6/2 Monday Day Zero
Forty something people are neither going to have the exact same set of experiences, nor are they going to react the same to the experiences that they do have in common. The idea, then of these entries is to show my experience and my perception of my experience. In some ways the part (my experience) will represent the whole of the group, and in some ways it won’t.
One of the really nice things about setting out for this trip is not having to get up at some bizarre hour to head to the airport and it will be a direct flight.
Get to the airport and go through the usual mechanisms of going through security and so forth. I don’t do airplane food (usually, I can’t even stand the smell of it), so I get a couple of Burger King cheeseburgers to stash away for later. Airplanes are for beverages only.
Get on the plane. Some kind of nasty chicken curry airplane food is served. I get as much sleep as one ever gets on these things. Flying is an unnatural activity for those born without wings. Putting yourself with (usually) a bunch of strangers in a large metal object with the sole objective being to hurl yourself into the air at unfathomable speeds often over vast expanses of water, mountains, or other hazardous terrain seems against basic instinct at best and borderline suicidal at worst. However, traveling everywhere by road and/or never going (much) outside of continental America seems like a poor alternative. So, in the end, we can reduce the willingness to travel by air to yet another case of boredom/impatience trumping common sense.
6/3 Tuesday Day One
Passport control is the usual rigid ordeal. My typical encounter is one in which it seems the assumption is that some terror cell has figured out the ultimate cover and is sending its elite agents through disguised as faculty and students from a college specializing in learning disabilities.
At one point, they ask for a leader, but Dr. Chandler has already gone through, so the students identify me (I’m touched!), and I come to the front. The guy asks if I am a leader and, without asking what he means by leader, I confirm that I am. He just shakes his head from side to side, says nothing, and motions for me to get back in line. Gee whiz. So I thought perhaps I was a leader, but passport control confirms that I am not. Then he asks what I am doing and I tell him a few places where we are going. I figure it will not be to my advantage to share Lao Tzu’s quote that “a good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.”
We go to City Hotel on the East End. This is just to stash stuff and so forth, since we can’t check in. We leave and “Serge,” our tour leader, cautions us about crossing the streets and says that drivers are not obligated to stop for pedestrians and that you can be liable for damage if a car hits you and is damaged from the collision with your body. And, of course, they drive on the opposite of the street. So crossing the street is a bit more of a process and chancier than in America.
My initial impression is how much less crowded London seems to be than Rome. We take the Tube, England’s version of the subway, from Aldgate “Old Gate” East. Lots of reminders to “mind the gap,” which in an existential sense is probably good life advice the whole way around.
We see Big Ben on the way to our first fun destination. Pass by the Russian Embassy and various protest installations that are set up there. We start at the National Gallery. Pictures by Seurat and Van Gogh. In the Van Gogh work, the painting is built up so much that there is a deep texture making it almost or perhaps barely 3-D. Afterward, I fall asleep outside in front of the museum because I am so tired. Things are kind of blurry for me the rest of the day after this. The trick to the first day is just to endure and make it through.
We then go to Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, and the Piccadilly area, but I have little recollection of what exactly we saw or did. I see some folks reach a point where they descend from responding to people verbally, to responding either yes or no, to communicating through body language, to not responding in any way at all when spoken to. Some vital, more advanced part of our brains seems to have shut off for the remainder of the evening.
6/4 Wednesday Day Two
Wake up at 5am, not exactly refreshed but more balanced than the day before. It is already light and I have trouble sleeping on trips because traveling excites me. Anything unscripted, off the tour itinerary must be done on one’s own. Sometimes these can be worthy experiences. The tours are kind of like first dates and tend to show the best sides of the country. If you want to get the whole picture, or at least some of it, you have to seek it out. Internet is down. I walk around quiet rain-slicked streets. No one is out. No signs of life until 6:30. By 7:00am things are busy. There is a sort of Middle Eastern Gate down the block. There are pockets of graffiti. “We don’t need no thought control” with a pig with a video camera on its head. “We are all heaven rejects.” “Music never lied to me – Savant.” See, hear, speak no evil monkey DJs. Blitz Blitz club. Dispersal zone notice, which means certain people can’t gather during certain hours.
Lots of video cameras. Makes me think of “Electric Eye.” There seems to be a lot of governance, regulation, monitoring, surveillance in this country. I’m not really sure what the point of it is. So I start thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of living in such a place. I start wondering what if I walk back and forth too many times thinking about where I want to eat. Will I look suspicious? I must be on camera somewhere. What if something actually happens in that place? Will I become a suspect? There is a lot of paranoia involved here on both sides; what you project is what you get back. Sure, you may know you are doing the right thing, but that doesn’t mean everyone else knows it.
Brick Lane cultural trail. Café Arena right beside the hotel, to the left if you are walking out of the hotel. It is the only place open right now. Earl Grey tea with sugar and a little milk/cream outside sitting in the light rain—something about this seems very (stereotypically) British. Anton Chigurh graffiti portrait across the street, which seems appropriate for reasons I cannot identify. Aldgate Cofee House and Love in a Cup Espresso Bar both look intriguing but they are not open yet.
I go to breakfast at 7:40 (find out they open at 6:30 during the week). Roll, croissant, strawberry yogurt. Apple juice. Nutella after I see a student using some and I ask him where he got it from. There is meat and eggs available for an additional four pounds, but after looking at the offerings, I elect to pass.
Watching the BBC morning news show. The Queen is speaking today.
Helicopter hovers in the air above Westminster, which advertises itself as a place with “Kings, queens, statesmen, & soldiers, poets, priests, heroes, & villains.”
~Dr. William Nesbitt
See photos from the trip on Flickr