I’m happy to say that I can now cross London off my list. To be honest, the only reason it was high on the list to begin with was that everyone told me it should be. I never felt the powerful draw to it that I’ve felt to, say, Paris or Ireland. I went because it’s London and it’s important – and because I have a cousin who is studying there and offered me a place to stay and a guided weekend tour.
And what a tour it was. I decided that with all the history and hype, London would be a great place for the ultimate tourist extravaganza. With a list of projected activities and some careful strategizing, Jessie and I did our best to see as much as possible in 3 days. While I’m happy with what we saw, I am also glad that there remains plenty yet to be seen – because after 3 days in London, there is now something deep within me saying, ‘Go back. Go back. Go back.’
We fit in most of the standard touristy stuff, though some we had to skip going inside, and if I give you my impressions on everything this would be a guidebook-length post, so here’s a brief list in no particular order with some thoughts thrown in: Buckingham Palace and the changing of the guards (drowning in crowds and clouds of coffee breath), St. James’s Park (golden fall colors), Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square (woo theatre!), Parliament and Big Ben (I couldn’t stop singing “You Can Fly” from Peter Pan the whole time, also it’s gorgeous), Westminster Abbey (Poppy Appeal), Millenium Bridge (walking over the Thames was magical), Tower Bridge, the London Eye (20 euros to go up, no thanks), the British Museum (Rosetta Stone and mummies, check!), Tate Modern (Francis Bacon in a converted power plant is creepy), the Tower of London, British Library (best collection of Western literary treasures in the world – incredible), Shakespeare’s Globe (covered in scaffolding), Borough Market (delicious lemon tart), St. Paul’s Cathedral (attended a somber service in Remembrance of WWI), Piccadilly Circus, Charles Dickens’s House/Museum, ride in a double-decker bus, beer with fish and chips in a pub, and of course a quick stop by Platform 9 3/4 in King’s Cross Station.
Whew! Oh, and let’s not forget the theatre! First we got half-price tickets at TKTS in Leicester Square for 6 Characters in Search of an Author. It blew my mind. Read the review and please see it if it comes your way. The following day we saw a matinee of Spamalot in a successful attempt to balance out the heavy drama with a relentlessly silly musical. I would see a show every day if I could, but since these two have to hold me for now, I’m glad they were good ones.
Some art that I did not need to pay for – but that had the greatest impact on me – appeared in the form of giant words projected on the blue-lit dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral against the heavy charcoal night sky. We emerged from (I think) the Blackfriars tube station with another destination in mind, but immediately looked up to see “HANDS” looming over us in bright white letters. Each word faded to make room for a new one every minute or so, in seemingly total random order. Here are the ones my camera caught:
LIFE – UNSURE – LIGHT – THOUGHT – TRUE – NOT – WAR – SEX – FALL – TOAST – SNEEZES – LOVE – JUSTICE – SHADE – DARK – SPRING – BREASTS – WORLDS – YOUTH
Some of these flashed across the dome more than once, and some words appeared in French, Spanish, and what I think was Arabic and maybe Hebrew. I can think of nothing else to call what I saw than a poem; at least that’s what it was to me. I stood there mesmerized, watching this enormous living public poem on a historical city landmark that at one point symbolized London’s survival, perhaps even the survival of good everywhere. Following my travel companion, I tore myself away but continued to stare up at the dome as we walked along the Thames. Every towering word dominated the city scape and, no matter how random, seemed to have some special, calculated meaning while at the same time subject to any interpretation. Quite like a poem; just huge and flashing in the sky over one of the world’s greatest cities.
I never did any research to find out what exactly the point was of the dome words and who was responsible. I think it had something to do with Remembrance weekend, but I actually prefer to be left in the dark, left standing on Millenium Bridge at night over the black water of the Thames gazing up in a trance at the lighted words, the lighted poetry in the sky.
And here is why I now love London and aim to return someday – it’s full of surprises. I wore my red poppy in honor of those who serve, said goodnight to Big Ben as a I made my way down the steps of a tube station for the last – and what seemed like the 100th – time that weekend, and took a train to the airport on Sunday night. Unfortunately, my flight was not until 7 am Monday morning out of Standsted, so I had to sleep at the airport as there was no way to get there from Hampton (where I stayed) early enough in the morning.
After so many tube rides and a hellish night spent in an airport with only linoleum floors and only plastic chairs, I was ready to be out of the hugeness that is London and back in the little Dutch city that I now call home. I’ll go back to London someday, but for now I’l search for love in the sky over Amsterdam.