Tuesday, May 30, 2017

A Whirlwind Visit

A friend of mine recently made a whirlwind trip to Great Britain, with a small group of students. They spent three days in Edinburgh and three or four days in London before returning home. That kind of trip is certainly one way to get exposure to those sites of interest, such as Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, etc., without spending a great deal of money. That exposure also makes it possible to picture for oneself those references in literature and history. The best part of that kind of trip would be seeing the students’ reactions, absorbing some of the culture, and soaking up the ambience of the place.

During my trips to London, I was more interested in the art galleries than in the Tower of London or Buckingham Palace. Once when I was visiting my folks in England in 1980, when they were living in March, I made a three day trip to London to tour the National Gallery of Art and the Tate Museum. I especially wanted to see the Pre-Raphaelite paintings at the Tate Museum, having discovered their work from reading the poems of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, and, of course, Christina Rossetti's response to seeing her brother's paintings of Jane Morris in the poem "In an Artist's Studio."

Toward the end of that brief trip, I made an excursion to Chalfont St. Giles to see John Milton’s cottage, where he had composed Paradise Lost. The road next to Milton’s cottage had gotten much busier in the three hundred years or so since Milton sat in his garden, and it was hard to picture him reciting the lines he had dreamt the night before to his amanuensis. I had spent the previous semester studying Milton’s Paradise Lost in a tutorial where I met weekly with the professor. I was in awe of someone who had read widely in a number of languages, who had devoted years to study after completing his university degrees, and who didn’t start his master work until he was in his 50’s. Before returning to London, I stopped in a restaurant for a cup of tea. While I was sitting at a table writing out a postcard, some boy, probably around the age of nine, said out loud to his father, “Look at him. He doesn’t have any hair,” before he started laughing. Having had alopecia universalis for a few years as a child, I never had very much hair once it started to grow again and started going bald, for a second time, in my 20’s. That’s what I remember of my pilgrimage to Milton’s cottage.

I had, of course, made other trips to London when I was younger. During my two years in boarding school, we made a few bus trips to London. On one trip, we attended a theater production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. On another trip, we were allowed to roam free for a few hours before we met up at Piccadilly Circus. My roommate and I couldn’t think of anything better than going to Baker Street to drink one or two pints of beer, which cost most of the money that I had at the time, when we could have toured the British Museum, something I still haven’t visited as of yet.

While I was stationed at RAF Lakenheath in the Air Force, I had made enough trips to London that I surprised my Dad with how well I knew the city when he was visiting me during one of his trips overseas. He was having problems deciding where to catch the subway after we had attended a movie together.

I suspect that if I were in London now, I would find the experience incredibly confusing. It has been so many years since I last visited the place. Even just seeing the incredible number of people on the streets and on the subway and hearing the sheer amount of noise would be overwhelming, I suspect.  If I were to live in a city, however, I would probably spend most of my time in a very small part and would seldom interact with the tourists and the tourist sites. Although any city probably has a lot to offer in the way of museums, concerts, and restaurants, I think the best way to visit a strange city is to become part of a whirlwind tour. That way one can quickly escape after seeing the best that the city has to offer.