Saturday, April 29, 2017

Bombs Fell Here

War happened here. You can’t spend an hour in London without knowing that bombs fell here, that World War II was very up close and personal. People tell you that newer buildings mean that the previous buildings were bombed out. Over dinner, someone mentions that the house next door was bombed out. Henry Moore’s drawings of crowds of people camped out in Tube stations are on display in several museums. Sixty percent of London homes were bombed out during the Blitz.
I was invited to a lovely Passover dinner in the home of a London rabbi. I sat next to Gabriela, who told me of her family’s escape from Germany in the nick of time. In a car ride home, I listened to Wanda tell me of her family’s escape from Milan.

On a tour of Farringdon, a neighborhood in London, the tour guide pointed out which blocks were destroyed. There are maps showing which bomb fell on which house on which date. He pointed out where the market was, that casualties were high because housewives had received notice that a supply of rabbits had come in for meat. He told us the difference between the V-1 and V-2 rockets; you could hear the V-1 Doodlebug, but the V-2 was silent. You would hope you could keep hearing the Doodlebug because if it stopped over you, that meant it was falling.

Everywhere, there are war memorials, big, stone monuments to valor and courage and tenacity. We have those in the United States, too. But other than Pearl Harbor and the Aleutians, war did not land on our soil in the 20th century. (Although I think I might count New York City.) That makes a difference.

We did not hide in Anderson shelters or Tube stations; we didn’t listen for the buzzing of Doodlebugs. We didn’t clean up rubble afterwards or overload our hospitals. And if we did, it didn’t permeate our national consciousness. Here in London, at first they didn’t let people camp in the Tube stations; they thought it would lead to a “deep shelter mentality” with people refusing to come back out.

In the United States, our government didn’t have to consider what to do if Americans became so scared they would be afraid to come out. War wasn’t on our soil. We haven’t known the invasiveness of this fear, the way it would pervade daily life.

Jane Churchill created an art exhibit here titled Echoes Across the Century, and I’ve gone back to it several times (once to meet her!). With the exhibit – and the help of 240 school children and their art – Jane ties together the experience of soldiers, families, and the workers on the home front who supplied them. We follow a fiancĂ©e (Jessie) as she mounts her moth collection and remarks on the “…thousands of men pinned forever to the map of France like moths pinned lifeless in boxes, unable to fly again.” We follow the makers of eyeglasses who began to issue spectacles to recruits because the Army could no longer reject soldiers with poor eyesight. And the students imagine what those soldiers see with their mind’s eye.
Jessie created lachrymatoria – tiny bottles filled with her tears – describing each memory she had of Will. We don’t know what of the exhibit is real and what is imagined – intentionally. Did Jessie make the bottles, or did the artist? Or did the students? It doesn’t matter: all of it rings true and all of it hurts. Fear and loss are very real, and everywhere we see and feel what happens when a whole country – all its people, sectors, laborers – are part of that experience every day.

I went to the movies and saw Their Finest; bombs fall on homes and people camp in Tube stations. Of course, I think, being here has readied me to watch this movie. The tours, the conversations, the exhibits have prepared me.

In the U.S., war happens to the unlucky few and their families. It’s something “somewhere else” to “someone else.” It occurs to me here in London that we Americans need to remember that. We need to understand our different feelings about War and Allies and Treaties and Protection. And always, we need to thank our lucky stars.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

This Slightly Different Barbara

Why do I do this? Why do I pick a city and find my way around it for a month? It’s for Art! Capital-A Art. (Okay, Capital-C Culture, too.) Art that blows my mind with creative thinking and new ways of looking at the world and human existence. Art that, at the end of my month, still lives inside me and has changed the Barbara that is. It may be my Third Third, but my world expands to feel as if I have six or seven Thirds to go!

Right away, I signed up to experience two hours of Slow Art Day at the National Gallery. On April 8, hundreds of museums around the world celebrate what Thoreau described: “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” After a brief introduction about mindfulness, focusing ourselves, and removing distractions, we were taken to a quiet gallery to sit in front of a painting. I picked Monet’s Water Lily Pond. I looked at it. It’s a bridge over a pond, lots of water lilies. I looked.

Our museum guide asked, “What does the air feel like in your painting?” Oh, wow! That air was a bit muggy, humid, but there was a breeze. Suddenly, I’d entered the painting. I kept looking, and then the painting turned liquid, turned into water. I realized that all of it wasn’t junk and leaves in the water, it was just light reflecting in it! Monet had found the light and the liquid and made water!

Mostly, she was silent, but then the guide asked, “Where are you in the painting?” and I was on the bridge. She asked, “Are you moving?” and I was in a kayak sliding through the pond, and the lilies were separating and there was so much liquid water. Sometimes I’d lose Monet’s liquid, but then – after looking again – it would come back. It would turn into water. Paint into water.

So it wasn’t that I’d found new Art; it was that I found a new way into the Art. They called the day “Relax with Paintings,” and it was all about taking the time and quiet to just look.
To find new Art, I go to the Tate Modern. Free tours of specific galleries are offered hourly, and I take a different one each time. Grace took us to Lee Ufan’s Relatum, 100 flat bands of 2-meters-long stainless steel. She said they didn’t come arranged or numbered; the museum curator had to lay them out. It was a way of making the art relate to its new environment, that the art wasn’t pre-determined and self-contained. It lived, and I liked it.
I’d managed to score a ticket to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Yes, I went because Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) was in it, but I’d read Tom Stoppard plays and was curious to see if they could be comprehended in performance. They’re so loaded with philosophical inquiry and lines of thought, I just couldn’t imagine being able to process them thrown out on stage.

Oh, wow, I shouldn’t have worried. The play was extraordinary … and devastating. In Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (only minor characters in Hamlet who end up dying for no real reason) immerse themselves in existential questioning about meaning, about dying, about living. It’s brutal … but you laugh OUT LOUD. It’s brilliant.

So then, I’m back at the Tate Modern. In A Pot of Boiling Water, Song Dong of China started way back in an alley with a kettle of boiling water. As he walked, he poured it out in a stream. A line of water appeared until it evaporated and was gone. Only 12 photographs – from back in the alley to right up front – record the event. Our marks in the world are temporary. It was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern again!

The following week, the free “Listen and Learn” talk at the National Gallery was on Monet’s painting, and I was excited to hear what the curator had to say. But when I arrived, I was told there’d been a switch; now they were going to talk about some guy named Constable. Who’s he?

A couple hundred people were in chairs around a big, gloomy, jig saw puzzle painting. Yuck! The curator asked if everyone loved it, and everyone else said yes. He explained that the painting, The Hay Wain, was engraved in their DNA. He joked that after Brexit, that painting would be a test of whether you were British or not. Not-British Barbara learned to appreciate that painting. To appreciate it. I even got up to look at it close up.

I could go on and on. To not describe Marina Abromavic’s Rhythm 0 is to leave out a piece of art (performance?) that will haunt me forever. I’d seen Picasso’s Guernica in Spain, but his Weeping Woman – and the guide’s information about it – broke my heart.

Back to the National Gallery for the free “Look and Draw.” Forty of us were seated in front of Holbein’s The Ambassadors. First, a man told us what to look for in the painting (including the secret of the skull!). Then a woman passed out boards, paper, and pencils (but no erasers). She told us to look for the shapes in the painting, to map out the visible circles on our paper. Only after that, should we try to add detail and shading to specific images. The goal, she said, was to look. Mapping out the shapes first would help us see the painting in a new way. She’s absolutely right; I never would have thought to look for circles in that painting, but it worked!

Every piece deserves its own quiet Slow Art experience. I can’t crowd them all in here and do them justice. But they have all enriched me, changed me, made me this slightly different Barbara in my Third Third, and I am grateful.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

I got this!

A few days ago, I relaxed. Not relaxed as in spending a day reading or lounging, but relaxing as in “I got this.” My whole psyche relaxed. The you-are-in-a-strange-city feeling that never went away … went away.

I had run through Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, getting lost a little, but never feeling like I couldn’t find myself. Afterwards, I’d walked to Harrod’s (more an event than a shopping trip; I cannot imagine anyone finding anything they would actually buy in Harrod’s) and when I got outside, I noticed a #414 bus sign that said it was going to Putney Bridge, and I got on. I was going to visit my friend Lynel in Putney Common, and my little paper with Journey Planner notes didn’t have me going that way, but I still got on this new bus. And it worked.
Lynel mentioned a wonderful market, the North End Road Market, with very cheap grapes, and I discovered on Journey Planner that it’s a short #28 bus ride from my apartment. I’d never been on the #28 before. When I set out, I realized I’d left my Journey Planner cheat sheet at home, and I didn’t go back to get it. Not only that, I found “my” market for the rest of my stay.

I don’t need cheat sheets anymore. I know to look for the bus stop on the left side of the street, not the right. I know that if the ATM can’t dispense cash, it doesn’t mean I’ll be left destitute; it just means I have to try the machine next to it. I know good rest rooms in several corners of the city so I’m never desperate. They reopened the footpath that takes me right into Kensington Gardens so I don’t have to walk the long way around. I know how to send and receive texts on the iPhone.

Now I’m really enjoying myself!

After my fabulous month in New York City, I expected that I’d arrive in London and revel in excitement and pleasure right off the bat. But it wasn’t that easy here. In New York City, I felt like I’d entered my DNA environment, that I was surrounded by “my people.” I felt at home, a part of the culture and the way of being. I fit in right off the bat.

Before spending a summer in Costa Rica, I knew I’d be speaking Spanish, using a different currency, entering a different culture. I was prepared and ready to give it the time to become comfortable. I wasn’t prepared that way for London.

They may speak English here, but they’re British and I’m not. I haven’t figured out all the manifestations of that – and it’s interesting to reflect on – but I know it’s true. I’m a fish from a different ocean. I understand that, and it’s okay.

Important thing I’ve re-learned about myself in my Third Third:
       I need a certain baseline comfort level before I can appreciate my own adventurousness. Before I could feel relaxed in the apartment, for instance, I had to know where the light switches were, that this window opens more easily than that one, that the converter is more convenient in this outlet than that one. I needed to know that I kept underwear on this shelf, paints on that one. And knowing it automatically without having to re-think it each time. Once I could put 10% of my day into the routine column, I could handle the 90% of newness the rest of the day threw at me.

When I worked at the Anchorage Museum, I remember reading research on the best preparation for school field trips. Kids learned more on field trips when they were given instruction ahead of time not in content, but in where their coats will go, where the restrooms are, etc. It reduced their anxiety.

Now I know that every adventure either begins walking down Kensington Church Street to the High Street or up for Notting Hill Gate; turning left for the bus, right for the Tube. I don’t have to look at a map or plan my route. I just have to walk out the door.

So I do!

Friday, April 14, 2017

London with Someone Who Has Absolutely No Idea Where She's Going

Every day begins with Journey Planner, the London Transport online feature where you enter your “from,” your “to,” and whether you want to do it by bus or Tube or whatever. It even tells you which stop to stand at. Handy dandy, right?

The Journey Planner and I are having relationship difficulties. Journey Planner is fallible. Nevertheless, before I walk out the door each morning, I clutch a little piece of paper with my Journey Planner instructions. Here’s what a sample day’s might look like.
This is not even the most stressful thing about walking out the door. The MOST stressful thing is establishing – and reestablishing – that I have the key to the apartment. I think I’m developing a nervous tic of pocket checking. Here on my own, there are a few “no Plan B” potential predicaments, and getting locked out is one of them.

Now I’m out the door, but not to my usual #9-line bus, stop M. Today I’m taking the Tube from Notting Hill Gate. I reach the street and can’t remember whether it was left or right. I guess wrong. You can never get lost on the Tube. Never. It’s impossible. But you can get lost getting to the Tube.

I am waiting for the Circle line to Monument. The station always announces, “It might be faster to change at Earl’s Court for the District line.” So I courageously opt to change, this time to take the District line to Upminster (the last stop so it shows you’re headed in the right direction). But when the train shows up, it says it’s only going as far as Barking. Where is Barking?!? Is it before or after the stop I need?

This is like my third challenge of the day, and it’s still morning.

On the day I decide to visit the Columbia Road Flower Market, I have written out all my instructions … which correspond to nothing on the ground. Fortunately, there are wonderful “you are here” maps all over London.

I aim myself. I smell the flowers blocks away. The flower market is interesting and pretty and PACKED with humans on a 77-degree day. Too packed! All of London is on this street. I decide to take a different route back to the Tube station, seeing more of the Bethnal Green area.

Except I’m not. I’ve ended up somewhere else.

Soon I am on a street with graffiti and no handy “you are here” maps. The good thing about being in a neighborhood like this is that when I find a mom & pop store, I might be able to find cheaper grapes. Grape prices are my bellwether for judging cost. So far, grocery stores are running £4 a kilo, so I have to mentally convert both kilos and pounds. It comes to $4.98 for 2.2 pounds or $2.49 a pound. So that’s my benchmark. (Harrod’s grapes are £30 a kilo!) This mom & pop has 500 grams for £1, or half-price! I buy grapes. But I still don’t know where I am.
Finally, I see a nice, cool area to sit in. It turns out to be the front of the Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood where I’d wanted to see the Board Game exhibit! This is the story of getting lost and getting found, and I go through it many times a day. Mild panic, great elation!

The exhibit is terrific. Not only do I learn that board game design followed the prevailing theories of childhood (play is good vs teaching is better); but I am lost in a nostalgia trip of games my siblings and I played. Mousetrap! Risk!

But now I have to figure out where I am again. The “here you are” map outside shows Brick Lane. I’ve already been to Brick Lane; I know Brick Lane! Brick Lane has the bagel (“beigel”) store! I’m found!

I arrive at a seemingly different Brick Lane: it’s market day and there are stalls in the middle of the street. Not packed, just fun and interesting. So as I’m pleasantly meandering down Brick Lane, I notice people walking into a doorway. I follow. Wow! It’s a take-away food extravaganza! There are stalls of people with electric woks from every country in the world: Singaporean food, Greek food, Burmese cuisine, Moroccan, Venezuelan! And on the outside of the building, a man is on a ladder painting a mural.

After walking down Brick Lane, I know where my trusty #15 bus stops, which will take me to my trusty #9. I spy a Tesco store, and now that I’m on my way home, I can get milk and won’t have to carry it too far. I go to the self-service cash register (“till”), and scan my milk.

“Place item in the bag loading area.” The voice booms out. I move the milk to the shelf.

“Place item in the bag loading area.” I move it to a different shelf.

 “PLACE ITEM IN THE BAG LOADING AREA!” I look around for a helpful attendant.

PLACE ITEM IN THE BAG LOADING AREA! I move the milk every which way. People stare. Finally, an attendant comes over and places my milk in the least obvious shelf of all.

I get so rattled by all this, I begin to leave … and spot my credit card still sitting in the machine. Yikes!!!! I could have walked out without it. Another “no Plan B” catastrophe averted.

My trusty #15 bus reliably moves along, with the reliably helpful voice announcing each stop and reliably showing it on the screen … until she announces we’re “on diversion” and we turn onto unfamiliar streets. Uh, oh! Uh, oh! Fortunately, I am going to the end of the line at Trafalgar Square so I don’t mind how divertingly I get there. And there’s bus stop S, right where it always is, right in front of the oh-so-familiar Canadian consulate on Cockspur Street!

I am happily practically home again, with my keys in my pocket. (I checked.) Another glorious, adventurous day. I’ll recover by morning.

Monday, April 10, 2017

London with Someone Who Knows Where He's Going

Quite a while back, when Gene and I worked together at Out North, I always felt like he knew everything there was to know about theater. Not only did he know the stage part, but he taught me things about ticket numbering, about backstage, about fund raising, you name it.

Now, visiting him in London, I see that Gene just knows A LOT, period. I also see that his heart of gold is still intact. Not only did he send me all sorts of helpful stuff beforehand in a big envelope, but he gave me an outing in London that becomes the perfect example of London-with-a-capital-L. (You can contrast this with the next post, which will be the story of a bumbling day with Barbara.)

We started out at the Borough Tube station. (Gene knew to pick that because it has only one entrance so I couldn’t get lost.) We then walked down the street. He was going to take me into the oldest pub in London, the George Inn, but it turned out a film shoot was happening inside. It was a gangster film, and the gangster actors were hanging out, waiting for their entrance.

We circled around Guy’s Hospital, and Gene always found little nooks and crannies. At the hospital is a courtyard with a statue of John Keats sitting in a little stone nook and looking so poetical.

On the wall nearby, a blue oval (the sign that means something historical happened here) featured Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher bane of my year in graduate school. Wittgenstein was a drug runner!

“Goosey goosey gander,

Whither shall I wander?

Upstairs and downstairs

And in my lady's chamber.”

Gene took me to the Cross Bones Graveyard, for the “Outcast Dead.” Apparently, the prostitutes south of the Thames would signal their availability while waving and wearing white gloves. The gloves – arms hooked at the wrists – looked like geese, and these “Winchester Geese” were buried in unconsecrated ground, now decorated with ribbons of remembrance.
The rest of the rhyme speaks to the rounding up of Catholic priests by the Protestants, so we also stopped by the Anglican Bishop of Winchester’s palace as well as his private prison, “The Clink.”

“There I met an old man

Who wouldn't say his prayers,

So I took him by his left leg

And threw him down the stairs.”

Walking by the Desmond Tutu Room in Southwark Cathedral, we came upon double doors. Written in large letters on the floor:

Near the Cathedral, a large plaque describes the Legend of Mary Overie: Her father, a terrible miser, faked his death so his servants would fast for a day and save money on food. The servants were so happy, they feasted instead, which so enraged her father, he jumped up. The servants, thinking he was the Devil, beat him to death. Mary was so upset, she sent for her lover, who rushed to claim the inheritance, fell from his horse, and broke his neck.

Yes, this is the kind of story appearing on a historical plaque.

Mary, by the way, was so distressed, she used the inheritance to found a convent and was sainted.

Modern London is just as … irreverent. Their skyline, in order, is the Cheese Grater, the Gherkin, and the Walkie Talkie.

We went in a cheese-monger shop where giant cylinders of cheese were on racks and we could taste them by age. The Borough Market was an astounding feast of produce, jams, olive oils, teas, cheese, ciders, spices, fish, breads. It was an incredible display of raw abundance, a Costco of the homemade!

Every now and then, we’d wander (deliberately, because Gene knows where they are) into a little hidden gem of a park, a place with a pond or walk that was so quiet you wouldn’t know you were in the middle of London. It’s something so smart about London, creating quiet spaces. I think of how Anchorage’s parks are active spaces, and I appreciate the quiet oases here.

Then, of course, I had to sit in the Ferryman’s Seat, an ancient stone seat embedded in a wall in Southwark. The ferryman would sit there and wait for his fares. In reading Prophecy, the Cityread London book, they mention hiring wherries to go up and down the Thames, so it’s all starting to fit together!

After five hours on the trail of London’s history with Gene, we crossed to Trafalgar Square via the very special crossing lights:

Gene deposited me exactly on time at the National Gallery for my workshop, “Relaxing with Paintings,” for Slow Art Day. It was a brilliantly orchestrated day … to be contrasted with the stumbling serendipities I encounter on my own. Only later did Gene tell me that a few minutes after I entered the Gallery, a helicopter landed in nearby Trafalgar Square to medevac out a woman who got hit by a bus. I bet she was a tourist, I bet she forgot to look right, and I’m glad her injuries are non-life-threatening.

I never cross a street without looking both ways, multiple times, and only moving when someone else steps out, too.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Of Victories and Mysteries

By the time my bag did not come off the baggage carousel in London’s Heathrow Airport, I was already on the panic path. I’d been fighting it through the nearly-interminable plane flights, through the realization that the man sitting next to me smelled terrible and he’d be there for nine hours. (Miraculously, my TV screen didn’t work so I had to be relocated! Hours of Bejeweled calm me.) Good luck struck again as my bag finally appeared on a neighboring carousel. All 50.0 pounds of it … which had to be lugged up stairs in Tube stations.

We’ll see if the 50.0 pounds are 50.0 pounds of stupidity. In New York City, I’d realized that I didn’t need many clothes because there was no one to notice I was wearing them days in a row. But last time I was in London in April, Sophie and I froze, so this time I came bearing many layers.

I was so brave about going to New York all alone. Ha! My mother was two hours away by Long Island Railroad, I had cousins all over, and I knew the transit system. Friends in London sent me a London bus map, which I pored over for hours, but it all felt so unfamiliar. There was no grid! Suddenly, my quest for New Things seemed over-the-top. I kept thinking no one had held a gun to my head, why did I invent this month?

But there are always little victories that bolster the spirit, restore confidence, and dispel panic, little by little.

Little Victories:
  • I found the light switches in the apartment! Some took a while. I also found the electric outlets. The woman renting the apartment is wonderful – even provided food for my arrival – but she’d departed when it was still light out.

  • I found a grocery store! I won’t starve.
  • I managed to locate bus stop M to catch the #390 bus to Tottenham Court Road! This is an even bigger victory because I deviated from the walking instructions I’d written out for myself by detouring to another park, and I still found bus stop M!

  • I gave myself 5 hours to look for Sir John Soane’s Museum before the special evening hours tour by candlelight. Turns out I showed up at 1:53, and there was a tour of closed areas at 2! I got to see his giant scale re-creation of Pompeii made out of cork!
  • As I wandered around with all my extra, unused “look for it” hours, I came upon other things on my six pages of To See notes. Oh, that’s where they are! Practically every corner has a wonderful “you are here” map. They’re so good, the front and back of the signs change the perspective of the map, too. Aha, I can find my way around!
  • I got my library card first thing! Since I have not been able to figure out the iPhone, I came across a library, went in, and used the computer to find out which bus I could take home. A #9 bus from bus stop S!

  • Bigger Mysteries:
    • Why does the iPhone keep telling me I’m not connected to the server? I have the little sound waves showing I am. I’m just fine with my little papers of where I’m going, and I can tell that soon I’ll have absorbed the structure of London in my head; but I still don’t know why I’m having difficulty. I did manage to get a London phone number, but that’s the tiniest of little victories.
    • Buskers are everywhere and amazing. The man painted silver held one arm out, grabbing the handle of a shovel which was the only point attached to the ground. He was floating! Then he spun around and resumed his position, holding on by the one hand on the shovel. HOW DID HE DO THAT? Later on, I found a Yoda doing the same thing. And how did another man squeeze himself through the tennis racket frame????
    • Major mystery: why I have not been hit by a car yet. Painted on the street are giant words saying “LOOK LEFT” and “LOOK RIGHT” with arrows. But when there are curves or no traffic lights, and you think you can cross, I am invariably wrong. Two near misses in one day, and that doesn’t count the bicycle.

    Panic has evaporated. Both victories and mysteries do their bit: the victories restore self-confidence, and the mysteries provide the fuel of discovery. It’s why I’m here. It’ll be a good month.

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