Saturday, May 3, 2008


The first part of our trip was spent in the London 'burbs with our friends Bill and Wendy and their extremely pleasant and well-behaved children Matthew and Dana. It's a running joke that we'll visit them anywhere in the world, based on the fact that we have already traveled to see them in Houston, Bangkok, Wassenar (near The Hague), and now in Weybridge, Surrey, just southwest of London.

The trip into London from their neighborhood is a 25 minute train ride to Waterloo. We made that journey several times during the week.Instead of doing the things I had imagined doing in London, we found ourselves choosing other options.

The National Portrait Gallery always has fascinating art on display and gives over a fair amount of space to photography as a medium for portraiture. While quite a few of the works are renderings of the famous, infamous and illustrious, others are of unfamiliar subjects. We also spent a little while in the National Gallery as well, concentrating on a few particular rooms and artists in whom we bore the most interest. Between the two we took in a lunchtime concert at the church next door, that being St. Martin-in-the-Fields. We had expected an English song recital, appealing to me as a lover of the voice, but what we got instead was a ten-piece brass ensemble! Fortunately, the program was composed of three twentieth century pieces which we enjoyed very much. I had saved the program but now cannot locate it...if it turns up I'll edit this post to include the composers' names. To top it off, all of these things were free, or by voluntary donation of whatever you can afford.

Another day we whiled away the hours at the British Museum. The collection there is pretty incredible, largely thanks to Britain's Imperial years. Today we would think differently about all the items that were brought there from other cultures with no compensation--dozens of Egyptian sarcophagi and mummies, the Rosetta stone, the Parthenon statues and sculpted friezes (aka Elgin marbles)--and in fact there are now ongoing disputes with other countries about the possession of these items. We are privileged to be able to see them but like a lot of great art and historical artifacts, the provenance is somewhat "stained", shall we say. Napoleon made off with quite a bit that's now in the Louvre and Paris, and Hitler had unbelievable troves of art and artifacts that were plundered by the Nazis. Some of the art plundered by the Nazis ended up being captured by the Soviet Union, and Russia to this day refuses to return it to the countries from which it was taken. I recommend the documentary "The Rape of Europa" and the book "Rescuing DaVinci" for an amazing account of how much of the art looted by Nazis was saved and returned to its owners or their heirs by a specially skilled group of our own soldiers.

We spent a good deal of time walking around London, and one day walked all the way from Trafalgar Square to the Tate Modern on the South Bank. It was a lovely stroll along the Thames on a brilliantly sunny day. Along the walking path on the north side of the river, you can see the Victorian penchant for the exotic played out in the charming but occasionally bizarre details of lampposts, benches, statues, etc. We walked across the Millennium (pedestrian) Bridge, which, after some scary tales of movement at its opening, is now strengthened and perfectly stable. The Tate Modern has a fine collection, some of which I dug and some of which bothered, confused or bored me! Sadly we hit the gallery in between installations in the huge entry area, so it was essentially a repair site rather than some cool monumental-scale experiential work. Oh, well!!

We went to visit Windsor Castle as well. I'd seen it before and it was just as grand as ever, and the towns of Windsor and Eton, flanking the River Thames were as charming as I had remembered.

Another day out took us to Stonehenge and Salisbury. It was pretty nifty to finally see Stonehenge in person--but I must say it does look just like the pictures you have seen, nothing more, nothing less. You know how some places you've seen in pictures are just that much more incredible when you see them with your own two eyes? Stonehenge is not one of them. Don't get me wrong--it was really satisfying to see it in person but that extra bonus of "Wow, it's so much more amazing in person" wasn't there for me. But at the same time, I loved listening to the audio tour and all the educational information about what Stonehenge MAY have been about. And I don't regret going there for a second. The same day we stopped in Salisbury, had lunch, took a walk around its medieval center and visited its Cathedral. The Cathedral was built in the 13th century and completed in only 37 years. if you've visited other European churches and cathedrals, you will know that 37 years is practically overnight. many took hundreds of years but because this one went up so "fast" it is unusually harmonious in architectural terms, reflecting only one period or style, early English Gothic. There is also one of the four original copies of the Magna Carta held there, and I felt like I had made a little pilgrimage as an American who values the freedoms we have, for that document was the forefather of many others that guarantee our freedoms today.

Most of the time we had dinner en famille and appreciated the chance to unwind after long days on our feet, and to chat over delicious and leisurely home-cooked dinners with a glass of wine. of course, we did make an exception because we had to have Indian takeout, as it is the national food of Britain, right?

The one dinner we had out was at a small Italian restaurant near Waterloo, fairly tasty and reasonably priced for London. Why there? We were going to the Old Vic to see a revival of David Mamet's play "Speed-the-Plow" starring Kevin Spacey (I think he's the artistic director there) and Jeff Goldblum. It was stupendous, of course, and I am grateful to Wendy and her eagle eye. The entire run was sold out quickly and she spotted the announcement in time to snag tickets for us. Of all the theater in London that week, that's probably what I would have wanted to see most, and we were lucky to have been there.

The last day before we continued on to Istanbul was spent out in the south England countryside at an antiques fair in Ardingly. It was one of those typically cool and dampish English spring days so we were happier inside the various sheds than trolling the outdoor stalls. It was a gigantic affair with a thousand stalls or more. We hardly made a dent in the few hours we were there, and sadly Bill did not find his dream fountain pen at a steal of a price. The ones we did see were generally overpriced or at least no bargains were to be found, so instead I used our last few pounds to buy antique buttons.

The only major downside to the time in England was the 20 pounds I wasted on a SIM card from Orange that was supposed to work in my phone in Turkey. It worked in England but in Istanbul my phone would not pick up either of the two networks the card was supposed to carry. I guess I will probably try to find out if it would work over a year from now (doubtful, as these pay-as-you-go cards generally last only a year if you don't reload) or whenever we'd be back in Europe. Failing that I'll mail the SIM to Wendy to stick in her own phone!

OK, so now we've been to England. On to Istanbul, but that will have to wait...

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