Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Scott: Final Thoughts

Time to close up this blog for good. Winging our way over the Atlantic, I'm excited to be going home, returning to the land where garbage bags open and sandwich bags close. The first thing I plan to do when I arrive home is shop for groceries. It will be a pleasure to look for products where they "ought" to be--at least according to American logic. Whatever I buy, be it sugar located next to flour, or mustard located next to ketchup, I'm going to buy a lot of it, just because I know I'm not limited to what I can carry. But that's not to say I'm not going to miss this place as well. Mostly, I'll miss our daily, hourly and minute-by-minute talks as a family about the interesting, funny and culturally diverse things we see and experience. For sure, I'll miss the tubes, busses and trains which take nearly all the hassle out of transportation. But most of all, I think I'll the vibrancy of the city, a byproduct of its multiculturalism, its culture of youth, its throngs of tourists from every corner of the globe and its financiers who seek to dominate the world from this tiny little spit of land. They are giants in their own way. If I've learned anything on this trip, it is that this "green and pleasant land" is a lot more than just a pastoral setting steeped in history. Sure, it's filled with quirky people with quirky ways, but don't let the batty lords, the tattling tabloids and bad-boy royals define British existence: Despite its pretensions, Britain is indeed the center of the world, just as it has been for centuries. If London were an organ, I'm pretty sure it would be the brain--the nerve center of the global body. As I return home to the "little finger" of the planet's, I'll treasure my time here. It has given me valuable space for reflection, relaxation and refinement of values and perceptions. Although I've been a student of British history and British culture all my life, I've always been baffled by the dualing reputations of Britain as a place of cutthroat capitalism and a culture of spirit-dulling socialism. I didn't think they could co-exist, but I've found that they do. Britain, it turns out, is a and of surprising innovation often held back from being all it could become by its deep-rooted reverence for traditions and institutions. Yet it is that very reverence which gives it the sense of rootedness that allows it to remain stable in the face of the gale winds of change. In some ways, I think Britain is all the America wants to be, and all that American's abhor wrapped up in a single place. It is always said that it is easiest to hate most the things you love best. That is the British-American relationship. Separated by history we are inextricably conjoined by culture and mutual fascination. Like a pair of siblings locked in eternal rivalry we disparage each other even as we stand together bound by ties of mutual affection and admiration. We are indeed, two branches growing from a common tree each producing fine fruit which tempts the palate of the rest of the world.

Laura's List: Things I'm Going To Miss

I'm going to miss the time I had with my husband and my little girls. I'm going to miss our wonderful flat. I'm going to miss my friend Kristin. And, last but not least, I'm going to miss the British Museum and Boots cosmetics. And I'm definitely going to miss the wonderful education that London afforded me on a daily basis. Here are some of the things that struck me.

11. The British are the most polite subway riders I've ever experienced (at least in comparison to Tokyo, New York, D.C., Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Paris). In particular, the women are very likely to give up a seat to an elderly person, a pregnant woman or a little girl who appears in danger of being accidentally trampled during rush hour.
10. The Brits definitely have a "glass half empty" attitude. I'd call them pessimists (though they would say "realist"), while we Americans are basically optimists.
9. London women are wonderfully fashion-forward. The men? No so much.
8. England is not known for its food. Nor should it be.
7. You can understand American culture and attitudes better for studying British history, culture and attitudes.
6. The iconic red phone booths were modeled after a tomb! Giles Gilbert Scott was inspired by the mausoleum that Sir John Soane designed for his beloved wife when she died in 1815.
5. Queen Elizabeth I and her half-sister, Queen Mary I, so different and so estranged in life were actually buried together (though not by choice) in a side chapel of Westminster Abbey.
4. Most of the museums in London are free. The British Museum, which boasts the Rosetta Stone, the largest collection of mummies outside of Cairo and the Elgin Marbles (which the Greek government would dearly love to have back) is an especially good bargain with zero admission!
3. The weather in London in March is fantastic -- moderate temperatures and sunny days. We didn't believe the guidebooks, but they were right. And with tourism at its lowest point in the year, it's an ideal time to visit.
2. The British do not talk to strangers. It's simply not done. If you trip and smack your head on the pavement, they will politely step around you. But they won't talk to you. Trust me. This is not a hypothetical.
1. The Brits love to queue. Seriously. It's in their blood. If you stop anywhere, pretty soon, you'll have 3 or 4 people lined up behind you. I've seen folks with one item wait 20 minutes in a grocery check-out line. In the U.S., we'll put that item down among the checkstand magazines and walk out after about 90 seconds. As one woman said to me, "Well if you wait in line, there must be something really fantastic at the front."

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Goodbye, Good Friends

The Williams's, our dear friends who greeted us on arrival, also dropped by to say farewell.
They've been so much a part of our lives for three months, it is hard to imagine life without them, but we look forward to their return stateside sometime in the next few years. Above, front row from left Cecily, Rhys and Gwyneth; Back row, from left, Meredith, Olivia and the 5-year-old slayer of female hearts, the indefatigable Owain.

Monday, March 30, 2009

We A-Mews Ourselves On Our Last Day

Oxford beat Cambridge in the big race along the Thames which took place right behind our house today, but we weren't there to see it. We took one look at the crowd of rowdy twenty-somethings headed for the river with enormous quanitities of booze and decided we could spend our time more productively. This being our last day in London, we decided to return to one of our favorite places, Southwark Cathedral, for morning services. The best moment of that was when Cecily decided, uncharasterically, to lend her voice to the hymns and did a pretty good job of carrying the tune! Our next stop was the Royal Mews--the stables adjacent to Buckingham Palace. This was a place Olivia had wanted to go from the start of our visit, and she (and we) were dismayed to find that it is closed for the first three months of every year. Fortunately, the re-opening day turned out to be March 28, so on our last day, we were able to give Olivia her wish. Both she and her sisters enjoyed looking at the horses and were fascinated to learn that the Queen names each one. Olivia thought it was cool that when the queen visits, the stablemaster has to follow her around with a silver tray of carrots and sugar cubes. Also stored at the mews are the amazing royal coaches, including the 4-ton state coach gilded in solid gold (shown at left with Meredith in front.) This amazing piece was built by George III and has only been used four times in the long reign of Queen Elizabeth II. It was a great way to end our visit. For the rest of the afternoon, the girls went for a goodbye play date with Owain, Gwyneth and Rhys while Mom and Dad went home to finish packing. All that remains at this point of our presence at our wonderful little house in London is an enormous pile of luggage in the hallway awaiting the arrival of the car tomorrow.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Olivia's Journal: The Britash Brain

Olivia's final homework project was to map the British brain, showing those quirky nodes which we have observed here that are not shared by American cousins across the pond. After three months of keen observation, here are her cryptic notes transcribed from above (with interpretetation added in brackets by the editor as needed.)
The Britash Brain
football "soccer"
hate french; love french things
love cheap stinky cheese
after o, ad u [as in colour, flavour, labour and favour]
small gardens
We may have a budding sociologist on our hands!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Shepherd's Bush Market

As our time in London comes to a close, we are still in search of a few last adventures, preferably from the girls' standpoints those that don't include more museums. We got one today with a visit to Shepherd's Bush Market. The market is just a few tube stops from our house. It is nothing formal--just a long-row of shops build under the elevated tube line with row of stalls our front. But it is a world away from a trip to a sanitized supermarket or general goods store environment. The market seems to cater primarily to the African and Middle Eastern populations of London. There is a whole store dedicated to Middle Eastern bridalwear, including brightly jeweled tiaras and crowns of many varities, which the girls thought were the perfect choice for an up-and-coming princess. The grocery was full of things like yam flour and big containers of palm oil and all sorts of other products you just don't see at Sainsbury's. Persian-inspired carpets competed with bejewelled furniture and clothing and there various shops selling headresses and burkhas for women. Right in the middle in a strangely discordant location, there is a shop selling London souvenir paraphenalia and Christian-inspired wares includes crucifixes, rosarys, icons, statuettes and incense censors. At every turn we saw something interesting presenting another opportunity to emphasize to the girls that we have to share the planet with many cultures other than our own.

A Farewell Dinner

Our primary reason for visiting Shepherd's Bush Market was to see it, but we also had a practical purpose: we were checking out the possibilities in order to complete our grocery shopping for a farewell dinner party we were throwing tonight for our friends Kristin and Gareth who have done so much to make this trip possible. One of the advantages of having a house instead of a hotel is that one can entertain one's friends in style, and we wanted to make the most of it. So we "put on the dog" and used every available dish for a big bash. Shepherd's Bush turned out to be a big help because it has a fish market which offers fresh catch at ridiculously low prices--f20 for a bag of prawns and four fat frozen salmon steaks. One person can hardly get a hamburger for tht price in this town, muchless four. With our company well fed, we enjoyed a great evening of conversation, storytelling of reminisces and current events. Gareth held us enthralled as he explained that the animosity between the city's financial community and the anti-capitalists which has everyone excited as the G20 Summit approaches actually has deep roots. Apparently, we have these marches, smaller in scale, frequently, and the usual response of the financial crowd is to hang out of the balconies of their buildings and throw f20 notes down on the marchers and laugh while the marchers show their hypocrisy as they scramble to grab them. We broke up the party just before midnight, wondering why we hadn't found the time to do this more often over three months.

Let's Talk About Succession

Prime Minister Gordon Brown's unpopularity took another hit yesterday as Britain was unable to seld a bond issue amidst increasing fears that the government hasn't the ability to pay back its debts. So what does a government do to distract the public? Turn its attention to the royal family, of course. An item in The Telegraph this morning announces that the PM is meeeting with the palace to discuss plans to amend the Settlement Act of 1701 to allow two major changes: to allow those in the line of succession to marry Roman Catholics and to allow women to succeed to the throne on an equal basis with men. Presently, women can inherit the throne but only behind their brothers. The Act has implications because if it were retroactive, the Princess Anne and her children would leapfrog Andrew and Edward and their children, upsetting the line established for half a century. Such a move would have international implications since the sovereign also is nominally head of state for the the Commonwealth nations. Objections are expected when the prime minister addresses the issue at an upcoming Commonwealth conference. But other news indicates it may be time to scrap the girl-boy distinction anyway. Prince Harry--always good for a laugh--was captured on camera yesterday stumbling out of a nightclub with the fingers on one hand painted a bright shade of pink and the tops of his pink boxers clearly showing.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

We Swoon Over Swan Lake

As we prepare to return to regular life, dance practice is top of mind for both Olivia and Meredith who will be performing in recital in just seven weeks. So it was with considerable interest that Olivia, accompanied by Dad, attended a matinee performance of Swan Lake this afternoon at the Coliseum Theater, right off Trafalgar Square. There are actually two performances of Swan Lake being staged in London at the moment, the other being at the Royal Opera by the Royal Ballet. Unfortunately, tickets are sold out at the Opera House. So we went to the other one: a limited engagement performance by the American Ballet. Exactly why this company of international dance stars, most of the principals of which are not American-born, is called the "American" ballet beats me, but it was an inspired performance in a great venue. Olivia, to her Dad's surprise, proved to be already familiar with the plot line and some of the libretto. Apparently, her dance class frequently dances to some of the movements, and she has watched a video of the performance in school or dance class previously. I guess you have to get completely away from home sometimes to find out exactly what your children are doing!

Olivia's Journal: Swan Lake

Oliva prepares a blog while sitting on the bean bag. Note the ingenious method of holding the pencil and eraser.

Today I went to the Swan Lake ballet. Here are som tips on dancing Swan Lake.
#1. Get some boys.
#2. Have beutiful sets.
#3. Have an orcistra.
#4. Get good seats.
#5. Do something difrent.
Here are some ways to dance Swan Lake.
--Spin on one foot 80 times without puting your foot down.
--Stand on your toe, put one foot ont he ground and put the other one by your ear.

I loved Swan Lake.