Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Eyeing the Past

So the next day, Sunday June 20th, we decide to be tourists. Thrifty tourists, however, and so we choose the cheapest way to get around London: the hop-off-hop-on ferry on the Thames. L, our native tourguide, decides that we would make one delightfully large family which brings our fares down to mere pounds per head. So we hop on, the breeze refreshing in what is rather warm sun. We count the bridges as we pass underneath, until we come to the most splendid bridge of all.

"All disembark for Tower O'London!"

Of course, we must first get Starbucks to fortify ourselves for 5+ centuries of history. And buy tickets. And then navigate the drawbridge to the Tower complex itself. I know I have been here before--OK, it was nearly 40 years ago--none of it familiar but all of it is fascinating. The tiny triangular stairs in the Tower proper wind up and up into the summit of the tower, where Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey and many others waited out their sentences, knowing it would not end well. I can still sense their anxiety, hanging in the air like the ancient dust.

Now antique graffiti has been preserved in the walls and it captures my attention. Some of the work, carved into the plaster of the walls, is amazingly artistic and detailed: bas relief of angels, fantasies of the tombstone lid that the artist knows will one day grace his or her tomb. Some of the carvings are poems or letters and I can just imagine the dreadful boredom and endless patience that inspired these.

But there is more, dioramas of life in the fortress, a building devoted to the history of the Queen's Regiment. And the Crown Jewels. These I actually remember from 1971--no one who has seen amethysts the size of walnuts can forget them--but what is new is the display itself. It used to be that the jewels were kept in the dark (if I recall correctly) and only when a carefully guided group of tourists were assembled were the lights switched on, followed by oohs and aahs and soon the darkness again. But now technology has taken over--state treasures meets Disney--and now the collection of crowns and scepters is featured in a series of stationary double-paned display cases, and the tourists move...along a rather zippy motorized sidewalk similar to what you find in airports. No dawdling here! Either view the displays quickly or forget it. But fortunately there are few people today, so like children we run back to the start and go for a second ride, and then a third. There is also a balcony for those sensitive to motion sickness--the view isn't as good but the explanations are more detailed.

There are the state china, and a punchbowl which could double as a baptismal font, and a dress and robe laden with gold (did it say it weighed more than the queen? I believe so...) and other treasures so numerous that the silver becomes blinding. Time for fresh air.

Outdoor we witness one of the Queen's guard, goosestepping in the heat under his massive black fur hat. Even 40 years later it is still sport to attempt to make the guards react--smile or scowl or anything--but it's still unsuccessful. The Beefeaters are social, chatty, but the guards are emotionless.

It is here that I begin to develop my theory of funny hats--that the military forces in any country can have all sorts of sensible or odd uniforms but what makes each distinct from the others are the hats. Silly hats, actually (do tell what creature gives up its skin to form that massive furry mountain on the guard's head? It is no creature that ever dwelt in England, that's for certain). Not that the red jacket was any good for camouflage either, but at least in the Jolly Old there IS wool.

We walk along the Tower Wall, enjoying the views of both the compound and the city. But we want more. My poor daughter, J, has arrived in London with a list of "must-see" spots and we will not be able to see any of them--the city too sprawling to make the trips from one end to the other in a reasonable amount of time. But we can accommodate one of her wishes. Once out of the Tower complex we hop on again, travel down river to within sight of Parliament, St. James' Tower and its more famous bell (that's BIG Ben to you). Hop off, cross the bridge, and there it is, arcing high into the sky: the London Eye.

A bit of grumbling ensues as it can be hours of wait to get on board. It's nearly 6 pm and dinner is on our minds. But for some reason the tourists are elsewhere and there are tickets...and within 20 minutes we are slowly ascending in a white capsule we are sharing with a dozen other curious folks. I was feeling an initial anxiety having become more fearful of ferris wheels in my later years (they used to be my favorite ride) but this is nothing like a ferris wheel. The movement is slow and regular--it can hardly be felt--and the views are constantly changing. Now I see rooftops and now I can sense the Tower Bridge there, and the Gherkin, now the Tower itself, and is that St. Paul's in the distance? Just don't look directly down--it's unnerving--and amble from end to end of the capsule for the best scenery.

I am especially proud of my children, chatting with family, pointing out landmarks, trying to envision where Heathrow might be, and where L's apartment is, and oh, our hotel would be just to the right of that, look at the sun glinting off the roof of Parliament. This is in sharp contrast to the Illinois family we met as we boarded our capsule: mom, dad, two college-aged sons. First trip overseas, might be good for the boys to have history come alive. Dad is pointing out landmarks and reminiscing about the last time he was in London (as a 20-something himself). I soon realize the man is talking aloud to himself. That wasn't his intent, however, because at the same time he talks, I hear annoying, repetitive electronic beeps. Coming from his sons, who are playing tetris on their cell phones. Wow, glad we dragged you halfway across the world and spent down our retirement savings for you to PLAY GAMES while hovering over London in the world's most costly ferris wheel.
I glare, but of course it has no impact.

Once on the ground--cherishing our digital photos, of course!--we stroll the Quai, stop for sangria at a sidewalk cafe, and watch the buskers entertain passers-by. There are the typical second-rate musicians, but there is also a young Asian woman seated on a velvet blanket, rolling a crystal ball from hand to hand like magic. And there are folks dressed up as odd creatures--a tiny woman in a peasant outfit with hair to her ankles which hides her face, accompanied by some poor fool dressed as her burro. Yes, for a few pound you can have your picture taken with us! (Dare I ask why?).

We cross the Thames back towards the direction of our hotel, winding through streets until we find ourselves in Chinatown. I call out the names of the restaurants, wondering if the rule holds for the UK--back home the best restaurants have the most bizarre names (No.1 China House is a neighborhood favorite of mine).
Somehow we manage to get a table to seat all of us, around the world's largest lazy susan. Bring on the dishes and let's share. Yum!

We savor our dinner with mixed emotions--the excitement of starting the cruise tomorrow, the letdown of leaving London having seen only a very small portion of the city, and the absolute dread of packing up all our belongings and getting ourselves out the door in good time. But we will do it because we know: more adventures await.