Thursday, March 22, 2012


4/24/10 – Saturday

This morning, as I look out the second story window of the little Ruskin Hotel onto Montague Street below, most people are sauntering easily in groups of two or three, going in either direction along the sunny sidewalk in front of the high, spear-pointed iron gratings of the fence surrounding the British Museum. This ambulatory pattern is quitge unlike yesterday or the day before, both workdays, when people passed quickly and with a determined gait, usually walking alone in the direction of a bus stop for downtown London.
The stay in London has been marvelous; it could hardly have been better.  The weather was warm but not hot, the sun shone almost every day, all day long. Though I was inside the Museum most of the time, the sun shining through tinted glass into the covered courtyard was marvelous. The B&B I stayed in was minimal (shared bathroom & shower rooms in the hallway), but cheap, and right around the corner from the museum.  I was lucky to be here Thursday, Friday and Saturday, because the museum stays open late (8:30 pm) on Thursdays and Fridays, so there was time to see essentially everything I really wanted to see, and I heard several enlightening mini-lectures. It all required nearly the three full days I had allotted for my stay in London.
What did I see and learn at the British Museum that I could not have experienced on my own, reading a book or watching a documentary video?  I think the difference is in actually being there, being in the presence of the artifacts rather than simply seeing images of them.  It’s true that they’re not in their original provenance, and that’s a bit off-putting at times. But somehow their mere presence makes me want to think back on the history, to understand those times better, to imagine the artisans, and, all-in-all, to savor the present reality of the past.

I have to say, though, that the Rosetta stone was not the thrill I’d hoped it might be. After all, it was the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs that brought to life the ancient civilization of Egypt, so long preserved in impenetrable mystery by dry desert. And it is a sacred symbol to all who love languages and translation. But the actual, original artifact, the thing itself, was surrounded by thick plates of Plexiglas. Around that swarmed a mob of tourists, jockying and jostling for a camera shot that first day. After their photos, they squeezed through the crowd to photograph other famous artifacts. On the second day, however, I went to see it again in the evening, just as I was ready to leave, and only one other woman was there. We both had a full view of it, and I took a couple of photos. 
I had already seen a replica of the Rosetta stone in the Cairo Museum when I visited Egypt a few years ago, and there was also a replica in the British Museum's Enlightenment Hall. I knew something of its history – how it was discovered by French workmen, how Napoleon had ordered it transported back to France. But then the British defeated Napoleon’s navy (off Alexandria) and appropriated it, along with most of the other French loot.  Then how Thomas Young, the British physicist (the wave theory of light), and Champollion (the brilliant French linguist) both contributed to deciphering the hieroglyphs by using both Greek and Coptic scripts that were fortunately preserved along with the hieroglyphs.  But none of that drama, the intensity of those driven men – warriors, scientists, linguists – emanated from that solid, jagged block of black rock set on an angle on an artificial, gold-hued plinth, surrounded by thick Plexiglas reflecting the glaring lights bathing it, mobbed by curiosity seekers flitting from one tourist token to another in that long hall, in which salvaged and stolen artifacts from ancient sites sit or stand placidly next to small plaques engraved with labels and summaries that do little justice to the lives, passions and skills that were spent creating them.

The last full day (yesterday), I rode one of those double-decker tour busses, open in back on the top deck, and spent two and a half hours touring the city, during which time I saw all (and photographed most) of the “sights of London:”  Trafalgar Square (where a noisy St. George’s Day concert was blaring over loudspeakers to the crowd jamming the square), Piccadilly Circus, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Cathedral, Covent Gardens (sort of), three bridges over the Thames (including the Tower Bridge), the London Tower itself (built by William the Conqueror?!), the Houses of Parliament (House of Commons and House of Lords) and… What did I miss?  I don’t know.

Monday, March 12, 2012

British Museum

Sitting in the cafĂ© area at the British Museum, having a cup of coffee (cappuccino) and a banana as refreshment after hearing a mini-lecture on the gods and goddesses of Roman England and spending about two hours in the exhibit on Italian Renaissance Drawings.  The exhibit was fascinating and felt like a re-education and review of my favorite period in art. I was first introduced to both technique and appreciation of art during my junior year in France, at the Atelier Julien (where I took drawing and painting every week-day morning), at the Louvre (where I went on innumerable afternoons) and by Proust, who ignited my interest in Botticelli.

4/23/10 - British Museum,
In the courtyard restaurant at the British Museum, having a real “English Tea” – a bit of a splurge, but probably worth it – finger sandwiches, scones with jam and clotted cream, and selected pastries along with Earl Grey tea at L 18.50.
On this trip, I keep thinking of my mother and the bus trip we took to the West End of England – Cornwall – visiting other sites along the way, including Stonehenge.  At the little inn where we stayed in Cornwall, they had clotted cream, which Mom recommended and I found delicious!  I’m having some with my scone right now on her behalf.

Today, I spent more than two hours in the “Enlightenment” gallery, viewing cabinets and drawers and shelves of collectors’ items from the Kunstkamera of British Museum benefactors of the 18th and 19th centuries, including old King George III.  Ancient Greek vases, Paleozoic fossils, navigation instruments, statuettes of gods and goddesses from India and Rome and Egypt and Central America, and Paleolithic hand axes (~400,000 years old) and stuffed birds, and Chinese pottery, and Wedgewood intaglios and gold and silver coins and medals.  All the skilled workmanship that went into producing these items and the thousands more treasures spread around the museum and the millions more in other museums, and in storage sites around the world, or still buried, unexcavated, is utterly unimaginable.
Later, I visited the Assyrian halls with their intricate reliefs of Assyrian kings (Ashurnazipal, Sennechareb) flanked by winged beasts with human heads, cuneiform inscriptions extolling the virtues and feats and valor of the king scrawled across the middle of each panel like the Milky Way across the sky.  The museum was open late yesterday and today, so I now need to see the Greek Parthenon statuary (“Elgin marbles”) before going back to the hotel.  I have still one more day here.

(Later) I did go back later to the galleries on ancient Greece and saw the marble friezes and metopes of the Parthenon (the Elgin marbles) filling one huge, long hallway and another smaller room – yards and yards of marble, tons and tons of marble, most of it in dreadful shape, because these slabs of high-relief marble sculpture are really the debris of the marvelous temple to Athena that had stood intact for over two millennia (although usurped for the worship of other deities) until it was blown up in 1687 during fighting between the Greeks and Turks.  Someone had stored explosives in this venerated ancient site.  How stupid!  Something similar happened to the face of the Egyptian Sphinx, I believe.  Some soldiers (Turkish?) used it for target practice a couple centuries ago.
I took photos of some of the better-preserved blocks, as well as of some other representative sculpture.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Over the Atlantic - LTA


Over the Atlantic on British Airways flight #0178 from New York (JFK) to London (Heathrow).  It was touch-and-go whether or not this flight would actually fly.  The Icelandic volcanic eruption about a week ago threw grit high into the atmosphere.  Winds have carried that grit and debris to southern England and northern Europe, and airports there have been closed for nearly a week.  British Airways was particularly hard hit, and they only just started running flights into and out of London last night.
I’ve been staying the past couple of nights in New York with a long-time friend, Arlene.  The New York stay was partly a staging visit for the European trip, but  I also wanted to spend time with a good friend I haven’t seen for more than two years.  It’s always such a pleasure to sit over a leisurely meal or coffee and just converse with her.  Even though we’ve been friends for nearly half a century, we always have plenty to talk about, and the topics seem endlessly new and interesting. It's a chance to share experiences and understanding in person, and I always feel as if I learn something when we get together.  She, Dinah, Art, and Constance are the four friends with whom I’ve always been able to have non-trivial conversations. And now Constance is dead.
That first evening in New York, Arlene and I went to the “Vagina Monologues” (a partly Spanish version) at a little cafe on the lower East Side of Manhattan.  It was partly funny and partly serious and partly embarrassing.  It expressed an overworked anger and pride about the condition of being woman, particularly its sexual aspects.  I might have enjoyed it more if I were younger, but I was glad to have seen it, finally.  It came to Spoleto (Piccolo?) in Charleston several years ago, and I didn’t go then, although a couple friends urged me to go.
During the day, I unpacked and reorganized my suitcases, partly looking for some things I was afraid I had left behind (camera battery charger, for example).  I found what I was looking for and was relieved, although I am going to have trouble with the large suitcase (a rolling duffle) because the upper strap on it broke.  I tried sewing it back, but it broke again when the doorman tried to lift it into the trunk of the taxi for JFK airport.
I see this as the “last big trip of my life” – at least my last big trip abroad.  I, who have traveled almost obsessively since that first joy of discovering of independent travel. That was when I used money I had earned as a car-hop at the Dixie Spot the summer I was fifteen to take a three day boat trip to Niagara Falls from Detroit with a friend, Carol Schmidt (“Schmidty”), who was then 16.  We had an absolutely marvelous time, running around together on the ship, seeing The Falls, riding under them on the Maid-of-the-Mist, buying souvenirs with our own money, savoring our amazement at things we had never seen before.  The freedom!  Several older couples “adopted” us when they discovered we were on our own, so we were not without protection.  We probably had more eyes on us (and on what we were doing) than if we had been there with our own parents.  Still, it was a delicious feeling of freedom and possibility that I remember vividly to this day.
Travel has almost always rejuvenated my soul, as during the Sweetbriar “Junior Year in France” (1956 – ’57), when I left home carrying a heavy torch for D.M. that oppressed my spirit and returned feeling renewed, happy and believing that anything was possible.  Since then, I’ve lived abroad for five years, in four different countries, and have taken many trips to other countries, both during those stays abroad and directly from the U.S.  I really need to compile all these trips and the countries I’ve visited.  People ask me, occasionally, how many countries I’ve been to, and I can’t tell them.