I’m just going to throw this out there: I loved London. Loved it. I could have spent weeks there, and of all the cities we’ve been to it’s one I could see myself living in somewhere in the future. It took a few days and a few double takes to remember that I could actually read the signs in England without playing some odd game of charades. The common language helped us feel more at home, sure, but the city is just really classy and alive. We were schooled in culture for eight nights, unknowingly enrolling ourselves in a crash course in the arts. Let me break it down for you:
The Taming of the Shrew at the Globe Theater: seeing a Shakespeare show at The Globe is something that everyone should do at some point in his or her life. It’s authentic and fun, and slightly scandalous since the British are more comfortable with humor most Americans would deem inappropriate (i.e. a man whipped off his pants onstage and proceeded to finish the scene in a thong and nothing else).
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra: I’ve been to plenty of concerts in my day, but this one tops anything my ears have ever heard. I felt like I was listening to a movie soundtrack or something. If the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra could narrate my life I would be the happiest girl on the planet.
Swan Lake: I was inaugurated with my first ballet here in London and I absolutely LOVED it! I was nervous that it would be boring (remember the four hour opera in Paris? That’s what I was afraid of), but it was amazing! The sheer number of swans, with their perfectly coordinated jumps and graceful choreography, were mesmerizing.
The Lion King: Elizabeth and I saw this show together and let me tell you, it delivered. I’d seen it before and I’d see it again in a heartbeat. We were five rows from the front in the center section next to the aisle, so we were in on all of the action when the cast came down the aisle in their crazy-amazing costumes. It took me back to Africa for a few hours, and if you know me, you know how much I love that continent. The whole London play experience is one of my favorites: heading over to Leicester Square to search for discounted tickets, going out to dinner, taking the tube and navigating to one of the many theaters huddled under umbrellas, I felt cool and cultured going out more than half of our nights in the city. I went through the same process again with two other friends to enjoy my fifth and final performance of the week: the Phantom of the Opera.
Two midterms and five museums rounded out our visit, along with a trip to Cambridge and constant use of the tube to explore the city. London taught me to love tea and hot soup. I learned proper umbrella etiquette and caught myself reverting to a slight British accent every once in a while. We ate fish and chips throughout the week and thanks to the ‘look right’ and ‘look left’ signs spray painted into the sidewalk, no one got run over by a double decker bus. More London greatness for your enjoyment:
The Bed and Breakfast we stayed at was on Gower Street, just two streets over from the University of London. We’d walk to campus to have class every morning, blending in with other students speaking English and carrying backpacks. School felt more normal doing it with the masses. Good thing, too, since we had to buckle down and study for two big midterms. Oh, the joys of balancing travel and school.
27 = the number of museums we’ve visited so far. (Yes, twenty seven museums, I know, it’s crazy). I still love them, though, and we’ve been lucky enough to see lots of really well put together museums. The cool thing about museums is that the stuff we talked about in elementary school or studied in high school textbooks, we get to see it with our own two eyes. The Magna Carta, the Rosetta Stone, mummies from ancient Egypt, Grecian vases from 600 BC, it’s all here, about 3 inches from my face behind a pane of glass.
Tate Modern: I got a taste of modern art this week, and I tried to get as much out of the experience as possible. What I realized, walking through room after room of sculptures and odd installations is that these pieces mean so much to the artists. They put their heart and soul into these works. I needed to consciously verbalize that fact before I could move forward and appreciate them, even my very limited level of appreciation. Where we non-artsy folks see scribbles, they see art. They transform, bringing redemption to old junk and blank canvases. It’s true that yes, I could paint a few dots and call it modern art, but I didn’t, and they did. There’s more to modern art than meets the eye, themes and symbols and emotions that far exceed the obvious medium being used. And once you get over the fact that you’re looking at a few splotches of color or a chair or whatever it is, once you get past that and really look, you breathe life into the art. You allow it to be what it needs to be for you. I’m really stretching myself with this whole art thing, trying to be vulnerable and appreciate the art that I get to see on this trip.
Cambridge: We enjoyed a crisp, sunny Saturday in Cambridge, wandering the art fair and farmers market and coffee shops filled with students. We got to tour all of the different colleges and hear little boys in white and red robes in King's College Choir perform, their perfect voices filling the chapel with sweet falsetto melodies. I love that Cambridge is a college town, and I would definitely go back there again. (Grad school abroad, anyone?) Also, did you know that if you go to Cambridge you can get your bachelor’s degree upgraded to a master’s degree after two years by writing the college a nice 50 pound check? Yup. No extra school required. Crazy, I know.
The perfect afternoon in London combined shopping and exploring. One afternoon we wandered Notting Hill and Portobello Road, stopping in vintage stores and Cath Kitson and Hummingbird Cupcakes. We bartered for sweaters at the largest antique market in the city and convinced each other that yes, that was a great purchase, even though you don’t have any more room in your suitcase. London had some amazing shopping, and at least 25 of our 40 indulged in new clothes at the savior of all stores: Primark. The boys of our group found it first (mad props to them), and we all agreed that we’d shop exclusively at Primark if it came to the States. Seriously, this store was amazing…and relatively cheap…and so cute. Just another reason leaving London was bittersweet.
High Tea: A trip to London wouldn’t be complete without high tea. We indulged ourselves at Fortnum and Mason (they supply the Queen with all of her tea), and enjoyed a classy afternoon in the tearoom. Did you know that milk and sugar make tea taste so much better? I didn’t know it was okay to supplement tea like that, but now I know better and am slowly but surely learning to love this hot beverage. Our long afternoon at Fortnum and Mason was perfect, a chance to drink tea and eat cakes and take a breath, debriefing about what we’d been learning about ourselves and the world. I love the women on this trip, and I love how we can be vulnerable and real with each other.
My time here has been precise and piercing, exactly what I didn’t know I needed it to be. That always seems to be the case, in my life at least, that the best things in life are unexpected. So here we are, on this journey, one brave step at a time. Cheers to the miles it took to get here, and the many miles still to come.