Tuesday, June 28, 2016

And...we're off

Today was really all about getting to know our way around, but also checking out some cool attractions. First stop: Trafalgar Square, Nelson's Column and the National Gallery.

When we stepped out of the flat, the sun was shining. The air was warm. It was 1:00(We slept late.) We didn't yet have an Oyster Card (this fancy pants card that lets you ride public transportation. Okay, not fancy, but we bought the seven day cards so we could travel endlessly on the tube, buses, trams, etc. How's that for super thrifty?). We spent about an hour wandering aimlessly around Notting Hill just looking at the beautiful houses, streets and shops. We wandered through side streets, such as the beauty to the left here. I want streets like this in the states. Flower baskets hanging effortlessly from windows, unassuming doors that lead to what is invariably beautifully decorated homes awaiting you in this quaint part of town. Sigh. Can I move here?

We found our way to the Notting Hill Gate (tube station) and we were on our way! With our trusty travel guide in hand (thanks anonymous friend!), we made our way to the first stop.

When we resurfaced, it was an awakening of sorts, that this is what tourist London looks like. Throngs of people with selfie sticks ran around, children climbed on lions clearly marked for no climbing, and pigeons ran around scaring me half to death. If you know me, you know that ornithophobia is strong in this one. This one being me, of course. I'll spare you the awe of my words, and just use this space to show you. M'kay?

Nelson's Column was the first thing that we saw. Center bottom you can see the London Eye in the distance. This monument  was built to honor Admiral Horatio Nelson who died at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. This naval battle engaged  the Royal Navy against fleets of the French and Spanish during the Napoleonic Wars. The monument, designed by William Railton, was constructed 35 years later, took three years to complete and cost 47,000 pounds. I imagine that was quite a bit of money back in those days. When it was refurbished in 2006, it cost 420,000 pounds and was discovered to be about 4.4 meters shorter than originally supposed. Wait...does this mean statues also shrink as they get older?

Around the base of this amazing column are four bronze lions (I'm seeing a trend here in London, that the British like lions. Can someone explain? I should research, but it is late and I don't wanna right now. Just sayin'). These guys were cool and if the British does in fact have a thing for lions, I think they rightfully should. These dudes are cool (although, can a lady get some female lion representation up there already. As Justin Trudeau said, it's 2016.)

I'll digress. Back to the lions. There were designed by Sir Edwin Landseer and weren't added until 1867. Signs clearly say not to climb on them. People don't listen. There was a kid behind that head as I took this photo. He probably fell later and then someone sued London for his skinned knee. Or is that only an American thing?
The bronze panels on the column were added late (look behind the lion) and were cast from captured French guns (in your face France). They depict three battles and the death of Nelson.

When you turn, the National Gallery towers behind you and people fill in the stairs, some watching street performers, others people watch as they sit by fountains. According to the website, "The National Gallery houses the national collection of paintings in the Western European tradition from the 13th to the 19th centuries. It is on show 361 days a year, free of charge." We saw everything from Bellini to Van Gogh.

We spent a good couple of hours in the museum, just looking, taking pictures, getting history lessons from Sky on each time period and some of the symbolism in the photos. Elliot commented at one point that there seemed to be quite a bit of decapitations pictured, and I can't say she was wrong. John the Baptist was headless more than he wasn't. And while I enjoyed seeing many of the world's most famous art in person, the kids, well, they didn't stay engaged as long as I had hoped. The Van Gogh's were my favorite, surprisingly, as I don't fancy myself a huge fan of his. But I mean...look at these things. The prints you can buy to hang in your dorm rooms simply do NOT do them justice.

Sunflowers, 1888

Van Gogh's Chair, 1888
Two Crabs, 1889
Those two are classics. Everyone who is alive and maybe over the age of say, seven, knows those are Van Gogh. But these next two. I had no clue and yet, found myself so drawn to the colors and textures of these paintings (I'm sure I've just been living under a rock.) The crabs are thought to have been painted soon after his hospital release in 1889. According the National Gallery, "On 7 January he wrote to his brother Theo: 'I am going to set to work again tomorrow. I shall start by doing one or two still lifes to get used to painting again'." If this is part is true, it is possible Van Gogh started painting this on my birthday the very next day (plus 90 years.) The crab on its back is most likely the same crab that is upright, according to the website. I know you can't see it here, but the differing brush strokes used to create texture are magical. This is why Van Gogh is famous folks. You can't see that detail in a print. Art is amazing. It allows us to go back in time and see what others saw, to feel what others felt, long after they are gone. Books and art. Our strongest connections to history, if you ask me.

Long Grass with Butterflies, 1890
More than any of the others though, this painting really struck me as his best. The vibrant colors. The texture. Van Gogh painted this at the end of his stay at the the asylum at St-Rémy, near Arles. It depicts the abandoned gardens he described soon after his arrival.

The pops of purple, the shades of green, the pin pricks of orange and the tiny white butterflies, almost as simple as if drawn by a child. Yet, brilliant in their own way.

I could have stared at it for hours.

The Manchester Madonna, 1497
My other favorites included two by Michelangelo that were unfinished. There is something fascinating in seeing the work of one of the greatest artists of all time, unfinished, and to know that it will never be finished, and therefore, must be considered complete. Weird, right? It is like ghosts haunt the places where the painting would have gone, and by its own right, has become art as it is.

The painting to the left is tempera on wood and according to the website, "Christ is seen indicating a passage in the book held by the Virgin which one pair of angels contemplates. The others study a scroll, perhaps given to them by John the Baptist. The book and scroll may carry prophecies of Christ's future sacrifice. The draperies and the rock plinth are very similar to Michelangelo's earliest sculptures."

We saw many other beautiful paintings while we were there, but as a guard told us...you can see them all on Google Art Project, so yeah. You don't need me to drone on about them here. (I'm also curious if teachers are using Google Art in their classrooms and if so, how? I really want to find a way to integrate it. Ideas welcome in the comments).

When we made our way to the exit, we noticed it had started raining. Of course, in my true fashion, I was terribly unprepared. No rain coat. No umbrella. Unlikely to buy either. Oh well, and we were off again.

This time, we made our way back to Leicester Square for a brief photo op then to Chinatown for dinner. Leicester Square, interestingly enough, is not a square at all, instead referring to the traditional open public space traditionally used for community gatherings. This particular pedestrianized square includes a fountained statue of the great William Shakespeare. My students who really know me are laughing right now. They know my feelings about ole' Will. Enough said. I will admit, the water, rain and lighting made for a rather lovely photograph. Besides that, the square was surrounded by corporate shops, such as M&M and Nickelodeon, distracting from the beauty of the open space. Bummer.

A brief walk led us to Chinatown, set apart by a grand gate that leads visitors to a variety of shops, bakeries and restaurants. Apparently, London's Chinatown has had several iterations in different areas of town. Present Chinatown dates back only to the 1970's. Apparently, the cuisine is the most authentic in London, and how in the world could I pass that up? The rain was really starting to come down at this point, and we were not only wet, but a wee bit cold as well. It's like everyone else in London knew to carry an umbrella except us. To be fair, we knew, we just like to throw caution to the wind, or so we pretend.

I should mention, at this point, it was just after 7pm. Historically, my kids are in their beds at this point. But there was still light in the sky and exploring to be done. We headed to Piccadilly Circus and immediately upon arrival. my son, Caden disparaged loudly, "This isn't a circus!" No, it isn't. Simply put, it is a round open space at the convergence of several streets, including Regent Street, named from the Latin word meaning "circle".   A bit of a let down unless you had previously researched the area and learned ahead of time there would in fact be no acrobatics or clowns.

We wandered from here, down Regent Street, not because we wanted to shop, but because the buildings were just so intriguing. I could easily imagine riding in my carriage down this street in the 1800's, dressed to the nines. Just picture it. You know, minus the cars and bikes and people dressed in bad 2016 fashions. Really put your imagination into it. There you are. Right? We could galavant up and down that rode in our horse drawn carriages all day long. Instead, I shook of that day dream and admired all the high end shops from afar. Except for one. When I could no longer take the rain and cold, I stepped into a shop because I saw they had rain coats hanging by the window, those sly devils. 

Time pressed on from here, we walked around, passing two arcades (not video games here folks, just more high end shops in these neat little interior walkways), until we finally found our way to a bus top that would deliver us right to the doorstep of Harrods. Apparently, this place is a super famous department store that everyone said we just had to visit. I won't lie. It was big and flashy. It was unlike anything I had ever seen, to be quite honest. And somehow, we just ended up in Toy Kingdom for 90 minutes until I finally couldn't take the consumerist queries of the children any longer. It wasn't like they were peddling anything I couldn't get on Amazon back in the US. So, despite protests of epic proportions, we forwent purchasing and headed home for the night at the store's closing.

All in all, it was an amazing first day exploring and I think we accomplished a lot. As we grappled with the bus ride on the way home, two amazing women came to our rescue and we negotiated bus routes for the first time from the Notting Hill Gate to our flat on Chepstow Rd.  There was a moment, as we sat on the top of the bus, where a nice woman overheard my ask Sky if this was our stop. He said he was sure and I wavered. She asked if we needed help, but in the moment of rushing, stressing, pulling and and tugging three exhausted children down from the top, I couldn't respond, and instead charged down the stairs without nary a word. In hindsight, once I returned home and had time to reflect, I realized we must have seemed so American in that moment. And for the first time, I felt foreign. If you've never felt this before, it's because you have been ensconced in your own privilege for far too long. Not just foreign, I felt American, for better or worse. No matter how aware you are, it is hard to escape who you are.

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