting and temporary tattoos. The vendor yelling was impressive and constant.

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So, not really like Central Park after all. One of the boys said as much: “This is sort of like Central Park, but different…”  Teachable Moment Mom asks why. They look at me. I say, “Because people in New York City don’t have kids. Mexicans still do….”

First, let me backtrack. The day began with an actual breakfast. I am not a breakfast person, but I know from experience that with travel, you never know when your next meal is going to be possible, so it’s best to fuel up if and when you can. I went out before the boys woke up, and walked around scoping out possibilities. Turns out there were two busy breakfast places right next to our apartment. I took photos of the menus outside, and returned to translate. I thought this would save time and possible disasters. It was very good, and per usual, very cheap. One kid had pancakes (came with scrambled eggs, sausages – more like hot dogs – refried beans and that tortilla salad I need to figure out), the other had mollette – which is basically toast (in this case half a sub-shaped roll) slathered with beans and cheese and a few other things – along with scrambled eggs, those hot-dog type sausages and that salad. I had an omelette with ham and cheese..with beans and that salad. What is it?! Included were drinks – the juice of the day which seemed to be mostly strawberry, coffee and tea, as well as a little dish of jello placed in front of us before we ordered. Price: 120 Pesos, or about $6.50.

I’m telling you…..I now understand why American retirees flock to this part of the world and why money transfer from Mexicans working in the US is so important. Those dollars go a long way.

Then we walked to the park (about two blocks from the apartment). Encountered the throngs of families out for the day, as well as the vendors starting to hawk their wares. Made our way to the museum  – admission , 70 pesos, about $3. It’s a stunning museum – world class, and, not surprisingly, the finest collection of MesoAmerican artifacts we’ve ever seen.

 

 

The first floor is organized around a plaza, chronologically covering the history of MesoAmerica, beginning with the earliest migrations  – we skipped that room and went straight to the pre-Classic/Teotihuacan room. The most impressive was, not surprisingly, the Aztec (or Mexica) room – I feel as if I finally have a good sense of the Aztecs.

A couple of notes on the museum:

First, the main placard in every room was in both Spanish and English, but the signage on individual pieces was in Spanish only. If I had known about that, I might have IMG_20180327_121512.jpgsearched online for some sort of guide before coming.

Secondly, while some interests in the United States might shy away from addressing the issue of human sacrifice, or downplay or even outright deny it, the Mexicans themselves don’t. The descriptions didn’t hesitate to say, “This has a cavity for collecting blood of human sacrifices” and so on.

It was fairly overwhelming and even Maya Guy was experiencing Museum Fatigue, so we skipped the second floor which is dedicated, I think, to the traditional and living crafts of indigenous peoples.

A charming scene: A man with two children about eight and ten years old, had employed a guide – an older, fellow, huge, with a big beard and a voice to match. They were Spanish-speaking, but the dynamic was still clear and quite wonderful – the children were absolutely engaged, asking all sorts of questions about each artifact, which the guide patiently – and loudly – answered.

 

I had not intended to go to the zoo but it didn’t seem as if it were that far away on foot, we were done earlier at the museum than I’d expected, so why not?

Eh. We shouldn’t have wasted our time. The zoo is free, and it shows. It seems as if the animals are mostly in the deer family – antelopes of one sort or another – and given the fact that it was mid-afternoon, of course, most of the animals were sleeping. Including this tapir, which is not dead.

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We spent about 45 minutes walking through – that was enough. We then headed up to Chapultepec Castle – you can read about it here. Short version: it was built in the 18th century for the Spanish Viceroy, then used as a military academy. It was the site of an important battle during the Mexican-American War in which the very famous and deeply revered Niños Héroes gave their lives – one leaping from the roof wrapped in the Mexican flag in order to prevent the US forces from claiming it. (modern historians say that there’s probably a lot of mythology that’s grown up around this incident, if it ever actually occurred.)   The castle is the only one in the Western Hemisphere actually ever inhabited by a real monarch – Maximilian I for those few years before he was shot.

It wasn’t fascinating, but it was a good walk up, and a good thing to experience as a part of the history of Mexico and one more thread in the very complicated weave of Mexican identity.

 

 

(Photos is of a ceiling mural depicting the boy leaping from the roof. View is from the hill, looking down Reforma towards the center. Our apartment is just on the other side of the skyscraper with the colored staircases on the right.)

We then walked to a grocery story about half a mile away – the only one even near our apartment. It was a Superama, where the search was on for 1) Pomade – Hair Guy is fully aware of the Mexican male’s mastery of his hair and was confident that if he was going to find quality hair product anywhere, this was the place  and 2) That precious commodity which is contraband in the US:  Kinder Eggs. Both were acquired.

Fun feature, seen in this photo: “Dog parking.”

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(Most interesting to me – why is it in English?)

Then we ubered back to the apartment – it would have been a mile walk, but we’d been walking all day, we needed to save time, and it was maybe two bucks.

Back for a bit of a rest, then about six, we went back out and got AMAZING tacos and the first truck we saw around the corner – bistek, pollo and el pastor. I don’t need to eat anything else while I’m here. You can just feed me those one dollar tacos loaded with quality meat, that stringy cheese and nopales and I’d be good.

Then grab an uber to….ARENA MEXICO!

Yup, we did Lucha Libre.

Nacho Libre has been playing on a loop in our house for months, with probably 50% of the conversation being made up of quotes (You are the be-est. It’s all political. I don’t believe in God – I believe in science.).

So of course when I saw that Lucha Libre happens, not only on the weekends, but on Tuesday night, I put it forward, and of course they wanted to go.

I only have twenty minutes before I need to get them up for the day (Our Lady of Guadalupe, here we come!) so I’m going to make this as fast as I can – first a rant and instructions on how to do Lucha Libre.

In prepping, I read so many blog posts and discussion board posts that said essentially: Lucha Libre is great fun but OOOOOOH be careful! It’s in a dangerous part of town, there’s scalpers and scam artists and you probably want to go with a tour, and not venture to accomplish on your own.

Balderdash. Stupid. Ridiculous.

Here’s what we did: We got an Uber, rode the mile to the Arena Mexico, got out, stood at the box office in a line that was to my eyes and ears, about 75% non-Mexican tourists, got our tickets (140 pesos apiece – about $7), walked around the block looking at the vendors, went to the gate where we were lightly searched (women by female security gaurds), then escorted to our seats. Watched the show, left two hours later – hopped in one of the many waiting taxis outside, and rode home.

Honestly, so much that’s out there about going to Lucha Libre makes it sound like you’re taking your life into your own hands and venturing to an underground cockfighting match. If you are arriving at this blog post wondering, in fear, “Can I do this without a guide or tour?” Of course you can. And you won’t be alone. It’s a very, very popular tourist thing to do – Joseph recognized a group that had been right ahead of us climbing the Pyramid of the Sun yesterday at Teotihuacan.

One more note about process: Sometimes when venturing into entertainment events in other countries, we might indeed get confused – what do I do? Where do I sit? No worries about that here. After you are searched, your ticket is scanned by one man. Then you take two steps, and another man tears your ticket in half. Then you take two more steps and another man – and usher – grabs your tickets and takes you to your seat (you tip him a minimum of 5 pesos a seat – it’s how they make their money). You are immediately approached by vendors who bring you whatever – there seems to be one guy who is assigned to take care of a certain section, and then there are other roving vendors constantly coming by – drinks, popcorn, tacos and then, in weird collection – one big tray containing nachos, fruit cups and…ramen cups.

(One more suggestion – because of the constant presence of food and drink vendors, try to avoid an aisle seat. They’re just doing their job, true, but in doing so, they’ve got to block your view.)

 

 

 

It’s…fake professional wrestling. That’s it. But with masks (mostly – there were a few who didn’t have masks). There were, I think…six rounds of wrestling. Five of them were tag team and one was just between two. The wrestlers: Mephisto, Inquisidor, Terrible and the like. It was insanely fake. I don’t get the appeal, but the appeal is, indeed strong, and wow were people getting into it. The group in front of us was a middle aged married couple who both looked as if they could be on university faculties, and I’m thinking a child and spouse – a thirty-ish woman and man – the man was full-on hipster with beard and man-bun and everything and he was ALL IN, intensely watching, yelling, booing and cheering, as were the screaming young women behind us.

I wouldn’t take time to go again, but I’m very glad we did (as were the boys – they had a good time and were amazed at the spectacle, the comedy – for it is funny – and the crowd.) The whole day was simply fantastic people watching and a great immersion into Mexico City life…

For some video from Lucha Libre, go to Instagram. We’ll be at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe for part of today, so follow me on Instagram Stories for that. 

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— 1 —

 

Well, hello from a place where it’s warmer than twenty degrees.

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Not much warmer – the high today in Pensacola was in the mid-40’s, but compared to what we’ve had in the far northern reaches of Birmingham, it felt balmy.

And tomorrow! 50’s!

So…what’s up?

 — 2 —

The older of the two boys has had and is having a busy week. He went with scouts last weekend to Sugar Mountain, NC, to ski – they left Saturday, skied all day Sunday, then returned Monday…which was to be followed up by a Wednesday departure for the March for Life in DC.

It was all fine, but I was just a little concerned about the proximity of two marathons of sleeping-in-buses and sleeping-on-the-floor-of-church multipurpose rooms  and the flu germs and who knows what else, along with having to get up early for school Tuesday and Wednesday. I’ve been making him bulk up on Echinacea and vitamin C since the beginning of January in preparation. I’ve been reading lots of articles over the past few years declaring that herbal remedies in pill form and vitamins-in-pills are essentially useless, but I have to tell you that years ago I had a rather dramatic experience of quick recovery from something (don’t remember what) after starting on Echinacea, and since chewable vitamin C actually tastes like it might be getting to work in your body – I’m sticking with those two at least.

I was greatly assisted in my proactive doctoring by the fact that around these parts, Snowmaggedon threatened this week, everyone got really scared, and so school was cancelled Tuesday, which was great, and then Wednesday, which was even better.

(Not for the teachers – I feel for them. These AP teachers in particular, looking at that calendar…those tests aren’t budging from early May, and must be prepared for….)

But it was good for him – he could sleep, sleep, sleep. He’s up in DC today (they drove all night Wednesday night, arrived Thursday morning, did museums and the JP2 Center, then will march tomorrow) and so…..

 

— 3 —

M and I had some time. I wanted to go somewhere warm, but wouldn’t you know it, everywhere in the south within driving range is nothing but cold. Pensacola was as good as we could do…and maybe it will be fine? As I said, it’s supposed to be in the 50’s on Friday.

I’d never been here before. I’ve been to various spots on the Gulf shore, both in Alabama and Florida, but never Pensacola. What do I associate it with? Traffic, I guess. And weird evangelical movements. And towering condos.

But it turns out, there’s some interesting history here, and so I decided that some history studies would be just the thing for the rest of the week. It’s off season, so it would give me a chance to check out the area without the aggravation of endless lines of traffic.

What’s the interesting history? Well you can read about it here but in short – Pensacola (not St. Augustine) was the first attempt at European settlement in non-Mexico North America – and it was a disaster. The fellow in charge of bringing hundreds of people and livestock up here from Mexico parked the ships in the bay while he sent a party inland for a few weeks to reconnoitre. And guess what happened? A hurricane happened, sunk all the boats, and wiped out any chances for a well-founded settlement. They stuck it out for two years, but ended up being rescued and returned to Mexico. In subsequent decades and centuries, Pensacola bounced between Spain, France, Great Britain and of course the U.S. of A, with time in the C.S. of A as well – although not long, since the Union grabbed it in 1862 and it was a key point in the blockade.

–4–

We left home around 10 – later than I’d intended, but last night, I read that roads around Montgomery were still iffy – and in fact, schools were closed there again today – so I decided to let the sun warm things up a bit before we headed out.

(I had originally thought we might drive down Wednesday night, but I’m glad we didn’t do that – there were indeed icy patches under underpasses and on bridges which would have been far more hazardous in the dark of night than they were mid-morning.)

First stop was a very brief one: in Georgiana, Alabama, to the house where Hank Williams lived from age 7 to 11, and where he was first given a guitar and learned to play it.

In preparation, I blasted Hank Williams for a good 45 minutes on the car CD player as we drove and told Michael the Hank’s story, included his death (which has always intrigued me, not just because it’s intriguing, but also because of the Knoxville connection.)

We’ve been to the Hank Williams gravesite in Montgomery, but it was years ago – I didn’t think he’d remember it, but he claims he did (“Was his wife buried there too? And it was big? Yes, I remember.” I guess he did.)

There’s a museum in the home, and the sign said, “Open,” but I really didn’t want to spend a lot of time, so we just stopped, took in the sign and the location, and moved on south…

 

–5 —

We reached Pensacola about 2, ate a Jaco’s on the water (Cuban for him, crabcake salad for me), then walked up to the downtown area – there are several small museums in the historic area, and we started with the largest one – the T.T. Wentworth Museum, which is housed in the former City Hall, a lovely Mediterranean Revival structure. The origins of the museum lies in the huge, eclectic collection of local Famous Person T.T. Wentworth, a fraction of which is exhibited in one room – the rest of the museum is dedicated to a history of the Pensacola area and changing exhibits.

I do love what the collectors of old gathered and left us. It’s usually so much more interesting than the carefully-curated, ideologically shaped contemporary museum. Both have their place, but given that I am a person who delights in finding meaning in the purportedly random, you know which kind of experience appeals to me more.

The ticket gets you into other smaller museums in the historic district – but everything closes at 4, and since we arrived on the scene at 3, we were out of luck – we can use the tickets on Friday, so we’ll probably do that for part of the day.

 

 

— 6 —

We made our way back to the car, engaging with way-too-tame squirrels along the way, and looking at various bits of archaeological finds along the way (mostly foundations and bits of walls from the British period – they were the ones whose plan forms the shape of the downtown even today).

Across one bridge to Gulf Breeze, with a short drive down to one of the entrances of the Gulf Shores National Seashore just to check out the layout, and then to our hotel. There are several heated pools, but I’m thinking the 40-ish degree weather is going to deter this one from making an attempt.

Dinner at local mediocre tourist staple Peg Leg Pete’s, just because – mostly because it’s slow season and there’s no waiting.

And…I’m already aggravated because there’s so much we want to do tomorrow, and so little time. We just can’t do the Commerce Museum, Business and Industry Museum, Naval Air Museum, Archaeology centers and do any walking In Nature….Well, we can come back, next time with the other son joining us.

 

— 7 —

 

Last night, M and I watched Chaplin’s The Kid. I had never seen it. It was lovely – Jackie Coogan was natural and charming. The linked article relates some of the real turmoil that are in the background to the film: the recent death of Chaplin’s infant son and his own removal from his home at the age of seven. I was struck, not only by the charm and humor of the movie, but also by:

  • The relatively honest treatment of an unwed mother and the implicit condemnation of the condemnation of unwed motherhood – if that makes sense. “Her sin was motherhood” reads the card accompanying “The Woman’s” discharge from the charity hospital, babe in arms.
  • The pervasiveness of prayer in the film. There is just a lot of praying. The Woman prays for her baby to be found, Chaplin and The Kid pray before they eat and before they go to sleep in the flophouse, and The Kid prays desperately when he’s being taken away – such a wrenching sequence!
  • The look of the film – maybe it’s just now with our monster television, I can actually see detail – but the textures of the walls, the furniture, the clothing – everything in The Kid – are almost palpable. Chaplin grew up in poverty, of course, and the set quiet consciously and powerfully evokes that life.

Chaplin, Hank Williams…it’s all education. Every bit.

 

 

 

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

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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"

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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Seven Quick Takes

— 1 —

 

It is the best time of the year in this part of the world. Daytime highs in the 80’s and low 90’s , evening temperatures in the 60’s. No mosquitoes – perhaps because it hasn’t rained in a month, it seems. I don’t mourn their absence. It makes sitting outside under that crescent moon, finding Venus and Saturn, the only way you want to spend your evening.

— 2 —

Our Charleston people have evacuated. They were going to come here, but they both work for companies with offices in another, inland city, so they’re going to be put up in that spot for the duration by the company, waiting with millions of others to return, dreading what they’ll find.

Returning from travel, that last mile or so before getting home always has my insides in knots. I dread pulling up to the house. What will greet me? Will we have been broken into? Will a tree be on my roof? A flood in the kitchen?

(Nothing like that has ever happened, by the way. And having good neighbors who would communicate with you if, well, a tree fell on your house, takes away the worry, if you’re rational about it. Which is not always easy to be.)

Anyway, imagine how that dread is multiplied by coming home after a hurricane has moved through.

 

— 3 —

 

We got a new piano. Finally. I had the slightest twinge of sentiment as the old one was loaded up and carted away..but really only a twinge of a twinge, if there is such a thing. It was not that I didn’t want to replace it. Of course I did. It was terrible, and my son, who is quite talented and promised that indeed, he is all in with the piano stuff – deserved something better to play. It was just that feeling of letting go of something that had been in my life for decades. My grandmother had given it to me probably around 1970, I imagine because my parents convinced her to fund it. It was a Storey and Clark spinet, which is not even made any more and which, experts agree, was not a good piano.

Honestly, why I had hauled that thing around the country for thirty years, I don’t even know. For what it cost to move it, I probably could have just bought a new/used piano at every stop, and sold it again when it was time to move on.

But now…we have a decent one. We also have it upstairs, and not in the basement. When we first moved into this house three years ago, it was just the path of least resistance to put the piano in the basement, which, because the house is built on a slope, is actually ground level. It just slipped right in.

In piano shopping, I had been apologizing for this, not that any of the salesmen were demanding explanations, much less apologies, but one did tell me that if there is no moisture problem, a basement is not the worst place for a piano. After moisture, temperature variation is the enemy of good piano health, and since the temperature in basements tends to be more consistent than other areas of a home..it can work.

But we just wanted the piano up out of the Lego Emporium and up where we spend most of our time. (Yes, I think Lego Days might be approaching twilight…can it be true?) I had explained the front door situation to the guy at the piano store and he assured me it would be fine. In retrospect, I see that I probably should have taken a photograph and shown him. For when the delivery men arrived, they took one look at the slope of those measly five steps and the angles up past them and said…Nope.

O…kay.

What aboimg_20161006_231003.jpgut the back patio? I had mentioned this to the piano salesmen and he said that no, since there was a large patch of yard that would have to be navigated, that wouldn’t work. The piano would have to be brought over a paved surface – it would sink in the ground.

The delivery guys said he was wrong. They had an all-terrain dolly that would do the job, no problem. But they didn’t have it with them, and would have to go get it. Which they did, and an hour later, there it was.

It’s so much better. My son is really enjoying it, and guess who else is playing again? Yeah, me. It’s such a better instrument, plus it’s upstairs…I’m back in business, and even re-ordered that book of Gershwin piano music that was waylaid either in Williamsburg or Germany – where ever my daughter took it that time she took it.

 — 4 —

Well, I couldn’t put it off any longer, so we have embarked on Orthodontic Adventure #4 for my family. It’s been a while – ten years, I guess. I was going to let #4 Kid take care of it on his own when he became an adult, since the issues seemed cosmetic to me, and not that serious. But then this summer, a couple of teeth started trying to come in…unsuccessfully…and it became clear that this wasn’t just cosmetic. And that I am not qualified to diagnose teeth.

But man, I hate orthodontic practices. I hate the buzz of profiteering cheerfulness, I hate the matching polo shirts, I hate the little fountains and beige tones.

So when I heard that an acquaintance of mine was a huge fan of the local university’s dental school clinic, which includes an orthodontic section, I was intrigued.

And, after two appointments, I’m a fan, too.

First, it’s about half the cost of private treatment. That cost must be paid up front, but I’m telling you – when I walked away from that desk, knowing that the next couple of years or so were paid for, from records to retainers..it was a great feeling.

Secondly, the whole process is very interesting. You have a resident assigned to you, and he or she works under a supervising orthodontist. In the initial assessment, the resident worked alone at first, and sketched out a treatment plan. Then the supervisor came in. He asked, “So what’s your treatment plan?” But then he stopped and continued, “No, don’t tell me. Let me look, then I’ll sketch out a plan, and we’ll compare.” Which is what they did, and it was fascinating to observe the teaching that was going on – and good for my son to see it to, to see that this is not magic, nor is it cut-and dried and always obvious. Medical treatment of any kind is not just a matter of matching items from different columns, and it’s good for him to observe that process.

— 5 

I read two novels over the past week. I enjoyed both as light reading that’s a little though-provoking.

I’ll begin with the one I enjoyed less – The Leftovers by Tom Perotta. Perotta is the author of Election and Little Children, both of which are very good and have been made into great movies. The Leftovers has been adapted by HBO as a series – two seasons have aired (I haven’t watched it.).

The novel is about the aftermath of a Rapture-like event,in which about 2% of the world’s population just…disappeared. There’s never any explanation given of the event, and since we enter the story three years after it occurred, we don’t see the characters wondering about it themselves – when we meet them, they are simply trying to cope, to deal, to move on.

So what the book is about is grief and loss. Really, that’s it. It’s about how human beings live with the reality of loss. What the characters of this novel live with in a very focused way is what all of us live with: this or that person was here one day, and then gone the next. What does that mean for my life? Do I dishoner that person by “moving on?” What about if I discover that person wasn’t who I thought he or she was? Where can I find meaning? How is respectful or even possible to live a “normal” life, knowing that people – including yourself – will someday be gone?

It was okay. The choice to not make the “why” or “where did they go” an issue is intended, I suppose, to put the emphasis on the responses of the leftovers. This makes a sort of sense, but the ultimate effect, I felt, was a flattening of the events of the book. It really was just about a bunch of people responding to the losses of loved ones in various ways, but because the peculiar circumstances are not an issue, there seems to be no reason why the loss couldn’t have been via a flu epidemic or chemical leak.

It was an interesting device to explore grief, but done in, I fear, by a kind of spiritual and intellectual reserve.

6–

Much- much –  better was the quirky novel Amp’d. I won’t say, “I recommend it,” because I don’t say that – people have different tastes, and recommending books usually gets the recommender in trouble from someone who imagines they will be getting one thing because they have an image in their mind of what kind of person they believe the recommender to be, but of course they actually have no idea, and the book is in fact quite different from what they expected, and possibly has swears and drugs in it, and maybe sex. Surprised and disappointed email to follow.

So. Don’t read this book.

It’s the story of a guy – Aaron – who has lost his arm in an car accident and returned to his father’s house to recuperate and figure out what to do with his life. It was funny – often hilarious, and just page after page of succinct, on-point observations. Making frequent appearances are a pet alligator, Cancer Boy and various lost and seeking friends and family members, as well as the fish Aaron is hired to count as part of a ..fish counting project. Also a presenter of short radio bits on scientific trivia, and the content of these bits is simply perfect. You can hear the voice as you read.

I think the best way to communicate what the book is about is to tell you that it begins and ends with lists. It begins with a list called “Things you can’t do with one arm” and ends with “Things I never did with two arms.” The second list is far more intriguing , and there’s the point, right there.

You know what? Everything is better with humor in it. Even life-affirming lessons. Especially life-affirming lessons.

— 7 —

Melanie Bettinelli recommends a children’s books…and it looks great!

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

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Our last full day in Madrid….having said goodbye to our daughter/sister the day before (crazy girl got back to her abode Saturday night, worked on Sunday, then jumped back on the train to Munich Sunday night to catch Birmingham-rooted band St. Paul and the Broken Bones in a concert there….)

I had hoped to get up early and perhaps hit an 8:30 Mass, purportedly being celebrated at San Francisco el Grande…

(The earliest Mass I could find even sort of close in Madrid….it seemed to me that in most churches, the earliest Sunday morning Mass was 11.)

But you know what happened, right?

Madrilenos streaming in waves under my window until 3AM…all about that bass from that club down the block…so I didn’t awake until 9 or so.  Oh, well…what happens, happens, and there’s always a reason. I don’t get stressed (much) about scheduling and plans during travel anymore. There’s so much to see, and if you miss what you planned to see…there’s always something else to see, isn’t there? And it’s not as if there’s only one interesting church in Madrid, Spain.

So, once I roused everyone, we headed to ……another church on my list. San Antonio de los Alemanes.  Every wall and the ceiling was extravagantly painted, which was a bit of a change from the usual Spanish baroque pattern of carved, decorated main and side altars.  We arrived about ten minutes after the schedule Mass time, at which point, the priest was well into his homily, which he continued for quite a while.  There were, as was the case the previous Sunday at another church, about thirty in attendance.

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They must be restoring the sanctuary.

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We made a brief stop back at the apartment, then continued on (walking) to the National Archaeological Museum (in the same building as the Biblioteca Nacional). It was a free admission day, so the line to get in was quite long – about halfway down the block – but moved quickly, so in about twenty minutes, we were in. (Which was good, because it was after noon, and the museum was to close at 3).

It was an excellent museum.  One of the best of its type I’ve ever visited.  I’m not kidding – it’s a model for others, I’d say.

You begin (if you like) by gathering in front a large relief map of Spain.  Above the map, a series of slides is shown, slides that move through all the eras covered in the museum.  As an era and its characteristics are flashed on the screen, the relevant sites light up on the map.  From prehistory through the Bronze Age through Roman Hispania through the modern era, it was an engaging overview.

From there, you tour the quite extensive collection which is curated and displayed with an eye to historical progression and clarity.  All placards are offered in both Spanish and English.  The video offerings which introduce each era are quite sophisticated and not at all lame, as you might sometimes find in a museum.  Honestly, if you’re going to Madrid, I’d make this museum your #2 stop after the Prado, even before the other art museums. It’s that well done, and it gives you such a valuable understanding of Spanish history and the Spanish self-understanding.

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These were bronze tablets erected in towns by Romans displaying various laws and statues.

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We could have stayed longer, but of course the place closed at 3. I wish we’d gone earlier in the week and had given it more time – we saw probably 3/4 of the place.  So we ate lunch, then headed back to the Prado.  I had purchased a “visit twice in one year” ticket the first time, and children are free, so why not?

We caught some pieces we’d missed, primarily the wing dedicated to Venetians, revisited Ribera, Velasquez and Bosch, and found the back hallway dedicated to an exhibit called, “Hoy Toca el Prado,” in which a few paintings from the collection are reproduced in a sort of relief, for the benefit of the blind. It’s received some international press, but was actually quite small, and, as I said, off in a side hallway, so…good work, Prado marketing!

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Appropriately, a painting about Vulcan. (there’s a Birmingham connection…look it up.)

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Then…..back to the Puerto del Sol, Plaza Mayor and parts around and in between to pick up some more souvenirs and just soak it all in….

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The big stuff is great, but it’s the smaller corners that say “Europe” to me, and that I remember most.

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