The Natatorium

An emporium of oddities from around the world, complete with somewhat informative plaques that almost never match the item they are meant to be describing.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

My New Favorite Thing

Consider yourselves lucky-- I feel blogarific today.

I had quite an interesting and exhausting day. First I got up at 8 to take Hannah to the train station--she left today to go back to California, having been here since Thursday. We had a really good time together and yesterday we met some friends of hers from the internet who took us around central London and then along the South Bank. I had been to the Eye and the Tate Modern separately, but I'd never walked along the South Bank itself, and though it was quite cold with the wind blowing in off the Thames, I enjoyed it immensely. The whole area is about modern art, and everywhere you look there is art being created, interacted with, and enjoyed. One example is the row of Living Statues just past the Eye. I love living statues anyway, and some of these were quite good. I took pictures of several of them and will post them soon. Past the statues there was a man sculpting sand in a tiny strip of beach on the Thames. The sculpture of the day was a bunch of giant rats entitled "Rat Race." Then there was a mini-skatepark with layers and layers of graffiti; I saw a few 11 year olds adding a bit of their own. Then a theater or two, and finally the Tate Modern. It was a lovely, if chilly, walk, and later we went back to the Metropolitan for dinner and drinks and (delightfully, surprisingly) discussions on feminism. Ta.

But anyway. Today I walked Hannah to the train station (a bit of hike, Regent's Park to Victoria Station, but not bad). We said our goodbyes on the platform and it was all very emo, and then I walked back north to Hyde Park. I walked along Rotten Row and the Serpentine a little bit, then noticed a sign pointing towards Speaker's Corner and realized I'd heard about it before, and that it was, in fact, a Sunday. Lucky me! I've found a new Favorite Thing. It doesn't quite trump Books, but it comes in a close second. I spent a good 5.5 hours a Speaker's Corner and met more than one nice chap. The first one was a smart-looking young man to whom I made a comment about the juvenile nature of one of the resident hecklers. Some of them are quite good, but this one just wandered 'round all day with a giant can of Budweiser in his hand, flinging about silly comments (some of which are funny and some of which are stupid) which usually resulted in a sort of "your mom-" or "I know you are but what am I-"caliber exchange. I muttered to the nice young man next to be that I felt like we were all in the second grade again, and he agreed. First he spoke to me in an English accent, but after we exchanged a few more phrases he fell into an American accent. I have met a surprising number of Americans in this way; they speak originally in an English accent, and then once they hear my American they fall (unconsciously, I think) into an American. When I ask them about it they always say that they didn't even notice. Mostly it's because they've lived in both places at various points in their lives or have been in England a very long time. In any case, the man (I didn't get his name but let's call him Alex) and I then proceeded to move on to the next speaker, an Iraqi "Doctor" of some sort who may or may not have formerly worked for Saddam Hussein (this information came from a resident heckler, and the Doctor didn't actually deny any of it). The Doctor had posters up of Iraqi children who have been killed in the war and various news stories and photos about the war. He was ranting about the atrocities that are committed in Iraq and his posters said "end the occupation of Iraq," but he never actually said what it was he wanted. He never stated a clear goal, and he never said "I want Bush and Blair to do x, y, and z" or "this is what I want to see happen" or even "This is what all of you should do," etc. Alex and I noticed this and heckled him a little. I asked him his name so that we could google him and see if what the heckler had said about him was true or not. He would not say. I told him that we all know that war is terrible, and most Americans, including myself, would like to see an end to it, but what did he want us to do about it? I asked him directly about three times what it was he wanted us to do, or what he wanted to see happen, and he would not give an answer. He just kept spouting off about the horrible things the British and American soldiers have supposedly done. Alex challenged his claims, pointing out that many if not most of the deaths are due to terrorist extremists; suicide bombers and insurgents within the country killing innocent people. The Doctor would not respond to this either. When the Doctor talked about how the Americans are oppressing the Iraqis, Alex heckled him about how homosexuals are oppressed throughout the region, including in Iran. The Doctor welcomed questions and pretended to engage with us, but he never actually answered any of them directly. We stayed a bit longer and then moved on to Diane.

Diane was a very fierce, stern looking white-haired lady. She was probably around 60 but was fully of energy. Bitter, bitter energy. I listened to her for a good 30 minutes or more and still I couldn't tell you what it is she is so angry about, or what it was she was trying to get across to her audience. She was dressed in a long, green dress in a style that looked like something for a modest church-lady in the 50s with a brown blazer over it. On her lapel she had a yellow flower, but there was nothing sunny about her. Her hair was wound and pinned back, and held back further from her face with a light brown headband, but little wisps of it would get pulled free by the wind and blow in front anyway. If it weren't for the venomous expression on her face and the bite in her words, you might mistake her for a very sweet old lady if you saw her on the street. Basically she was going off about immigration, and who's Truly English, and the Protestant Church. She believes, I think, something to the effect that the only true God is the God of the English church, Catholics are evil, no one should travel at all and certainly not immigrate to a foreign country, and the only people who deserve to live in England are those who are Truly English. As for who's Truly English, from what I could gather apparently it is only her and the Queen.

While listening (half-heartedly) to Diane I started talking to an older gentlemen who had also been at the Doctor's corner. He was Indian/British and a catholic, and talked to me at length about war and peace and Christianity and the Bible. It was a very good and helpful conversation for me, and he even gave me a biscuit. He showed me some books he was reading (Plato's Republic and a book of poetry about the character of God) and we laughed at Diane together. She was really so off-the-wall steaming mad about everything it was quite funny, and she insulted everyone in the audience constantly, which was also quite funny. I asked her for a summary of what she was trying to get across, since I couldn't make heads or tails of it, and she refused me bitterly. She didn't like me either because I'm American. The best, though, was that there was this Irishman who would wander around in the open circle between her and the crowd and trade barbs with her. It was absolutely hilarious. She'd rag on the Irish and he'd just laugh and laugh and make Irish jokes and then jokes about everything. It was great.

There were other speakers, one of whom was very angry indeed, shouting about the history of slavery and the evils of European Colonization of the southern world. His name was Ishmael, which I found oddly appropriate. He didn't think there was really a genocide going on in Darfur, but rather a conflict, and the only reason the governments care at all is because they want the oil of that region. There was a rather nice and intelligent Marxist who, unlike almost all the other speakers, didn't shout at all. The crowd gathered in very close around him and asked questions and we all spoke together with him like civilized people. I talked to him and the others engaged in the conversation about how I didn't think the US would invade Iran because the American people are so sick of war and in two years we're going to elect a completely different administration. Perhaps this is a bit too optimistic (the Marxist certainly thought so, he didn't think it mattered who we elected because all the politicians can be bought out) but I still hope that in 2 years we'll elect someone completely different and the direction of the country, especially the foreign policy, will change. You know who I'm talkin' about.

There was a whole group of Nation of Islam members in uniform, complete with the guys who stood all around the speaker in the middle facing outwards, wearing sunglasses and keeping stony looks on their faces, frowning out into the crowd as if to say "I just dare you to try to approach us." It was pretty much exactly like all the pictures and movies I've seen that feature the Black Panthers or the Nation of Islam. They stood around looking very scary and shouting about God and Oppression and all that. I would have listened more closely but I couldn't get very close because they were quite popular with the crowds.

Most of the others were just evangelists, in various states of Rage, although there was one very nice guy who stood up on his stepladder (they almost all had stepladders; if they didn't it was an actual soapbox) holding a sign that simply said "Free Hugs." And then people would approach him, he'd get off the stepladder, and give them a free hug. Once in a while he'd leave his post to walk around the area handing out cookies and cakes to the crowds and other speakers. It was quite amusing when he tried to give Diane a hug.

Aside from the speakers themselves, I loved Speaker's Corner because of all the different kinds of people in the audience. The audience was basically a cross-section of the entire world. Ishmael, when making his point about Colonization, went around the audience and asked several people (all of them non-white, of course) what country they were from in order to demonstrate how many countries have been colonized by Europeans at some point. Just from his brief survey, it was revealed that several nationalities were present. India, Brazil, Pakistan, Nigeria, Afghanistan, etc etc etc. What this means is that not only were dozens of different nationalities of people showing up to the same event for the free exchange of ideas, but also that when one of the Christian Evangelists went off on how Islam is a demonic religion, they got challenged by an actual Muslim. That *never* happens in Springfield.

So yes. I have found a New Favorite Thing. And I will be back every single Sunday I'm in London until I go home. And then I will dream about it.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

I am Unfaithful.

I know I haven't been writing much. Heck, the last two entries were by my *mom.* There are several reasons why I haven't been keeping up. One of them, yes, is laziness. Another is that there is so much to tell that it's completely overwhelming. It's not the sort of thing you can tell someone in one breath. When I get home, it will be a slow unfolding, one story at a time, as they come up over coffee or drinks, over the course of months or years. Another reason is that there has been a lot of stuff going on here that I can't really talk about. Nothing dangerous, of course, just some social tensions. Hopefully, though, I've taken what steps I can to ease them, and we'll see how it goes. But 'nuff said on that.

Let's see, what did I do last? For the last week I've been in Italy; I just got back last night. I was in Venice for Monday and Tuesday and Rome Wednesday through Saturday. Before that, I was in Paris with Mom the preceding Friday and Saturday. Before that, Mom and I spent a week shopping, eating out, and exploring the city. We even went to see Wicked, and it was *amazing.* So much fun. I still have the songs in my head and I definitely want to see some more shows if I can.

Paris was beautiful. The first half of the first day we were there it rained, but that had a beauty all its own. Then the sun came out and the sky was brilliantly blue. The flowers and trees weren't even in bloom yet, so I can only imagine how gorgeous it will be when I go back in April. We saw all the main sights; Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Notre Dame, etc. We climbed to the top of Notre Dame and the Arc de Triomphe. The Notre Dame Bell Tower was *much* higher. The views were amazing from both points, but the romanticism and gothic appeal of Notre Dame definitely won me over. The gargoyles were so cool. As always, you can see the pictures on Flickr.

So anyway. The first day we went to the Luxembourg Gardens, walked around the Latin Quarter and saw the Pantheon and the Sorbonne (a famous university building). Then we went to Notre Dame and climbed the Bell Tower, then we crossed the Seine. We saw the Hôtel de Ville on the way to the Louvre, then spent about 2 hours in the Louvre. My favorite painting was "The Intervention of the Sabine Women" by David. It is of two armies coming to clash with a group of women standing between them, holding up their infants to try to stop the armies from slaughtering each other. One of the armies is comprised of the women's husbands and the other is of their kinsmen, so you can see why they were so insistent on preventing them from killing each other. It is absolutely glorious, and there is one woman in the center, in particular, with her arms outstretched between the armies, standing up and glowing with this fierce look on her face. It was amazing. I looked at it for a very long time. And now you can too! Here it is.

After that we walked through the Jardin des Tuileries all the way to the Place de la Concorde, but we were way too tired to attempt to walk down to the Arc de Triomphe by then so we went back to the hotel. We ate dinner at a cozy place in the Latin Quarter and then watched Sex and the City in french and went to bed.

The next day we saw the Rodin Museum, the Hôtel des Invalides, and the Eiffel Tower, as well as the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs Elysées. One thing I really noticed about Paris is that the French really do pay a LOT of attention to aestheticism *all* the time, even when laying out their city. Everything, and I mean EVERYTHING lines up. For example, if you stand in front of the Louvre and look to the west, you look straight down the Jardin des Tuileries to the Place de la Concorde. The Obelisk in the center of Place de la Concorde lines up *exactly* with the Arc de Triomphe, which is down the perfectly straight Champs Elysées. That example is one of the main ones, but I found many others. For instance, in the Rodin museum, if you look at The Thinker straight on from the front, it lines up perfectly with the Eiffel Tower in the background, so that it looks like the Thinker has a radio tower sticking out of his head.

All the buildings were of gray-peach stone with blue roofs, there was building after building with gold guilding or ornamentation, statues and sculptures everywhere, well-ordered and geometrically laid out gardens. Everything was constructed to be pleasing to the eye.

Hopefully I will find the energy to write about Italy soon. Until then, gorge yourself of the photos. Or send me mail. I want mail. :)

Sunday, March 11, 2007

WARNING: Mom again, this time about Paris

While Natalie packs for Venice, I’ll take time to write. We have been shopping in London all day. My last day! We got back to London last night around midnight and slept until 10 a.m. We were so exhausted from running (sometimes literally) all over Paris for 2 days. What can I say? Paris is absolutely beautiful. The first day we climbed the spiral stone staircase to the top of Notre Dame. It was breathtaking in more ways than one! It was raining, which was actually a perfect setting with the gargoyles perched everywhere. Inside was amazing and mass was being held while tourists walked around the outer areas. From there we went across the street to Le Quasimodo café. Yes really!

Since it was still raining we moved on the Louvre. It is enormous so we decided to focus on the paintings and sculptures. Naturally that included the great lady herself, Mona Lisa. There are several guards standing by and an area is cordoned off so spectators can’t get too close. She peers out from behind a thick plastic box as well. Definitely well protected. And yet there were many other precious works of art that you could walk right up to. I realize there are cameras everywhere but if someone wanted to vandalize the art they could do some real damage before they got stopped. I think about stuff like that. Anyway, we also saw Venus de Milo in all her glory in her own big room. Cameras are allowed in the sculpture room so of course we, like all the other tourists, felt compelled to get our picture taken with her. After 2 hours we saw the sun was out and decided to venture outside again. It was sunny but very windy and cold. We pushed on and walked through the Jardin de Tuileries, then looked down the Champs Elysées at the Arc de Triomphe. It was getting pretty cold and we were starving so we went back to the hotel to drop off our packages and decide on a place for dinner. Natalie consulted her guide book and found a quaint little restaurant close by. I had the best French Onion soup I’ve ever tasted. The salmon was good but not as good as Robert’s and the Crème Brulée was good, but yes you guessed it, not as good as Robert’s. I guess I’m a little spoiled when it comes to good food. The waiter spoke some English and was very friendly. In fact, all the waiters and store clerks were very friendly. When Natalie spoke in French, they would try to speak in English if they could.

The next day was sunny and much warmer. On our way to the Eiffel Tower we happened upon the Rodin museum. Many of his sculptures including “The Thinker” were outside in the garden. It was such a beautiful day to be in such a gorgeous garden. The rest of the sculptures were in what used to be a hotel. A large spiral wrought iron staircase in the foyer was spectacular. I had Natalie take my picture standing on it. I love all the ornate ironwork on all the buildings. Oh and there was a Monet and Van Gough displayed in one of the rooms too. I could have sat in that garden all day but we had to keep moving. The Eiffel Tower was next on our list. There were very long lines to take the elevator to the top so we decided to just admire it from below. We still needed to get to the Arc de Triomphe. There wasn’t quite as long a line to go to the top here because you have to climb 284 steps to get there. I think it was even more to get to the top of Notre Dame. Oh yes, did I mention my legs got quite a workout? If it wasn’t for those delicious crepes and crème brulee I might have lost a little weight. Natalie says I have to wrap it up now so she can post her pictures of Paris before she gets too behind. I have lots of pictures too that I can’t wait to print out and show you all when I get back It’s been an amazing trip but I am getting homesick and ready to fly back across the pond. See you all soon!


Thursday, March 08, 2007

WARNING: This is my Mother Talking.

Greetings from London! I finally have access to Natalie’s laptop as I am in her dorm room waiting until time to catch our bus to the airport then off to Paris! I have been so busy having an incredible time here. It is spring here and the daffodils are blooming everywhere. The weather has been great since Monday. Sun and 50’s. I am getting to be a pro now with the tubes (subways). Fortunately I arrived on a Sat. so Natalie and I had 2 days together for her to get me acclimated. The tubes are fast and cheap and of course easy or I wouldn’t be a pro. Depending on the time of day they can be very crowded and people are going as fast as they can. You have to keep up or risk getting ran over.

But now for the good stuff. On Saturday, after no sleep on the plane (smooth ride and landing) we went to Portobello Street. On weekends the street is blocked off and vendors line both sides of the street selling anything from antique jewelry to avocadoes. Very interesting and very crowded. I really enjoyed it but the highlight was helping a desperate dad find his little girl who I just happened to see run down the sidewalk into the crowd. Sunday was more shopping in Camden Town. It is the more bohemian area (cheap stuff) that Natalie likes. Then off to Trafalgar Square and the more chic Covent Garden shopping district.

While Natalie was in class Mon. – Wed. I went out on my own to see the tourist stuff. Big Ben is actually the name of the bell in the clock tower in Westminster (I thought it was the name of the whole thing!) Anyway, as I learned from my tour guide it weighs 13.5 tons and just the minute hand is 14 feet long. It is of course quite impressive and serves as a great landmark if you need to get your bearings. I walked –oh yes walking is a BIG part of the experience- down the south bank of the Thames. Tate Modern museum, the London Eye (ferries wheel) and spectacular views of the skyline are part of the walk. Then I crossed over the river to see St. Paul’s cathedral. I was going to go to the Tower of London but needed to get back to meet Natalie. It was a good thing I tried it another day because I was there for 3 hours to see it all. This is where executions of royalty were carried out back when they cut people’s heads off. It was considered a privilege to have your head whacked off here instead of out in a more public area. The crown jewels are housed here as well and one of the buildings has lots of displays of amour and guns. I enjoyed the building itself much more. Since I like old buildings I am definitely in the right place.

Westminster Abbey has been the highlight of my trip so far. I was lucky enough to go to the Evensong service they have at 5pm each day and sit in the choir loft next to the boy’s and men’s choir. It was so awesome. Sitting there in that breathtaking church and hearing the beautiful music was something I will never forget. The next day I went back to actually tour the rest of the building. The tombs of over 3,000 people are there including Shakespeare, Handel and Charles Dickens.

Natalie has informed me that we need to get going. I’ll write again if I can. Off to Paris!


Friday, March 02, 2007

I am Now an Official Lord of the Rings Hajji

Last Saturday I went to Oxford. I took the train from Paddington, which in itself was quite enjoyable. I found that the Journey is just long enough to listen to the entire Parachutes album plus Exit Music (for a film).

I walked around the town for a bit, which is quite small, and very centralized around two main streets. I tried to sneak into University College to see the Shelley Monument, but that didn't work as I had no idea where to go and it was quite obviously that I had no idea where to go. I ended up asking for a prospectus. Ha. I wish.

The place was absolutely sick with bookshops of all kinds, including the original Blackwells. The bottom floor of Blackwells alone, the Norrington Room, holds 160,000 books on three miles of shelves. I can't even begin to describe how huge it was. The bottom floor in itself was about the size of the entire main floor at my Barnes & Noble, and then there were 3 or 4 more stories on top of that, which housed the novels, children's, poetry, a coffee shop, history, secondhand books, rare and antique books, etc etc etc. But for all of that, they didn't have a copy of Ursula le Guin's "Left Hand of Darkness." Psh.

I went to cute secondhand bookshop and got a very old copy of George Eliot's "Romola" for just 2 pounds. I completely lost myself in bookshops for most of the day. I went to the Oxford University Press bookshop, Waterstones, a few secondhand, and Blackwell's. I wandered through a covered market and bought a skirt and a button in a boutique there. I had lunch in a coffee shop and warmed myself with a pot of tea.

But of course, the main focus of my trip was the famous, legendary, realm-of-fantasy-itself pub, The Eagle and Child, where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien used to hang with their other writing buds in a group called The Inklings. Walking in there felt pretty much exactly as I imagine it would feel to walk into the Prancing Pony at Bree, and not just because it *looked* exactly like the Prancing Pony. Everything was dark, ancient, worn-smooth wood, with various objects and old pictures hung on the walls. I sat at a tiny table in the back on a hobbit-sized stool, and wrote in my journal about how entirely surreal it was. Then it was time to catch a train back to London. I am now a Lord of the Rings Hajji.

Before the Eagle and Child, though, I took the Lamb and Flag passage across the street, because I was looking to get to the Natural History Museum (which was closed when I got there). The passage was surreal as well, I felt ridiculous to actually be walking down it. It was not so much an alleyway as a paved path between buildings, and just behind the Lamb and Flag pub (for which the passage was named, and actually where the Inklings defected to in later years) there was a great and twisty tree, which I half-expected to come to life. As I continued on the passage I came out onto a residential street. Through the windows of the row houses I could see what were presumably Oxford students, hard at work, and I fantasized for a few moments about joining their ranks. I could go to Oxford and study religion, or law, or any number of things. I could share halls, rooms, chairs, books, libraries with the great, both past and present. I could take my dinner at the Eagle and Child every night, and perhaps be inspired to create a universe of my own. I could *be* great.

But even though I was there, that I'd seen with my eyes and felt with my hands this place that had always to me seemed to be as much a fantasy as Rivendell or Narnia, I still felt it was impossible for me to ever really be an Oxford student, to actually live here and study here and walk in the footsteps of so many I admire. Perhaps it's still the resistance to really "leave" home (though of course, I *have* left it, and I could return to Springfield from Oxford just as well as from London), or perhaps it's lack of confidence, but mostly I think it is the idea that I feel like I come from an entirely different world, that I'm an alien to Oxford, and I could no more study here than live on Mars.

Who knows, I suppose time will tell. Maybe one day I'll find myself there after all. For now I'll keep fumbling around on earth, looking for direction, looking for meaning, looking for answers.