Tuesday, Wimbledon Day 2. The travelers are weary, but spirited. Picadilly from Russell Square to District Line to Wimbledon transfer from Earl’s Court. The travelers are surrounded by even more spirited event-goers: faces painted, outfits coordinated, paraphernalia adorning the body.
Southfields Station. The masses alight here, briskly making their way toward the Way Out and down the road to the correct entrance. The one where those without tickets go.
Volunteers greet the newest queuers with a smile and a hand pointing then in the right direction. Crowds of people organized into an orderly line that moves slowly, steadily. Around a tent while a woman sells copies of The Guardian with a complimentary sample of sunscreen.
Suddenly the story becomes clearer. The crowds are Massive. Many thousands have already been queuing for hours.
The green flag marks the end of the line… way, way, way, way, way, way in the corner of the field. A volunteer hands out numbers to mark each arrival’s place in line, no matter how late. The time is 10:15. The situation does not look good.
40 minutes pass. The travelers decide to ditch the effort and return the next day. But, not ones to waste a journey, they walk back, all 9.1 miles, from Wimbledon to Russell Square — via Wandsworth, Battersea, the Chelsea Bridge, Pimlico, Westminster, Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden, and Holborn.
Ventured out to Brighton today to gather with some colleagues; this was the view from our Brighton colleague’s flat:
What must be the sensation of looking out and seeing the tide ebb and flow ad infinitum just steps away?
Upon my return back to micro-flat, I happened upon a reading list that somehow felt apropos — not only of the conversations I’d spent the day having, but of the academic culture here in the UK. It’s called “Best Summer Books And Their Corresponding Drinks” (special shoutout to E, who will also appreciate the tenor of this compilation).
And so another day has passed. My erratic sleep/insomnia remains. What lies ahead? A bit of work, a handful of meetings and conferencing, and, if weather and schedule cooperate, a bit of the local tennis scene.
Each year the solstice creeps up as if by surprise — or maybe that’s just in my case. Solstice traditions abound, yet I am familiar with none save at a superficial level. What I do know is that on this day (June 21st) in this location (London) with an early sunrise (4:43a) and late sunset (9:21p), we are set for 16 hours, 38 minutes, and 20 seconds of sunlight.
The only question: what to do with all that daylight? Especially when the weather forecast is London-perfect: in the mid-60s (F) and sunny with a few clouds expected to join the party (see below for what the sky looks like now, as seen from my micro-flat window).
Had I planned better, I would be on hour 5 of an eeeearly morning visit to Stonehenge rather than the sufferer of solstice insomnia (awake since just before sunrise) typing away on a chair. Ah well, no matter.
Today’s agenda then: stay outside as much as possible, wander to at least one new place, and sneak in a bit of work (but not so much that it tramples on outside wanderings), and not dwell on the “so close yet so far away” view that might have been…
When I emailed my aunt and uncle to let them know that I was once again back in Londontown, my aunt cheekily asked whether I had returned to the ‘spacious’ flat where I had stayed for several months last year. They had visited the flat once — and brought along some incredibly delicious alphonso mangoes, which M and I politely enjoyed while we all had tea together, and which we both simply devoured when left to our own devices — and, like me, marveled at the efficiency of the one room abode. Theirs is a modest home in the outskirts of the city, ample for a couple with one child and the occasional guest, whose centerpiece is really the garden that is carefully and thoughtfully attended to by my aunt with the incredibly green thumb (and garden gloves to match!).
As it turns out, given the odd amount of time we’re staying this time (3 weeks) and the time of year (Wimbledon), and the fact that the original ‘spacious’ flat was already occupied, this UK visit is split between two main London locations, with a bit of conference travel thrown in for good measure. In my reply to my aunt’s question then I said the following of our two-flat stay:
“this first one is even more ‘spacious’ than the last…”
Let it never be said that the Brits do not know how to economize space. New Yorkers, and NY tv programs, love to highlight what someone can do with a few hundred square feet of space. But what would they say of the equivalent of a small hotel room equipped with kitchenette? Because that is where we find ourselves. Truth be told, however, it’s really perfect on all the measures that matter: location, amenities (including electric kettle & wifi), and cleanliness.
According to the American census, the average square footage of a Northeast US home in 2010 was 2613 sq feet. That number seems unreal to me, having spent all of my adult life in city dwellings that equal a fraction of that space. I first think, “I can barely keep my few hundred square feet in order, what would I do with twice/thrice that much?!” and then I also, almost immediately, appreciate the times when I’ve visited friends’ homes that more truly spacious (no quotes necessary) than all of mine combined, and yet retain a feeling of coziness and while eschewing ostentatiousness.
With more people, pets, and possessions arises the need for more space, but how much do we really need? I ask this with the fullest appreciation for having grown up with an ample yard surrounding our house in which to play, explore, run around, and gather with friends. But what was once idyllic memory can become an instrument of oppression if allowed to become immovable blueprint rather than aesthetic guide.
For now, I will enjoy my latest ‘spacious’ sublet quarters (quotes necessary) which gives me access to a place that continues to feel like home…
Below, a few pics from the first 24 hours, which has already included a nice 5.7 mile walk…. ahhh…..
For Christmas, my ever-clever, thoughtful, and quirky mother-in-law gifted me with two beautifully painted egg cups as part of my stocking. I repacked them carefully for their transport back to the city when I returned here at the end of our winter break, and they have sat on the side of the cabinet above the sink ever since, not yet used. But each time I opened the doors, to retrieve a ceramic dish or dessert bowl or lemon juicer (reamer?), I would steal a glance at them. A longing glance… not because of any particular fondness for soft-boiled eggs, but because of the practice they signified — of having breakfast with my uncle and aunt in England, of a beautifully laid out table, of village life (with London close by).
Finally, last weekend, after reading an inordinate amount of information about the “perfect” timing and method for cooking these buggers just right, I attempted the process of preparing and consuming soft boiled eggs. My results:
Eggs and soldiers is one name for them, although I’ve never heard an actual Brit refer to them in that manner. The “soldiers” are traditionally slices of toast that have been cut into strips for easier dipping in the warm yolk (this pic makes that point). My version, as you can see, involved toasted pita strips instead of toast, but festive nonetheless. (Thank goodness I’ll be back in the land of proper tea and cress sandwiches in a few short weeks!)
I was fine with it, finally settling into the reality (lo, these many months later) that I am no longer on sabbatical; that I have returned to campus; that my obligations to the institution have resumed their primacy in my life… I was coping and even beginning to have moments of renewed appreciation…
And then I remembered… the LSE Lit Fest. And the yearning returned…* (Last year’s reflections here and here.)
If you’re in or near London — yes, I’m talking to you, A. — I urge you to take in some of the scrumptious offerings (Feb 26 – Mar 2). More info here — and a description, in brief:
In 2013, from 26 February to 2 March, we will be exploring the theme Branching Out, partly in celebration of the Festival’s 5th Anniversary, traditionally marked by wood, but also in homage to the 300th anniversary of the birth of Denis Diderot, who developed the figurative system of branches of human knowledge. Key ‘branches’ that we will explore include Narratives, Innovation, Changing World and Uniting the Branches of Knowledge.
*I suppose it didn’t help my reentry to learn of some inelegant, machiavellian machinations that are afoot. Limit emotional investment, a friend reminded me. That’s how we get through the day, remain relatively sane and functional, and remember to seek the art and artful.
the brollies and the wellies,
greens, parks, squares, and closes,
rain mist so fine you won’t need that facial appointment,
(nor the aforementioned brolly),
because the sun will be shining soon enough.
just wait. (and we/they do.)
a ten-minute, guilt-free visit to the tate, and the modern,
saying hello giacometti and a nod to pollock,
eyes filling with the remnants of architectural epochs
while strolling across the bridges,
blackfriars, millennium, waterloo, london, and the rest.
walking. twenty minutes in either direction offers entry
into different worlds. budding gardeners, ballerinas, and
mysterious, magical storytellers in twickenham; just down
the road from the gardens, kew and park, richmond;
celebratory ubiquity of horticultural penchants —
in the yard, in a palace, ’round the corner, on a bus.
playgrounds, swings, slides, toy soldiers,
midday snacks, secret passages, midday pints and half pints,
before or after long walks
hither, elsewhere, and everywhere in between.
walking, with abandon.
trains that transport passengers to another time,
the new built into standing memories of the old,
making “now” a mere accident of colliding timescales.
slipping into and out of high streets, creaky corners,
one step towards colonized delicacies,
another in the direction of heights of fusion.
busy, car-free streets,
irony as a default position,
questions out loud, causing discomfort or otherwise,
free to be you and me
(not the usual politics of identity;
a whole new set to ponder — refreshing, frustrating)
We make — or perhaps it’s more apt to say that we are made to make — 5-year plans, imagine and establish life goals, and often organize ourselves enough to know what the next day or hour is going to look like in terms of activity, transportation, and location. But planning life with the fortnight as the organizing tool brings with it its unique complications. Two weeks spent in a single place is certainly long enough to become acclimated to something — the sounds that surround you when you sleep, identifying and frequenting the local supermarket or cafe, getting a handle on nearby public transportation, accessing green spaces, becoming a “regular” face for the neighbors, and so. Likewise, two weeks of frenetic activity can also become routine. That is, with breakneck speed one can pack and repack, leap from one mode of transportation to another, and even switch between languages in order to make oneself understood to another and vice versa. In fact, last week I made use of 5 modes of conveyance, touched ground in 4 different cities, maneuvered through 3 languages in 2 countries all on 1 day. It was also the week when, shortly before boarding a train from Paris to Amsterdam, I found myself hungry and suddenly craving something other than the baguette sandwiches that I otherwise love. Who can explain how or why I found myself seated at a window seat inside of a Saravana Bhavan, a South Indian food franchise, consuming a rather delicious plate of idli, sambhar, and the various chutney fixins.
The experience was sublime and more than a bit surreal, although it was not my first time speaking Tamil in Paris. (During a previous trip, my travel companion was determined to scope out Alphonso mangoes at a bodega near the Gare du Nord, which is apparently heavily populated with South Asians, and so the first words out of my mouth in Paris that late day in May were spoken in Tamil to the shopkeeper about whether he would sell individual mangoes. He wouldn’t.) So, without thinking, with a plate of idli in front of me, I responded to the kind waiter’s question of whether everything was fine with a comment in Tamil. Idli must mean Tamil, right? Perhaps that was the logic my hungry self was using as I launched into linguistic autopilot. Anyway, in that manner I learned that the waiter was from Thanjavur (a city in the state of Tamilnadu, India), had been living in Paris for a year, was enrolled in business school and also language classes; incidentally, he also loved the French language.
And so it has been, these past couple of summer months, living in and out of fortnights. I am looking unbelievably forward to a time later this month when I may be in a place for slightly longer — or, if not in one location, at least adhering to the routine that characterizes much of my life outside of this sabbatical bubble.
But in the meantime, I will continue to embrace the happenings in which I am given the chance to participate including ones out of my wheelhouse: one afternoon spent planting sunflowers and delphinium with A and A’s children, who meticulously dug trenches in the soil, delicately sprinkled seeds into their new homes, and ladeled water onto the newly covered trenches. Something horticultural must be in the air of my karma because later in the week I was once squarely in the company of flora of all varieties. I accompanied my aunt and uncle to the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, quite a spectacle of small stalls, large tents, artisans, craftsmen, and the artful use of plants to design gardens I couldn’t hope to dream up even if I was given all the time in the world. The tent full of roses moved me most of all. The varieties were abundant, and what connected them — their rose classification — was also what allowed their variation to blossom (if you’ll excuse the very bad pun). Roses of so many shapes, shades, petal movement and tightness, thorniness and varying fragrance quotient. These were all roses, and no two were identical. The same was true of the numerous varieties and colors — oh my, the colors! — of fuschias (which I never knew was type of flower, because I had always used the word to signify a deep, purpley-pink hue), gladiolas, begonias, lilies, orchids, irises, penstemon and clematis. In flowers, whole shows have been established to seek out and celebrate variation — not only across flower families, but within varieties as well. Human beings, it seems yet again, can learn a lot not only from the natural world, but also our perceptions of this very same natural world.
Philosophizing aside, the blooms were simply stunning. These photos barely do them justice. (A few related pics of the grounds and surround art included, too.)
The rains fell hard the past several days, allowing the sun to peek through with some regularity just this weekend. As if following in barometric symphonic succession, the muses seemed to be on strike and the familiar rhythms of lexicon and discourse fell out of tune. In short, this spell of solitude of mine appears to have cast its own spell on my abilities to communicate outside of my head; and thus, while retreating within and time for introspection and reflection bring forth ample riches and goods, the greatest consequence is also the ugliest: getting out of practice in being with the world. I experienced something similar when re-entering non-monk-like status after the Vipassana course in the fall, but unlike that stretch of inward quiet, this stretch of several days has been characterized by a desire for quiet while needing to perform in public.
A self-imposed digital hiatus and a stint in London’s villagey ‘burbs has provided much needed balm for a bruised soul, an afternoon of which was spent amidst the scenery below. Regularly scheduled blog programming that was heretofore unwittingly suspended will now resume. While the gears are turning and ideas brewing, enjoy these pics (and look closely at the first one):
ok, it’s not quite summer but as the calendar approaches the solstice and the days get longer, the effect is especially glorious on this side of the atlantic. i’ll post a few pics of the very late setting sun soon, but for now just want to share the forecast for tomorrow evening’s weather:
sunny?! at 9pm! bliss, no matter however fleeting.
Each day, if we bother to listen, the world stands at the ready to teach us something. Yesterday, while attending one of the numerous and if not state-sanctioned then certainly state-encouraged diamond jubilee street parties, I had occasion to glean a bit of insight about the ever-imbricated relationship between England and the United States. I was a guest of my friend A — you’ll remember, the one who is a crafting wiz, who inspired me to try cooking enough food on one day for a month of meals (although I only ended up cooking enough for a week – I don’t know if that means I eat too much or if I cooked too little…), and an endless source of laughter and wisdom in all forms — and unlike A and family, I was not given a blue sticker to wear. The guests, you see, wore red stickers. So we could be easily identified and booted, perhaps? I doubt it would come to that — everyone was not only very nice (and a few were more than a bit sauced) but they were full of tales and musings about the street, about the street party — “there hasn’t been one in the 48 years I’ve lived here!” exclaimed an enthusiastic woman unflinchingly wearing a tiara — and about the jubilee overall. Children had their faces painted, a steady stream of musically inclined neighbors took to the microphone to croon some tunes, plastic stemware and open bottles of wine and other means of imbibing were featured prominently along the long line of tables, and the bunting. Oh there was bunting hung with care, as far as the eye could see. Triangular Union Jack flags hung from plastic twine along the fronts of houses, overhead like streamers, and decorated the eating areas and more than a few women’s skirts and men’s shirts.
When the hour struck just past six in the evening, everyone began to stand at the behest of the already-standing who flapped their arms enthusiastically upward. So we stood and from the musical end of the street streamed a familiar tune. I was moved to stand a bit straighter and words started to come out of my mouth. What I was unwittingly singing, as was A, were the words to a song that children in the States are taught in school known as “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” But why would they be playing that in this near-London town? Everyone around us, it turns out, was singing different words and so A and I kept our voices quiet as we kept singing. The tune of the American patriotic anthem is the same as the British national anthem “God save the Queen.” How this fact either escaped me all these years or failed to materialize in my memory as a known fact, I’m not sure. But I didn’t fret and instead enjoyed this quietly transgressive, oddly historicized moment in which a song can hold such a multitude of meanings. It was a light moment, a celebratory one … and yet, with the fates and acts of world’s humans not too far from the collective consciousness, I couldn’t help but acknowledge, however momentarily, John Berger’s implied admonition “A singer may be innocent; never the song.”
In that moment, however, I chose to stay present and revel in the delightfully (and more than few ghoulishly) painted faces, the neighbors being neighborly, and the consuming of foods and tunes. As an outsider — and particularly as the Jubilee festivities and commentaries about the festivities are going on — the oft-cited notion that at some point in human history the sun never set on the British empire is one that isn’t too far from the front of my mind. More than a few of the news presenters commenting on the Jubilee throughout the day’s televised coverage implicitly referred to the complicated relationship of England with the rest of the world throughout the years, of the tension involving such displays of extravagance at a time of relative worldwide austerity, of the long history of public perceptions and commentary about the presiding Queen. The overwhelming visual scene, however, was one of masses of people simply enjoying themselves.
Earlier today, my travel companion, who was particularly eager to take in the pageantry, and I wandered down to the Thames. Clearly we did not arrive early enough to secure a coveted viewing spot and after attempting to see something — anything! — near Waterloo Bridge, we made our way to Blackfriar’s Bridge, closer to the end of the day’s flotilla. That’s right, I said flotilla (and I will likely say it again). Although I jokingly noted that the thousand strong fleet of seaworthy vessels making their way down a seven-mile stretch of the Thames River had been organized in honor of A’s arrival and, coincidentally, birthday, today’s flotilla is actually a long-standing royal tradition reminiscent of this painting by Canaletto depicting the boat-filled Thames on Lord Mayor’s Day (circa 1747).
In a post that has not yet made it out of the drafts stage, I started to talk about traveling and seeing new places with familiar faces. As happy as I am for A and family to experience the many riches this city and country have to offer, I am especially overjoyed to have a small chance to overlap with their time here and to see again and anew what has started to become slightly familiar; and at the same time, to relax into the comfort that comes with shared prior experiences, conversations, and affiliations.
One of A’s new neighbors who was sure to introduce himself to us, perhaps because we were outed as “new” and therefore “different,” was particularly keen on making it known to us that where A had taken up temporary residence was a “very good neighborhood” and good place to live, safe for families, a place without worry. I thought again about his earnest pitch while walking as one among the purported 1.2 million revelers on the London city streets and couldn’t help but think about all the moments in which we humans are constantly trying to find audiences for our stories and for the chance to get the stories across in just the right way. What are the stories to glean, then, from these snaps taken in town today — I offer them here sans captions:
snaps from around town on day one of the extended jubilee celebration. there seems to be no shortage of bunting — yes, i learned what bunting was, finally; seems to be the price of admission, this summer anyway — nor creativity for its use. more to come from days 2, 3, and 4… including some additional details about minor acts of subversion by a couple of yanks amidst displays of royal reverence…