I just spent the last week plus in London for a Learning Sciences conference. I spent much of my youth listening to music from the UK–Culture Club, David Bowie, The Smiths, Duran Duran, etc. The New Wave music that still echoes in my head to this day. And because I am one of those people for whom songs pop in their heads for every reminder, I had the Morrissey song, “Hairdresser on Fire” on repeat in my head,
Oh, here is London
“Home of the brash, outrageous and free”
You are repressed
But you’re remarkably dressed
Is it real?
And you’re always busy
And busy it was. It felt good to get off the Tube and immediately merge into the controlled chaos of a big city. Yes, people crossing the street in oncoming traffic, walking quickly on the sidewalk and although assuming a general pattern of walking towards the left, dodging on comers and slow walkers, bikers zipping through pedestrian jaywalkers…I felt at home and found my place in the randomness.
After grabbing a well needed meal with colleagues I checked into my hotel and headed to Boots (the Duane Reade or CVS for New Yorkers or Shoppers Drugmart for Calgarians) of London to get some face wash and toiletries. Ah, the convenience of a big city, if you need something you could almost wish it into existence with a short walk and a debit card. There were also the chotsky shops so I was able to replace my lost hoops earrings with some new cheap ones and got all fancy and bought some sparkly studs for my extra ear holes.
The conference started the next morning and I took my first London morning run. My hotel was a little less than a mile away from Regent’s Park so this meant running on the sidewalk to get there. Not a bad thing as I run on sidewalks when I venture beyond Prospect Park in Brooklyn. It was a Sunday morning so the streets were relatively quiet but the park was filled with runners, dog walkers, cricket players and walkers. As I was running along the lake, I came across some beautiful duck feathers. I had to stop and collect a few. I later found out that I was near the waterfowl area, according to the link started a collection of ornamental ducks in the 1930s, later became a centre for waterfowl breeding along with a Nature Centre to facilitate this role. On subsequent run, I made sure to pass through this area and I did see a wide range of ducks, geese and swans.
Large wood pigeon in the conference venue
Walking or Lobzy Lobzy
One thing I enjoy about big cities is walking. When I am home in NY and especially when I go into Manhattan for work or a dance class, both of which are in the 34th street area, I like to walk downtown to take the train at 14th street just to indulge in a walk. Along the way there are stores to pop into, people watching, pigeon and sparrow watching, pop up things like markets, food trucks, sample sales, etc. to enjoy. Even if I do not purchase anything (which is often the case) it is a visual/tactile feast to enjoy. Although the ultimate destination is the subway, the walk leads to numerous ephemeral, unplanned adventures. My partner refers to this as “lobzy-lobzy,” that I translate as walking with no particular agenda other than to eventually get to where you are going.
One evening of lobzy-lobzy found us at a pub with this lovely English pit bull.
London provide the chance to experience this walking, something that I am starved for in Calgary. While I enjoy walking along the river and seeing nature (eagles, geese, beavers, imprints of wild canines), but I guess urban street life is my heart context, and urban wildlife is my nature.
After the conference I had my first full day of lobzy-lobzy. Well, prior to that adventure I had the initial adventure of checking out of my first hotel which, while not fancy was Euro-efficient with a full bed and bathroom with a shower. My new hotel was old-school Euro-efficiency with a twin bed, sink and shared shower and toilet. Harkened back to my youth hostel days except that there were all adults in this hotel. It was clean but had a 1920s charm in that it looked like it had not been updated since then. I guess I did not read the hotel description more carefully. However, I did get to continue to enjoy the included traditional English breakfast–eggs, stewed tomatoes, baked beans, bacon, toast, porridge and tea.
I left the hotel around 11 ish to walk over to the Tate Museum. This allowed me to spend a little time walking along the River Thames. It was my first time having a good look at this river and I noted that it looked and behaved a lot like the Hudson–it had the same brownish colo(u)r, was choppy and had that brackish scent. Also had similar seagull action: the loud calling and grubbing for people scraps (the Calgary river seagulls live a more genteel life). I never thought about the Thames as being a tidal river, but it is. I also noted a little sandy beach on my way to the Tate that was a lot larger on my return.
The Tate Modern is built in a former power station so it is a pretty cavernous space and great for housing and displaying modern art. There were several paid exhibitions but most of the collection is on view for free. I started from the bottom and worked my way up, first to be disturbed by Jordan Wolfson’s “Coloured Sculpture” then to reset my psyche in the other galleries where I saw the works of Dali, Carrie Mae Weems, Rothko, El Anatsui, Marina Abramovic and others. As a researcher who is interested in the art/science nexus, I was particularly interested in the “Explore materials and objects” display that illustrated the different materials that artists employ in their work. Ranging from the traditional paints and pastels to the non traditional objects, like El Anatsui’s bottle caps, exhibit and corresponding works demonstrate ways that artists investigate materiality and convey meaning through their uses of various media. I spend a couple of hours wandering around before heading back to the hotel.
Dali’s lobster phone
Hungry, I wanted to find something to eat. In a big city there is never a lack of options. However, I was feeling a savory pie at a pub that I visited with colleagues earlier in the week. I did not have pie then because I indulged on the free tapas at a reception so I opted for mashed potatoes and veggies that evening. When I came across the pub, I think the name was Jack Horner, it was jam packed. It was a World Cup match in which England was playing so the pubs were all bursting at the seams. While I am pretty brave and will eat alone while traveling, I am not brave enough to sit alone in a packed pub. So off I went. I thought of going to Marks and Spencers and grabbing a sandwich and small bottle of wine, but I wanted a warm meal. I ended up in an Italian restaurant, the same one where several colleagues and I ate after we got off the long flight. It was a comfortable distance from the crowded pubs, close enough to hear the excitement but far enough not to be deep in the mix.
Stonehenge and Bath
Stonehenge has always been on my bucket list and even with prior trips to the UK I have not had the opportunity to go. Although I tend to be more of a DYI person and tend to avoid organized tours, I decided that given my time constraint, purchasing a tour would be the best option. I had the recommendation of archeology tours by a colleague that seemed like it would have been more interesting (with more details about the archeology and significance of the site), but they were all sold out on the day that I had available so I opted for the more commercial Evan Evans tours. As I had to be at the Victoria Coach station at 8:30 am, I started my journey with other London commuters. Again, it felt annoyingly comfortable to be in the bustle of rush hour commute. Purchasing an Oyster card, moving through the turnstiles, pushing into a crowded train, abandoning option of a seat, and negotiating the exit of the crowded train–all a part of the hustle of the journey. Once I disembarked and found the coach station, I was on my way first to Bath and then to Stonehenge.
One thing that always fascinates me about traveling in Europe is the layers of history that is very visually evident. The fact that you can see Roman aqueducts juxtaposed with with glassy high rises or 20th century buildings build around ancient columns is amazing. Bath is a World Heritage city where there are Roman ruins, including the famous baths fed by hot springs that are still used in local spas today. The focus of this tour was to visit the Roman Baths so where was not much extra time to wander the city which look like it has interesting galleries and stores. The visit to the Baths, although crowded, was interesting for many reasons. First artefacts that were found around the baths, including human remains all helped archeologists try to piece together what life was like in and around the Baths during Roman times. The Baths themselves were fascinating, with the water still warm and percolating with minerals from the natural stones that help to warm it. Towards the end of the self-guided tour, there was a space where you could sample the water (treated). I filled my water bottle, first not realizing that it was warm (duh) and tasted quite minerally. I drank the whole thing, which is also said to have healing properties.
Uncovered Roman sidewalks, I like the moss that grows in the relative absence of sunlight
The second and final stop was Stonehenge. Finally, a tick off the bucket list. The coaches parked at the visitors centre were we then got coach shuttles to the actual site. There was the option of walking there (30 minutes) but with the relatively short time frame, I opted for the shuttle. It felt like about a 10 minute ride, but on the way we got some background information about the site, while there is much that is known, there is still much that it unknown. As we approached site I began to see the monoliths appear over the slight upgrade. Although smaller than I expected, it was still quite impressive to see in person. I slowly walked around the circle taking pictures, watching the crows owning the monuments and imagining the significance of these structures for ancient peoples. They were significant enough that they schlepped these stones from quite a distance, before the “invention” of the wheel. It is speculated that they were transported on rolling logs and hoisted with ropes. Why were they erected at that very spot? What ongoing purpose did they serve? What kinds of rituals or ceremonies too place there…all still questions that are open for definite answers. However, they remain significant for many people today, especially those who ascribe to Earth-connected ways of being and knowing as well as those who are curious about human ancestry and the evolution of culture(s).
After seeing the monuments I decided to take a walk back to the visitors centre. One of the staff told that it would take about 20 minutes. I had 30 minutes. He also suggested that I walk it barefoot to feel more connected. So barefoot I walked, the ground was soft and I did feel grounded. It was a brisk walk but I was happy to feel the Earth beneath my barefeet and wondered what other artefacts could lay beneath.
The trip took about 3 hours to return to London, more a function of than distance. Once I got off in London, it was still quite light (the sun hadn’t set) so I opted to walk a bit towards my hotel and told myself I would hop on the tube if I got tired or if I passed a station. As I walked I passed the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum. Noting a crowd outside (but figuring it was either closed or closing) I entered the foyer to have a look. I know that the David Bowie Is exhibit, that I recently saw at the Brooklyn Museum, originated from here. As I entered I realized that it was an open house, a free night, Friday Late, similar to First Saturdays at the Brooklyn Museum (and a trend at museums in an effort to encourage younger and more diverse patrons)! I could not believe my good fortune, but also reflected on the serendipity that often happens on walks through a city. The theme was WTFuture and presented a variety of interactive events around different futurisms.
Spoken word Tar(dontdi)grade by Xana
Upon entry I was given a map. It is a HUGE museum and the map, in essence, flattened several floors into one so it was difficult to find the special events. Frustrated, I abandoned the map and decided to just wander around and hoped to come across stuff to experience. And that I did, I saw halls with Buddhist art, glass objects, contemporary paintings and 20th century fashion. As I wanted to see as much as possible, including the open house events, I did not spend much time pondering the art in the halls that I passed through. I did pass though the gift shop, which was well-curated with quality gifts at various price-points. I picked up some postcards and remembered when a museum of my prior employment had such a well-curated gift store before it became more corporatized with cheap gifts.
The museum closed and I made my way pass some high end stores, including the famed Harrods, before I found the Tube that would get me home. I don’t remember what I had for dinner that night, but I packed and prepared to visit my cousins and then head back to Calgary.
After a nice, relaxed day and evening with my cousins, and getting to see a greener part of London, I entered the tin can to float back to Canada. I landed on Canada Day. Many people were wearing red and white in celebration of the holiday. I had a burnt hot dog (as I like it) and hamburger from the backyard grill, met some new neighbors and reconnected with old ones and then took my jet-lagged a$$ to bed when the sun finally went down.