Wednesday, 28 September 2011

When a Man Is Tired of London...

27 September 2011

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

So said Dr. Johnson, and I am reminded of him whenever I wonder what it is that brings me back to the city. When I mentioned that I would be spending last Sunday there, someone said, “You know we’ll be back there before the end of the semester.” I do know that, but London is a book to be read more than once—even more than twice. Every time I go there, I see or understand something new.

The first draw for me, I think, is the theatre, which was the reason for my most recent trip. My friend Allie and I went to see Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus at the Globe. To anyone who has not seen a play at the Globe yet, I highly recommend it. (Their season ends October 2, though.) Not only is it five pounds for a standing ticket in the “yard,” but these tickets are some of the best in the house. We arrived in London around 10:30 am and went directly to the theatre, where we joined a short queue of people waiting for the house to open at 12:30. You don’t have to get there as early as we did—forty-five minutes to half an hour is more than enough—but it was exciting to be some of the first ones there, squashed between some theatre students and a guy reading The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

Because we were some of the first in the house, we got to stand right up against the center of the stage, where much of the action happened. If I needed further convincing that we had the best spots in the house, it came in the form of the official photographer, who stood next to me after intermission.

Doctor Faustus is an odd play because it is technically a tragedy—Faustus, a learned man bored with the mortal world, sells his soul to the devil—but it is full of spectacle and lowbrow comedy. This production balanced the two levels perfectly, and it was both entertaining and scary. The two leads had perfect chemistry: Paul Hilton as Faustus, power-hungry and full of dramatic gestures, and Arthur Darvill as Mephistopheles, from whom all the power really comes. Where Faustus swings dramatically between fascination with his incredible power and fear for his soul, Mephistopheles is docile, completely compliant with Faustus’s will and only occasionally revealing the pain he knows Faustus will suffer, which he, Mephistopheles, suffers eternally. He is always in the back of the scene when Faustus impresses people with acts of magic, and Faustus’s grand gestures are always accompanied by a small motion of Mephistopheles’ hand. The staging prompts the audience to ask who really motivates the action, a question emphasized by some clever costuming, which makes the two characters look more and more alike as the play progresses.

But in addition to being intellectually challenging, the production is just plain fun. Understanding, I think, that Marlowe intended Faustus to be much less a morality play than an entertainment, this interpretation is completely faithful to Marlowe’s wacky comedy. It includes, among other things, a song and dance number, a beheaded man coming back to life, and some harassment of the Pope involving grapes. Oh, and did I mention there were dragons?

We left the theatre thoroughly satisfied.

While I’m not sure London has “all that life can afford,” as Dr. Johnson said, it is certainly impossible to be bored there. We managed to occupy several hours before our train mostly by walking around. We crossed the Millennium Bridge from the Globe, which is almost on top of it, back to the north bank of the Thames. On this side of the bridge, rising above everything else, is the dome of St. Paul’s. It’s impossible to miss, but somehow I’d never properly noticed it before. Oh, my god, I thought. It’s freaking St. Paul’s. This epiphany, albeit in more eloquent terms, must be exactly what the builders of the bridge intended for us.

When we eventually attempted to return to King’s Cross, we ran into the first hiccup of the day. By this point we were in Trafalgar Square, having sat there to study for our British Studies Quiz. (Studying on top of a national monument? Check it off the bucket list.) We walked to the Charing Cross Tube station, but the entire Northern Line was down! With little time to spare, we blundered our way back to Leicester Square, and by the time we made it to King’s Cross we were running up and down the escalators. One of us said to the other, out of breath, that we probably had a fifty-fifty chance of making it. We checked the departure board, put our tickets through the slot, and took off running—skipping? we definitely held hands at some point—toward our platform. We just made it. We took our seats, winded but proud.

Check it off the bucket list? Absolutely. I’ve learned my lesson—check the Tube closures before coming—but there was no harm done. I still love coming to London, and I hope I never tire of it.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Learning: All Together

Coming here, we are all expecting something. We are all expecting to have the time of our lives and to travel the country. But what I didn’t expect was to make so many great friends so quickly. At Harlaxton College, we are given so many opportunities whether it’s just going for a tour of the manor or taking a trip to Paris. Whether in the classroom or not, we are learning so much here and we are all learning it together.

On the first day here, Principal Kingsley gave a speech telling us about what a big red “L” means when it is labeled on something here. It’s means learning. For instance, if you pass a vehicle with a red “L” on it, it means the driver is just learning to drive. Around the manor you will see these “L’s” posted everywhere to remind us that we are “learning all together”. It’s true. Coming here, you expect to learn some things, but what I didn’t really think about is the people I’d be learning with.

Experiencing all of these new amazing things with all these people just brings us so much closer together so much faster. At this point we have been lost in big cities together, figured out how to maneuver our way around the London Tube together, planned trips together, eaten every meal together, and experienced this once in a lifetime opportunity together. We’ve have only been here a month, yet I find myself thinking of some of these new friends as some of my best friends.

It doesn’t matter if you’re going out for a night on the town in Grantham or staying in and having a “Glee” marathon, there’s always someone willing to do it with you. I still have 2 and a half months left here, yet I find myself getting sad when I think about leaving all my new friends. But for now, I’m going to take advantage of the days that I have left!

Friday, 23 September 2011

Another Side of Scotland

Edinburgh. This is undoubtedly one of my favorite cities in the world, and I was very excited to go back. Having already been there in high school, I think I found a different flavor than the rest of the Harlaxton students. I didn’t spend all of my time at the tourist places I’d already seen, so I got to wander the city. My favorite part of Edinburgh is walking, absorbing, and ducking into a pub when everything is too cold and rain-soaked. It was a fantastic weekend.
After the six hour bus ride (and thank God because it’s the only reason I got my homework done…) we arrived in the rain to Prince’s Street and our hotel. My first day was comprised of the Royal Mile, which our hotel was very conveniently located near, and getting appetizers and drinks at a few different pubs. Pictured to the right is the bottom of the Royal Mile, with a view of Parliament and Arthur's Seat.

The next day was adventurous. This hotel included an actual hot breakfast, which was a relief. Afterwards I walked through the National Gallery, which was closed on my last visit. Then we got horribly lost on our way to the Botanical Gardens. It was a fun way to see parts of Edinburgh that tourists never get to see, but we still took a cab back.

The Botanical Gardens were worth the harrowing experience of finding them. I would definitely recommend seeing them, especially on a rare sunny day.

We ended at Grassmarket St, supposedly famous for its hole-in-the-wall shopping. We sadly found more pubs than shops, but still managed to have a good time. The view of the Castle and Royal Mile from the other side was worth the trip on its own.

That night we wandered up and down Rose Street, a wide walkway filled with ethnic restaurants and pubs and shops that is one of my favorite areas in Edinburgh. That night I ate the best pizza I’ve ever had.

The next morning we left early, but the trip was not done at Edinburgh. Some students went independently to save money, but I thought the three side-trips on the way back were worth the money. The first we stopped was the Scotland-England border. After that brief photo opportunity we went to Hadrian’s Wall and the Housesteads’s Fort ruins. Built around the year 122 AD, the Wall was meant to keep the northern tribes out and enforce the area of Rome’s control. This old border is actually about an hour south of the current one.

It seems like everywhere I go there are still traces of Rome.

The last stop was in Durham for lunch. We also walked up the hill to see the famous Cathedral, which was once used as a refuge for fugitives of the law. They were given a little over a month to get their affairs in order before they had to turn themselves in or flee the country.

There wasn’t enough time for us to see the castle, as well. However I did learn an important lesson in this town. “Marinara” in Europe is literal--there is seafood involved. It will be one of those little travel adventures I get to warn fellow students about.

Another hour or two on the bus and we were home. Overall, a full weekend. I can’t believe how much we’re doing! It seems like far longer than a week since I was in Stratford, longer than a few days since Lincoln. It’s a testament to how busy we are and how intense the academics and travel is that time has taken on an alien quality to most of the students here. I can only imagine what it will be to look back on all we've accomplished and seen in December.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Studying Britain

British Studies — everybody’s gotta take it, but really it’s not that bad. You start with cavemen and move up through the Romans, talk about the Normans, lots of kings and queens, and that’s it. Honestly I don’t mind it much, but you can’t only study Britain from a textbook.

Last Thursday I came back from class, looked at my schedule (I was done for the week, no big assignments due, and no trips planned), and sighed. It was Wales, I knew that much. But you can’t just go somewhere by yourself and sit in a city for three days without doing anything. So I decided to see castles and other old stuff (maybe not your cup of tea), so I jumped on a train to Rhyl in North Wales, a few miles from what I knew sat Rhuddlan Castle.

I didn’t have a plan, really, just a destination in mind. I wanted to go to W my first “free” weekend, and by Thursday afternoon I was bored outta my mind. Hell with it, I thought. I packed my backpack, grabbed some cash, my rail card, and caught the 2:10 shuttle into Grantham.

But, before I tell you all I did, sometimes it’s important to learn the moral of the story first: when you don’t have a plan, it’s easy to make stupid, expensive mistakes.

So I get to Rhyl. It’s a nice town nestled against the Irish Sea to the north, with a boardwalk and everything. And there’s me, in the late afternoon, with a backpack and a map. A tourist is a target, I thought, so I found a cheap B&B to shack up for the night. In the morning it took me three busses to get to Rhuddlan Castle (which I later learned was only one). I’m not going to go into detail about the sights…it’s rather boring to discuss them. The best part (I’m a bit of a nerd) was the historical context it added to my British Studies class. All the castles I saw were part of Edward I’s boxing in of Wales. Blah blah, I know, so I’ll continue…

From Rhyl I took a train west to Conwy, where the station is literally in the shadow of one of the most impressive castles I saw. From Conwy I crossed into Anglesey and saw Beaumaris castle, a squat, swampy place, then took a series of busses towards Llangefni to explore a few Neolithic standing stones and burial chambers. I got to talking with one of the bus drivers about where I was getting to. He turned in his seat, looked me up and down, and said if I hadn’t been stabbed yet I would be in Llangefni. He was stark serious, too, so he let me stay on towards Caernarfon, home to the best (in my opinion) castle in Wales, where I stayed the night.

A note on the Welsh: half the time they speak in Welsh. When they aren’t, it’s like they are because of their accents. And if you visit Wales don’t be surprised if everyone in a pub sudde nly switches over from English when you go in. I’m not trying to give Wales a bad name, because most of the people I met were nice, helpful, and, in the case of the bus-driver, very helpful. But, in Caernarfon, I did stop in one pub, which I instantly regretted, because this older, hammered Welsh couple kept calling me Canadian (tell them you’re from the States, not America!), and spittin all over me.

Finally, once the couple finished their drinks, the woman walked right into a door and spat out four teeth. Karma, eh? So I got to see my first EMS, European action.

Anyways…after Caernarfon I took a breath-taking scenic route (as in inefficient and expensive) to Harlech Castle, and there started my adventure back to Grantham. It took my 5 transfers, a bus, 7 hours, and too many pounds to remember to get back. But all that aside, it was completely worth it, to not have much in the way of plans, to really get in the thick of a foreign culture and be lost in it.

On a broader note about travel I have two suggestions: 1) bring an umbrella, 2) always ask the bus-driver. They can give you directions, they don't mind you speaking in English, and, most important of all, bus-drivers know the dangers of travel. But, if you keep you head down and stick to lighted streets, there's no need to worry.

-Brennan Girdler

Thursday, 15 September 2011

A Day Of Bardolatry

I’ve been excited for Stratford since buying the trip. I’ve loved Shakespeare for a long time and hope to teach English someday. It was almost like a pilgrimage.

We gathered for our coach—my first double-decker since coming to England—in the morning and we were in Stratford by lunch. Two classes were required to be on that trip (one of them Shakespeare, which I am taking), but many people came just to see it all.

Once we arrived we were given our theatre tickets and given free reign. That’s an emerging theme I’m finding with Harlaxton travel: “Do whatever you want for the next 10 hours, and if you want a ride home, show up on time.”

We split off and wandered. Our passes allowed us entry into three of the Shakespeare properties in town—his birthplace, his home of retirement, and the home of William’s daughter Susanna. Most people agreed that these were a bit over-worked and touristy, but the grounds were beautiful and there really was a lot of information to learn.

At the Birthplace, we learned a bit of history and saw the First Folio. Famous authors and other tourists who visited long ago had scratched their names in to the windows. The house was impressive for its time period and included several guides in period garb. In the gardens, Shakespeare’s work is performed daily.

New Place, the house Shakespeare lived for nearly his last two decades, was demolished long before there were statutes to protect it. The gardens, however, have been restored and visitors can walk through the archeological dig where historians are searching for relics of the Shakespeare family.

Hall’s Croft is probably the most impressive of the three houses in terms of the physical house and grounds. It also has an exhibition of Royal Shakespeare Company items and costumes. However, by this point we were hungry, and didn’t stay long. Instead we wandered back to Hathaway’s Tea Room (everywhere in this town has a historical reference or Shakespeare pun) for tea and scones. We sat in the courtyard out back. English tea was a fantastic way to break up the day and have a bit of local culture at the same time.

Next we wandered to Holy Trinity church, the place of Shakespeare’s grave. There he is buried alongside his family. Also there is his baptismal font and the church records of his baptism and death. The place was truly awe-inspiring.

Walking along the river Avon from there offered pleasant views and a view of the town's theatres. The Royal Shakespeare Theatre is by far the largest and most impressive, but it is not the only one in this town steeped in the tradition of plays.

Our day ended with a performance of Macbeth by the Royal Shakespeare Company. This was the first performance made specifically for their newly remodeled space. I thought it was incredible. Everyone could at least agree that the performance was like no other Macbeth they’d ever seen or heard of. The script was slightly reworked, but it was effective and true to the feeling of the original. It was also a little terrifying. While in the theatre, the true spirit of the Bard came through.

All in all, Stratford is definitely a tourist town. Go in expecting a little bit of cheesy and a good chance of over-charging. However, it is also quaint, and pretty, friendly, and a great town to walk through. Unlike London, I felt a short trip was sufficient to see everything, but I’m still glad I went.

-Katelan King

Monday, 12 September 2011

Children's Stories

September 11, 2011

This morning I watched the sun come up in New York City. At Ground Zero, the two square pits that were once the Twin Towers are now two massive fountains, the largest of their kind in North America. The water was lit from beneath, and the four walls of each hole seemed to glow against the last of the early-morning dark. Supposedly, you can hear the water falling even at great distances, above the noise of the city.
It is beautiful. I hope this memorial will be some small comfort not only to those who find their loved ones’ names engraved on it, but to all of us who found our lives irrevocably changed ten years ago.
But what am I supposed to feel? An ocean away, in Grantham, England, it is eleven o’clock, not sunrise. Outside the window of my TV lounge in Harlaxton Manor, it seems a normal day—blue sky, some clouds, too cold for September. On the news, various important and forgettable people are talking about what this day meant. There are messages of unity, of perseverance, and even of victory, as Osama Bin Laden’s face appears on the screen, swiftly covered by the word “DECEASED.” According to President Obama, the past ten years have proven that “those who do us harm cannot hide from the reach of justice anywhere in the world.” The nation, he says, “pulses with optimism.”
What does this mean, to “pulse with optimism”? As far as I know, my generation does not see it that way, except perhaps when it is an election year. Over the past ten years, we’ve fought two drawn-out wars, traded security for individual liberty, and witnessed economic recession, Islamophobia, and the collapse of governments around the world. If we pulse with anything, whatever that means, it’s fear. And for 2011’s university students, who were born at one turning-point of history, as the Soviet Union collapsed, it seems as if the first ten-odd years of our lives belonged to a different world; September 11, 2001, marked not just an end of childhood but the end of what felt like peace (even if it wasn’t), as history returned from holiday and the world’s next big bad emerged.
But Grantham, even on September 11, does not feel like a place where children are plucked from their childhoods and made to face the evils of the world. Cut to the afternoon: we are taking a historical tour of the town. Our guide, a toothless man nearing eighty, greets his neighbors and, gesturing to us, says that his family has grown. They laugh. He was born in Grantham. He shows us the tallest church spire and the pub whose sign is an active beehive, landmarks he must have passed as a child; he makes us promise not to cross the street until the walk sign is lit.
He also shows us the side of an ordinary stone building, where there is a very faint mark. It looks something like the sign for woman—a circle with a line pointing downward, but with no horizontal cross. It was a sign, he tells us, painted on the wall during the Second World War. The line was to show people where water had been stored, thousands of gallons of it, in case of a firebombing. “It’s the only one left in Grantham,” he says, running his fingers over the paint. “This one’ll be gone soon, too.”
“I was bombed,” he says, and I find myself doing a quick calculation of his age. “The bomb dropped across the street. Father was coming home from work. It was cold, and he was expecting to have a proper cup of tea when he came home, so mother had set the table with the milk, and the sugar, and the cup and saucer. Every time they dropped a bomb, the chimneys would shake, and you’d get smoke all in your house. Mother came into the kitchen and there was a film of soot over the milk, the sugar, and in the bottom of the cup.” He moves his hand horizontally, miming that film. “And do you know what she did then?” We shake our heads. He makes a stirring motion with his hands. “So Father drank sooty tea that night. You only got half a pound of sugar a week.”
“Did he notice?” I want to know.
“Well, he never complained.”
We all laugh. Across the street, a child is calling, “Mummy. Mummy.” As he comes into view with his parents, we turn from the mark on the wall and move on to the next sight.
In the instant that passed, I could believe more easily that one woman, sixty-some years ago, made tea for her husband while bombs dropped, than that ten years ago today, in my own country, three thousand people died because of a premeditated act of terror. This town, this country, is steeped in memory, not just because there are war memorials in every church and public park but because men and women tell stories. Our toothless guide will soon be, like the mark on the wall, one of the last.
There has never really been a generation who grew up without terror, and if September 11, 2001, seemed for us like an end of childhood—if it seems, in drastic simplification, that the first decade of our lives was spent in peace and the second spent in war—it is partly because disaster struck just when we were old enough to remember it forever. We each have a story, and I hope you, readers, will share them in the Comments section. What grade were you in? What did your teacher tell you, or not tell you? What were you doing when you found out?
I remember that I had a dentist appointment, so it was my mom who told me and not my teacher. She told me a plane had hit a building, and I couldn’t figure out why she was crying for people she did not know. I was in the fourth grade. I wonder what she was thinking as she drove me away from the school. And I wonder about that dentist, who resolutely tapped and checked each one of my teeth as the rest of the planes sped toward their targets. Was he afraid yet?
That dentist will remember that day for the rest of his life, as will our parents and our teachers. But those of us who were children are in a unique position to tell the story. Those only a few years younger—not only many of our siblings but those who will someday be our colleagues and perhaps even our spouses—will know September 11 only as a date. We are the youngest to remember.
But we will be old someday--when the world’s current threats have come to a head; when the balance of power has shifted, for better or worse, and our grandchildren’s youth is shaped by new and related fears. If we are lucky, they will have an interest in history, and they will ask us where we were when the Twin Towers fell. By that time, we, like the old man I met today, will be the last to remember.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The Many Sides of London

A broad look at what I did during my first full weekend in Europe...

Our coach came upon London in the night, an exciting time, and we passed blocks and blocks of pubs, theatres, a KFC, and hundreds of people. It was a Thursday, and we only had the weekend to take in the largest, and richest city in Europe. The coach dropped us off at our hotel, our chaperoning faculty said cheers, and we were ready to explore the city. Except one thing…we were completely disoriented and lost.

But, as I find, being lost is the best way to find your way around. A few friends and I dropped off our bags and headed southish, towards Soho, a district full of clubs, pubs, casinos, and all sorts of "entertainment."

We walked, and walked, and walked…following the sparse and confusing bus routes as best we could. The thing to remember is that London isn’t a modern city. Streets don’t necessarily form neat, patchwork grids running north to south or east to west.

They curve, end, turn into new streets, and only half of them are clearly labeled. Regardless, after asking for directions several times we found ourselves in the heart of Soho, and many, many hours later made it back to the hotel…

Day two was a whole new adventure. Taking advantage of Harlaxton’s London trip, which gives you two full days to yourself (they offer transport and hotel), I set off with the mind to see Parliament, a few cathedrals, and whatever else looked touristy. A quick ride down the Underground got me there, and just a few blocks more I saw Churchill’s War Rooms, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, Parliament, and dozens of statues (one of Abe Lincoln).

It was hard to take in, being miniaturized by the colossal and sprawling buildings and towers, so I went across the Thames and walked along the Queen’s Walk. I had fish and chips (a safe bet) with a view of Parliament, then went north towards the London Eye, the half an hour Ferris wheel.

From there I headed east and crossed London Bridge, which gave me a clear view of two warships anchored near Tower Bridge. Across the Thames again was the Tower of London, a more businessy district, so I kept on walking and soon found myself in Whitechapel, a group of streets where the infamous Jack the Ripper killings took place. I had an early dinner in the Ten Bells (very Rippery) and a pint or few, took the Underground again and that concludes day two. Well, the touristy, publishable part.

On day three I over-indulged a bit and got a balcony seat for Phantom of the Opera showing on the West End. I don’t want to brag or excite anyone…but it was spectacular. Afterwards I took a stroll through St. James’s Park and past Buckingham Palace, and (yeah, I know) stopped at the Apollo Victoria theatre for the later Wicked show. That, too, was just as spectacular.

Anyways, enough reminiscent ramblings. The point I hope to make is that you can do all of this and more in a weekend, and still go to the clubs in Soho or walk on Abbey Road or do whatever you want! London is gigantic, and everywhere is something to do, something to see or experience. I’d recommend comfortable shoes, a camera, and fish and chips along the Thames.

Oh, and don't worry about being a tourist. Everyone carries around a camera.

About half the people I met at the pubs were foreign. Here's some Russian dude who wanted to be in everyone's pictures, and behind him are a pair of Canadians.

-Brennan Girdler

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

“It’s just so… English!”

Even though I was running on approximately two hours of terrible plane-sleep, when my plane landed at Heathrow in a steady drizzle of rain I was bouncing out of my seat with excitement. I was finally here. I didn’t encounter any problems making my way through security and customs on this side of the border and before I knew it, I was sitting on a coach for the three hour ride to the manor that will be my home for the next three and a half months.

As we rolled through the English countryside, I was struck by how picturesque everything was. The rolling countryside could have been plucked right off a calendar and stuck on the hills that now surrounded me. I remember, in my sleep-deprived state, turning to someone and whispering “It’s just so… English!”. And while that phrase was born of sleep deprivation, it kept coming to mind as I experienced my first few days at the manor.

The bus, or coach as they call them over here, ride seemed to last forever after an eight hour plane flight, but the view as we drove up to the manor was worth every moment of traveling. You begin to glimpse the manor when you are about five minutes away, but nothing can compare to driving through the front gates for the first time and taking the mile drive up to the manor. Let me tell you, there is not a picture of Harlaxton in existence that does the manor justice. None of the pictures can convey the exact scale of this building and the history that seems to be resting in every nook and cranny (and there seem to be an infinite number of nooks and crannies!). We departed the coach on the front circle and made our way into the manor. The principal of the college greeted us at the door, welcoming us to Harlaxton as we made our way into the beautiful front entryway and up the first of many staircases we would soon discover around the manor. Once again I was struck by how the building seemed to radiate Englishness.

There was a brief welcome ceremony before we experienced our first meal in the refrectory and headed off to find our rooms and begin a weekend full of orientation activities, including beginning to explore the manor. The manor seems impossibly complex upon first inspection. The multitude of staircases lead everywhere but where you want to go and there are rooms tucked into every possible space. If you are a future Harlaxton student, make sure you take the opportunity to explore as soon as you can; you will be glad you did. A few friends and I decided to try and hunt down as many hidden doors as possible. Though we quickly lost count, it was a great way to get to know the manor a little better. And once again, I felt how very English the whole place felt- from the hidden passages to the rooms so ornate that you can hardly even imagine what they must have looked like upon completion to the formal gardens to the side of the manor. And that’s not even beginning to include Grantham, the town about three miles from Harlaxton.

As of now, I have finished my first week of classes and spent a weekend in London. And the feeling of being awestruck at every corner is yet to wear off. But through all the pure ‘Englishness’ of this place, I also feel very at home. The manor has quickly become a place where I feel at home. I am constantly discovering new places in the manor, but it feels comfortable and homely. And I can’t wait to spend the rest of the semester here in my English home.