Tuesday, September 08, 2009

London, Day Five

Ah, the quaint old Tower of London, home to both one of the oldest active fortifications in England and one of its most storied prisons.

The Tower seems to have a strange hold on the imaginations of its visitors, and it’s hard to say whether that’s because of it has such a long history or because it has such a gruesome one. In my case, at least, I think it’s a little of both. The longevity of the place – in operation since William the Conqueror earned his title – in concert with its very bloody memory reminds us of how close at hand death once was, and how easily it reached even into the highest echelons of British society. People love to observe the cruelty of the world while keeping it safely at arm’s length: at the other end of a camera, for instance, or in the cheery tales told by a grizzly old Beefeater.

The grounds of the interior castle are immense, and there are several interior structures as well as an entire housing unit for all of the Beefeaters (or Yeomen, which is their proper title) and their families. It’s also home to the famous Tower ravens, whose wings are clipped because legend holds that the Tower – and England – will fall when the last one leaves the grounds.

Cute, though like all things in the tower, a bit morbid.

As we found out, few people were actually executed within the tower, contrary to popular belief; most times, they were bound and dragged up to Tower Hill, just outside the city limits of the old City of London. These were the public executions, held for a variety of reasons in front of large crowds, for whom executions were something akin to a spectator sport. Whole families would come out and crush to the front to get the best possible view of the act when it occurred. Executions were often botched, as well, which meant an even more agonizing death for the prisoner and even more amusement for the crowd. The message, however, was always clear: the state could and would kill you if you stepped out of line.

Exceptions to the public execution policy were reserved for the most famous or powerful prisoners, who were actually executed within the Tower – on what’s called the “Tower Green,” which during the Middle Ages had been used as a graveyard – ostensibly in order to preserve the privacy and dignity of the prisoner. These notable “exceptions” included two queens: Catherine Howard and Anne Boleyn.

Walking around the Tower, it’s hard not to feel a little sad at all the blood that was spilled here over the years. I already recounted Lady Jane Grey’s story (which I hadn’t even known until this week), but of course there are many other famous men and women who lost their lives here or on Tower Hill: William Wallace, Sir Thomas More (also a victim of Henry VIII’s wrath), and of course, the aforementioned Anne Boleyn. It’s said that as she was led into the Tower, Henry knelt and kissed her hand, stating (for all we know, truthfully) that he would love her until the day she died. What a romantic.

Just outside the Tower lies the little church called All-Hallows-by-the-Tower.

Note the sign for Kentucky Fried Chicken in the front; it's always a bit surreal to see those in England.

We stopped here en route to St. Paul’s Cathedral, which would be our biggest church yet on this trip. Visitors to old Europe are often struck by how much of their trip is consumed by visits to churches, but it’s for good reason: these were the places where most excess wealth, labour, and intellectual energy were spent, and they show it.

The quiet and unassuming Hallows church is certainly a far cry from what we would see at St. Paul’s, but it has its own distinct charm. For one thing, it wasn’t crawling with tourists being led around by people walking backwards with flags in their hands. For another, it’s a very old site, old enough that it started out as a Saxon abbey in 625, and a bit of digging beneath that unearthed a section of Roman road and a number of other artifacts, many of which can be found in the church’s crypt.

After the Hallows church, we stopped for lunch at a neat little pub called the “Walrus and the Carpenter.” Alice in Wonderland fans will recognize the reference. We had some great pub sandwiches, including chips (French fries) coated in vinegar and “brown sauce,” a concoction I enjoy, but have never found anywhere but Britain. We also had some great ales, which, as a lover of flavorful beer and a nostalgic for my last trip to England, I relished.

The rest of the walk to St. Paul’s was surprisingly quick, given the amount of lunchtime ale we’d consumed. It had been another long day of walking, so we took a quick break and I walked around to get a few shots of the cathedral. Unfortunately, it’s one of those which is so big that there’s no angle which will ever capture it all.

Outside and in, St. Paul’s is truly London’s church; it wields the grandeur and character of a cathedral which has long held its place as one of the most majestic of its nation. Certainly, there are others which rival it; the York Cathedral and the immense Canterbury Cathedral come to mind. But St. Paul’s has a unity of style and architecture which suggest a short timeframe for construction – only 31 years, incredible for a cathedral of this size – and a very large budget. Indeed, because the place was built just after the Great Fire of 1666, in which the original was damaged beyond repair. It’s also reminiscent of St. Peter’s Church in Vatican City, which is not an accident: Christopher Wren (yes, he’s everywhere) designed it with that magnificent cathedral in mind.

We’d all been preparing ourselves for the climb to the top of the dome, which is truly awe-inspiring from the floor below. However, this turned out to be biting off a bit more than we could chew. First, poor Val’s fear of heights began to catch up with her at about the two hundredth step, and she called off the climb at the second tier after four hundred to wait for us to go to the highest level. Then, having climbed all of those stairs to the second tier of the dome and with only a hundred more to go, I finally managed to trip and hurt myself.

I’ll admit – I made it a lot further than I thought I would. Today had been a bad day to begin with; I’d tripped down the stairs at breakfast, nearly fell over twice at the Tower, and had made several missteps on our walks to and from all of these sites. In fact, I wish someone could compile a montage of all the times I tripped over myself today, because it would be a good five minutes of unintentional slapstick.

But the culmination of all this clumsiness finally came at St. Paul’s, in a tiny little alcove with four little stairs going down and up on the other side. Somehow, I managed to miss one of these four little stairs and went sprawling into the floor. I felt my ankle pop, and knew immediately that I was going to have some trouble keeping up over the next few days. Luckily, it turned out not to be too bad, and since I was walking carefully and gingerly for the rest of the afternoon and evening, it was the last of my awkward falls for the day.

I did manage to make it to the very top of the dome with my useless ankle, where we got some amazing photos of London from one of the highest vantage points available.

As I hobbled my way home from our church tour of London, someone in our group remembered that we had received an invitation to a VIP party at our hotel that night, thanks to Diane’s many airline and hotel points. The VIP party turned out to be a fun little event, with unlimited free drinks and finger food which filled in for dinner that night. Once again, we’ve found that traveling with Diane means traveling in style, and were suitably impressed.

Unfortunately for them, the Brits didn’t know it wasn’t a good idea to give us a bunch of drinks and let us loose in their capital. A few minutes after we finished up in the VIP lounge, we grabbed our cameras and wandered over to Trafalgar Square, where Val and Diane attempted to climb one of the giant lions surrounding Nelson. The attempt was met with limited success.

However, it provided Rob and I with quite a bit of entertainment, and was recounted numerous times over our second visit to Scoop, a little gelato shop just north of our hotel, where our addiction to gelato ice cream really came of age. Val has vowed to eat at Bertillon, the famous Parisian gelato shop, at least once a day, and I have no reason to disbelieve her. Gelato is some amazing stuff, though; just look at what it’s done to us (particularly Rob):

Happy and full of gelato, we headed home for an early night before what I considered the most dangerous portion of our entire vacation: driving through out of London and into the English countryside.

Monday, September 07, 2009

London, Day Four

On our way out of the hotel today it began to drizzle for the very first time since we arrived on the island. We were all caught without umbrellas, having been lulled into a false sense of security by the days of fine weather. This gray, dreary mist is what I remember best about the weather in England, so it was nice of it to make an appearance, but it was gone almost as soon as it came, giving us a clear view of Buckingham as we walked up the Mall.

The front gate of Buckingham is what almost everyone sees when they visit, and it’s the only part of the palace that I’d ever seen before as a tourist.

The famous changing of the guard ceremony usually takes place in the large square out front, though we wouldn’t catch it today. I’d seen it before, however, and it’s certainly a sight to behold; the Queen’s Guard, mounted and on foot, marches in from the Mall (the same path we took from our hotel) to the Palace courtyard, and for a few moments you feel like you’re awash in giant fluffy black hats (purportedly made of bear fur?!) and red coats, the most distinctive elements of the guardsmen’s uniforms. This isn’t our picture, but for example:

Instead of hanging around at the front gates, however, we took just a quick look at Buckingham’s beautiful white façade and then walked around to the southern end of the palace, where the Palace staff was allowing the first visitors of the day into the Queen’s Gallery. The Gallery is a collection of some of the most stunning display items that the monarchy has collected over the years, most of which were gifts of state from foreign powers. We couldn’t take pictures inside, but the Gallery is kind enough to publish photos of its treasures online.

The objects ranged from fine 18th and 19th century furnishings…

… to arms and armor…

… to beautiful porcelain vases from the French royal factory at Sèvres. These last were well-known for their glaze, which is an incredibly vivid hue of deep, cobalt blue, and were each and every one decorated with detail on the scale of millimeters.

One of my other favorites from the collection was a diamond-encrusted sword which looked as if it could cut you as easily by grasping the hilt as by being struck by the blade. Another set of items that you can’t help but notice are the brooch made from strawberry-sized pieces of the Cullinan Diamond, at 3,000 carats the largest rough diamond ever found.

Its larger companions can be found at the Tower of London in the crown jewels collection – those weigh in at 530 and 310 carats. All in all, you can really only come out of the Queen’s Gallery with one overriding impression: good lord, the Queen is rich!

From the Queen’s Gallery we made our way over to the official State Room tour of the Palace, which walked us through the path that innumerable princes, presidents, and prime ministers have walked in the past. Pictures were not allowed, of course, and this was one place where we really didn’t feel comfortable taking illegal photos. Still, here’s one of the rooms from the official website to give you an idea:

But the memories alone of this place are enough: I was completely overwhelmed at the pomp and circumstance of an active palace. Each room was not just a beautiful shell, but were rather intimately decorated, sometimes going so far as maintaining fresh flowers on the tables. I can’t say it actually felt “lived in,” perhaps because the tour moved so much like it would at a museum, but it felt more alive and impressive than any state residence I’d ever seen, with perhaps the exception of Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna regarding the “impressive” part. I’m looking forward to Versailles, however, to see how it compares.

After a quick walk through the palace gardens (which were little more than a pretty forest, albeit impressive for being located in the heart of London) and the Queen’s Mews (stables), we decided to continue our tour of venerated old British landmarks, and so we took a walk to nearby Westminster Abbey, just a mile or so from the palace. It was my third time at Westminster Abbey, and I’m a bit surprised to say that it was just as enthralling as the first.

The place is impressive enough architecturally, with its high gothic ceilings and bright white profile, but inside there are innumerable graves and monuments to Britain’s finest, including Dickens, Newton, Darwin, etc., not to mention nearly all its kings and queens, including Elizabeth I and Richard the Lionheart. Jeremy Irons was kind enough to narrate our tour through our headphones, a reminder of just how much the Brits still treasure the place.

The British seem to have such a flair for doing things on the fly, and even though there isn’t a shred of continuity in the whole place, it always seems like it’s done in just the right way. Whereas even Buckingham Palace couldn’t be described as “lived in” (even though she actually does live there!), and I’ve never used the phrase to describe a famous cathedral, that’s the sort of feeling I get whenever I step inside the threshold of the Abbey. It’s as if you’ve stopped by Great Britain’s apartment before they’ve had a chance to clean up or move things around, and they’re caught looking just like they are: proud and brilliant and more than a little bit eccentric.

Val and I broke off from Rob and Diane at this point for a little while so that they could take the Underground down to Greenwich, home of the prime meridian and the utterly arbitrary line between the two hemispheres. It’s an interesting place, home to the Royal Observatory and the Royal Maritime Museum, and also a fantastic spot for a photo op, as it’s possible to stand with one foot in each hemisphere, as Diane and Rob will demonstrate:

Nicely done, guys.

Meanwhile, Val and I wandered up through St. James Park, which lines the Mall leading up toe Buckingham. We stopped for just a moment to rest, at which point I caught Val looking very regal on her tree stump:

St. James is home to a waterfowl preserve, including pelicans, herons, and several varieties of ducks and geese that I’ve never seen before. There is also a certain little bridge that spans one of the park’s creeks where you can get a view of London that somehow looks like it’s out of a fairy tale:

It’s still not clear to me how they managed to line up those buildings just so, but the effect is fantastic.

Our afternoon was spent in the National Gallery, which is located just across Trafalgar Square from our hotel. Whereas the Tate houses most of Britain’s modern art, the National Gallery is its storehouse for older treasures, including lots of Titians, a number of Dutch artists (some of whom, like Rembrandt and Van Dyck, are among my favorite painters), and some very famous works by Van Gogh that I’ve seen many times before, including his “Sunflowers.”

Many of the works in the Gallery were portraits, and I was struck by the differences in quality between artists; in some cases, it was as if they’d been painting by number, but in other cases (for instance, with Rembrandt), you feel as though you’ve gotten to know the person staring back at you after just a few moments. And the execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche (with whom I’m unfamiliar) was so poignant and evocative I was actually stopped in my tracks. According to the Gallery’s website, Lady Jane Grey was “Queen of England for just 9 days until she was driven from the throne and sent to the Tower of London to be executed.”

You can’t help but feel sympathy for her: in the painting, she is reaching out unsteadily with her hand, innocent and confused. That’s probably not too far off, either; history seems to regard her as a political pawn with powerful enemies whose claim to the throne was always tenuous.

We didn’t have much time in the Gallery, so being the savvy travelers that we are (and relying heavily on our Let’s Go travel guide), we used the museum’s trip planner to catch the major works before we left to meet Rob and Diane. As we walked out of the museum, we caught a glimpse of a statute we’d been looking for: George Washington himself, magnanimously displayed by the British in the furthest corner of their favorite square. It’s said that they had to import American soil on which to plant him because he’d refused ever to set foot on British soil again.

We closed out our evening with a dinner at Café in the Crypt, an underground restaurant housed in the crypt of “St. Martin in the Fields,” a church also bordering Trafalgar Square. After that, apparently determined to spend at least a quarter of this trip underground, we meandered over to Gordon’s Wine Bar, a cramped, cool, basement-level bar which used to be – yes, you guessed it – a crypt. It was definitely nothing I’d experienced before, but I have to admit: the ambience was fantastic, despite our feeling a bit cramped.

We emerged from the bar at into the throng of Brits who’d just been expelled from pubs, all of which close at precisely 11pm. Just outside our bar, while several of us used the bathroom, we noticed a woman was sitting on the sidewalk with her back up against the building, searching for something in her purse. She wouldn’t have been remarkable, except that she was apparently so drunk that her search had become an odyssey lasting ten minutes or more. Most purses not of the Harry Potter world should probably be searchable within a minute or so.

Back at the hotel, we took a few moments to catch our breath (and watch a bizarre British game show whose sole purpose appeared to be ripping off gullible callers) and prepare for another long day ahead. The Tower of London awaits in the morning followed by the grandiose St. Paul’s Cathedral in the afternoon. I’m glad for the sleep; because of our day out we’re running at breakneck speed to see everything we want to, but it’s been worth every step.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

London, Day Three

Unlike Twickenham, it’s almost impossible to get lost on the way from the Hampton Court train station to the Palace – even without the sea of rugby fans, one can easily find his/her way over the bridge and into the palace’s entryway.

The front of the palace, while unimpressive by, say, Versailles standards, is still impressive for its age. Having been constructed in the Tudor era, it also more closely resembles a medieval castle than anything; the rest of the palace was spruced up in the 1700s once word of Versailles had gotten around, though it was left incomplete, leaving the place with one foot in two different eras of architecture. The most interesting aspect of Hampton Court, however, is one of its famous residents: Henry VIII. Yes, the wife-murdering, religion-creating, rotund king of England whose greatest achievement was probably fathering Elizabeth I. As you can tell, I’m not a huge fan of Henry, but it’s hard to deny that he’s a fascinating character of history.

As we walked in, it was like being transported back to the early late 15th century: narrow passageways and stone courtyards are everywhere within the outer palace, with a few Roman emperors sculpted into the walls for ornamentation. It was a bit funny to see mad Emperor Nero staring proudly over one of the arched entryways; he seems a particularly appropriate guardian for Henry’s palace. Many of the rooms also still contain framed antlers from Henry’s various hunting exploits, reminding us that he was actually pretty spry in his youth.

Many of the rooms within the palace are designed to give the impression of life during their medieval heyday. Most of the time this was interesting, though it was a little disturbing when we took a stroll through the medieval kitchens, where we were confronted with rooms full of faux raw meat waiting to be chopped or cooked in enormous cauldrons. One room also had a few Tudor-era board games, one of which Rob and I immediately sat down to play. It was called Fox and Geese, and I chose to be the fox, thinking that it would probably have the advantage in that matchup. Unfortunately, it turns out that 20 geese can corner and kill a single fox in this game (which is not entirely inaccurate, given my experience with geese), and Rob’s geese managed to do just that to my fox in under 10 minutes. Next time, geese, next time.

One of the jewels of Hampton Court is the Chapel Royal, designed by architect Christopher Wren, who is also responsible for St. Paul’s cathedral in London. The Chapel has a kind of quiet elegance about it, and I can appreciate that about a religious space; rather than trying to “wow” worshippers, Wren seems to have been aiming to create a place of quiet reflection, at which he succeeded admirably.

In case you’re wondering, the picture is a bit askew because it was taken surreptitiously; you’re not allowed to take photos in the chapel. Val and I have nearly perfected our “bait-and-switch” technique, however: I play the role of the obtuse American tourist, taking out my camera and aiming it around, drawing the attention of guards away from Val, who snaps a few key shots from her vantage point across the room. Works every time!

After exiting the palace, we were greeted with some of the most beautiful gardens I recall seeing in England. I originally visited Hampton Court with my parents many years before, and only the back of the palace and the gardens had lingered in my memory all this time.

We spent quite a bit of time wandering the grounds, and even attempted to walk the palace’s famous hedge maze, said to be one of the largest in the world. Unfortunately, we didn’t make much progress before time started to run short, though we were thankful when we found ourselves right back at the beginning of the maze, where we could exit in shame through the entrance rather than subject ourselves to another hour of wandering into dead ends and other frustrated tourists.

Before we left, we also took a moment to stop by one of Hampton Court’s other attractions: an enormous grape vine which is said to be the oldest in the world. Diane got a great picture of the vine itself, which is hard to capture in its entirety:

We were just in time, too, because when we walked in they had put on sale the grapes which had been picked that morning. Not wanting to wait, we bought them and ate them on the train ride home. They were indeed excellent; I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten grapes which had been picked that morning, but it goes a long way to making one feel like royalty.

After our return trip, we walked over to the Imperial War Museum, which houses the most extensive collection of World War I and II artifacts that I’ve ever seen in one place.

We managed to get a picture of Val in front of her namesake tank without too much trouble, which was good because I could not properly explain to passersby why my wife was growling and clenching her fist in front of that tank other than to say, “Well, she’s a Sherman!” The other museum-goers might not get it, but those who know her would understand.

Aside from the horrors of war, which the museum goes out of its way to make apparent alongside the typical “oh, awesome” factor with all military arms, it also really makes it clear just how involved Britain used to be in daily affairs all over the world. One thing I’ve noticed about London this time is that it seems to still be the center of an Empire, even if the Empire is now long dead. The streets around our hotel are littered with statues of its great men and women. The Britons have taken great care to erect monuments to all the things they’ve accomplished and endured over the years.

In some ways I’ve begun to think that Britain never really recovered from the World Wars, and the War Museum reinforced that impression. While Britain the nation is still just as sharp and has a long, proud memory, it seems like it was too badly wounded to live as it once had, and now spends many of its days mourning its brilliant youth. America would do well to pay attention to Britain’s story, I suppose; we can’t be the biggest kid on the block forever, and it’s only too easy to find yourself suddenly past your prime, spending your time dreaming of the days when you were stronger. It was a sad thought, but somehow appropriate for the War Museum: for all its talk of weapon specifications and battle strategy, at its heart it’s simply honoring a vast loss that can never be recovered.

From the War Museum we tried and failed to grasp the London bus system and ended up hailing a cab for the Tate Modern. We don’t normally take taxis because of the expense, but everyone enjoyed taking one of the distinctive London cabs.

The Tate is a retooled warehouse building with a giant chimney which overlooks the Thames. It’s not terribly impressive from the outside, with its gigantic smokestack as its most prominent feature.

Unfortunately, I got surprisingly little out of many of the works inside as well, having never studied modern art or kept up to date with contemporary trends. There’s not much that’s worse than feeling irritable about viewing modern art – you might as well admit to being the worst of low-brow tourists. But for me, there just wasn’t much that was accessible in the halls of surrealist paintings and sculptures of writhing metal shapes, often resembling various types of knots.

There were some highlights, though: for instance, a bright yellow Mark Rothko painting and a whole room of Gerhard Richter’s “scraped-into-color” works that Val turned me on to long ago. And there was the Jeff Koons exhibit of cute colored mirrors shaped like Disney animals, of which we took several illegal pictures

We had enormous fun contextualizing this exhibit to Rob and Diane by describing some of his other work, some of which included some rather explicit photographs of him with his wife, an Italian porn star. That exhibit at the Art Institute was certainly interesting, but I think it made me more than a little a bit frightened of Mr. Koons himself.

Reeling from the Tate, I took the reins and led us – via several detours and dead-ends – first to the reconstructed Globe Theatre...

... which was worth a picture, if nothing else. Then it was on to the George Inn, just south of London Bridge, where we drank ales not too far from where Shakespeare and Dickens did (or so they told an enthusiastic and thirsty English major). The pub was first placed on a London map way back in the early 16th century, and has since burned down (and was subsequently rebuilt) at least six times, though apparently some of the original structure, presoumably some miniscule board in the foundation, remains. Val and I capped off the night with a lovely meal at “Masala Zone,” which quenched, at least temporarily, our crazed desire for British Indian food. Sunderland was where I first learned to love Indian food – thanks, Luke, for the introduction – and that relationship has definitely flourished over the years.

We covered a lot of ground today, but one of the highlights of our trip is coming up tomorrow: Buckingham Palace. Every August and September, the Queen goes on her yearly trip to Scotland (because, well, she can), and the Palace's state room are opened to the public. I've seen a lot of defunct castles and palaces over the years, but I've never been to an active one (not even the White House). Given what London and the monarchy have shown us so far, I expect it will be nothing short of magnificent.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

London, Day Two

If you know me, you probably know that I’m a big fan of breakfast. In particular, I love orange juice. I love it so much, I think I might actually be physically addicted to it. I’m also completely useless early in the day without some kind of sustenance, so it’s pretty important to me to have something decent to eat in the morning.

So waking up to the news that our hotel offered free breakfast was about the best possible way I could have started my day. This was particularly true since big breakfasts aren’t usually a part of the European hotel experience, even in Britain (where it should be said that they do love their breakfasts).

And when we got down there, we found it wasn’t just breakfast: oh, no, it was nearly a full English breakfast buffet, including eggs, sausages, mushrooms, tomatoes, hash browns, black pudding (don’t ask me to explain that just yet) and those weird ham/bacon slices that I’ve never seen anywhere else. The only thing missing was the baked beans, but I was determined to find an English breakfast with those eventually. It’s enough to keep you going for almost an entire day, or perhaps kill you on the spot if you have a heart condition.

This isn't our photo (note the baked beans), but it's a good example of a typical English breakfast:

Not only that, but there was also fruit, cheeses, and an array of juices including, yes, orange juice. I would have free orange juice every morning for the first week of our trip. I believe the phrase I used upon this discovery was “sweet nectar of the gods!” though I’m not sure any of my tired companions really understood why I was so excited, except perhaps for Val. Anyway, I was again ecstatic about our hotel in London, though I was beginning to worry that the Paris place might be something of a let-down after this.

After our phenomenal breakfast we took a walk over to Westminster Bridge, known as the best place for pictures of that big clock everyone likes to talk about (Big Ben), the Parliament buildings, and the London Eye, a massive Ferris wheel overlooking the south bank of the Thames. I’m not a big fan of the Eye, possibly because it doesn’t seem fit in with the rest of the architecture and feel of London, but more likely just because it wasn’t there when I first visited England in 1994 and doesn’t mesh with those memories. It’s also quite expensive – about 17 pounds per ride, or the equivalent of around $27, so it doesn’t endear itself that way either. At any rate, I refused to take a picture of it today, but I'm sure I'll capitulate eventually. But I couldn't help but take another picture of Big Ben, which is as photogenic as ever.

From the bridge, we attempted to walk directly across to Waterloo Station, where we hoped to take a train out to the suburb of Twickenham for a rugby double-header that day. Unfortunately, there are apparently only a few ways to approach Waterloo Station, and we chose none of those as our routes, leading to about half an hour of walking around wondering whether people were intended to actually enter the station at all. Once we made it in and got our tickets, we had some time to spare, so we wandered down the South Bank a bit to see if there was anything of interest.

And oh, there was. We ended up in the nearby Southbank Centre, which was holding something called a “Pestival,” or what we soon found was a celebration of all things insect. There was a giant architectural rendering of a termite mound…

a London taxi dressed up as a bee…

and a variety of other bug-related foods and activities.

Not really knowing what to make of all this, we moved on to a neat little footbridge called the Hungerford Bridge. When I saw it, I realized it was one I'd crossed before with my friends Peter and Larry way back in 2003. Funnily enough, it was because I'd gotten lost and we happened to stumble upon it - this seems to be a trend of sorts when I travel. But it certainly brought back memories of that brief stint in London in what already seems like ancient history.

Here we also happened to catch the middle of the “Great River Race,” in which hundreds of competitors rowed a variety of different open boats, including (according to the website), “Chinese dragon boats, Hawaiian war canoes, and Viking longboats.” Most of them were flying flags of various sorts, including a Swedish flag, a large dragon flag, and a even a pirate flag. They were pretty entertaining, though I'm sure they were exhausted; the trip as a whole was a grueling 22 miles along the Thames.

We watched for a while, but realized that time was running a bit short for our big event that day, so we walked back to Waterloo (now knowing the magic path required for entry) and caught our train to Twickenham. We were all excited about our rugby double-header, but we really had no idea what we were in for.

Twickenham would have been a quaint, pretty little suburban town just west of London had it not been for the thousands upon thousands of drunken rugby fans which converge upon it every weekend for the games. It was not out of the ordinary to find a row of little gray brick townhomes with flowerpots hanging from their porches and a young rugby fan who was urinating on the lawn just in front of them. Interestingly, as I found out later, in comparison with the hooligans who frequent football matches, rugby fans are supposed to be positively genteel. At any rate, I found the contrast pretty amusing; these seem to be two aspects of the British psyche which are opposed but inseparable, like quarreling siblings.

But those fans really are a breed of their own. Here’s Diane with one of our favorite people in line:

Once we got settled in our seats (which were quite good!) I was introduced again to the friendliness of the Brits. The man sitting next to me, surely noting my befuddled expression as the game began, offered to explain a bit about the sport as it went along. It turned out he was a business writer for a well-known newspaper (well, at least in Britain), though I admit I’ve already forgotten which one it was. He was attending the games with his son, an avid rugby player at a “public” (read: private and exclusive) high school south of London.

I’d read a bit about the game, and he explained the basics, which include the “try” or setting the ball down past the goal line (5 points) and the subsequent conversion kick through the goal posts (2 points), and the penalty kick (3 points). Aside from that, the idea was apparently to brutally injure anyone carrying the ball, an area in which nearly all the players seemed to have real talent. Interestingly, my friend gave me a bit more context for its place in British culture: rugby is actually known as the game for upper and middle class fans, at least compared to soccer. An old saying goes: “Football is a gentlemen’s game played by ruffians; rugby is a ruffian’s game played by gentlemen.” (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

Yet after all our conversation, neither he nor I still haven’t the faintest idea what constitutes a penalty in rugby, even though that’s apparently where the majority of points were scored in the matches we watched. I assume it has something to do with the position of the ball during a tackle, as opposed to whether or not you stomped your cleat into someone’s face and caused permanent brain damage. To get an idea, this is a typical "scrum," in which the biggest players from each team attack each other for the ball:

How, I ask, can you enforce rules in that thing?

Aside from rugby, we also got an update on British politics, which can be summed up thusly: everyone hates Gordon Brown and loves Obama. I’ve always loved British politics, by the way, even though I only have a loose grasp on how things work – watch a session of Parliament sometime if you’ve never had the pleasure of watching a hundred grown, intelligent men scream at one another with abandon. Someone also once told me that the queen technically has the power to abolish Parliament and take full control of the army herself…should she so choose. She’s just gracious (and wise) enough not to.

When the game was over, we said goodbye to our friends and wandered down to buy a London Wasps scarf, and then find our way back to the station. On that score, we utterly failed, first by trying to follow the crowd back to a car park, and then by having absolutely no idea where we’d ended up. After some fruitless wandering through empty suburban streets (and a few encounters with drunken fans clearly as lost as we were) we found our way back into the gigantic herd heading for the station, and then spent about an hour waiting in line for a train. Given that it seemed like half of the stadium’s 82,000 capacity were trying to get back to London, it might have been worse, but there’s another very appropriate saying about the British: they really know how to queue.

Once home, we didn’t have much left in us, though the jet lag had miraculously almost worn off already. We also knew we had to get up early for our Sunday trip to Hampton Court Palace, so we called it an early night and collapsed in our comfy beds. I fell asleep thinking of all the things we would see the next day… and, if I’m honest, of the orange juice I’d have at breakfast.