22 June 2015
- Just put your phone on battery saver to begin with. Buy a prepaid sim at the vending machines at Heathrow. This is mostly important for data, because maps. London requires maps.
- Take the tube. Get an Oyster card from the machines at Heathrow. They actually have people on staff to help newcomers understand what to buy and how. (Imagine if they had people on staff at the BART machines at SFO.) Treat the tube like any major urban subway system, with the required fast walking, swift card-scanning on entry and exit, and standing to the right/walking to the left on the escalator, and you'll be fine.
- There are more than enough free museums to fill up an entire week without paying to enter anything. I went to the British Museum, the Tate Modern, the Museum of London, and Sir John Soanes' Museum. Other good candidates include the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain, and a variety of smaller and more esoteric things like the Wellcome Collection.
- Don't buy coffee from the carts at the British Museum. Go around back to the Senate House shop for much cheaper coffee, plus reasonably student-priced sandwiches and etc.
- "Coffee" means "basic espresso drinks." If you want an actual drip coffee you can go to Starbucks, which remains everywhere. Otherwise, Costa or Nero are the main chains.
- London is under construction.
- Expect large flocks of schoolchildren near any tourist attraction.
- For long flights, noise-canceling headphones are more or less miraculous.
- If you hate crowds, do not go to Covent Garden or Soho after 5:30 pm. Consider what NYC's Soho is like and plan accordingly. If you want to eat dinner in a busy area, make reservations.
- It was harder than I expected to keep track of exactly how much I was spending, even with a reasonable grasp of the exchange rates and mental math skills.
- Searching out cheap food isn't necessarily easy, but it's doable. London obviously supports a huge community of commuters who need lunch every day. There are boxed sandwiches at grocery stores and Pret a Mangers on nearly every corner. Tsuru Sushi behind the Tate Modern has $5-ish prepacked small sushi boxes. St. Giles in the Field church has food trucks in the yard.
- There are public gardens everywhere and you should go to them, especially after buying one of the aforementioned sandwiches. Find a bench or a spot on the lawn and relax.
- If it's sunny and warm outside, the entire population of London will also be in the nearest public garden.
- You thought California allergies were bad, but London spring allergies are even worse. There are piles of fluffy flowerheads falling off the trees constantly and lying in drifts in the gutters. Bring your meds.
- On the other hand, I managed to sit directly on various garden lawns (flowerheads notwithstanding) for longish stretches of time without getting any bug bites. This seems nothing short of miraculous.
- English roses have a far stronger scent than the American varieties.
- Some gardens have cafes with seating. This is an excellent plan for a lazy afternoon. Bring your book and have a pint of Peroni or an americano.
- UK open container laws are far more permissive than those in the US. You can drink in the park and no one will bat an eye. This also explains the massive amount of people standing OUTSIDE pubs with their pints.
- Somehow we managed to do this whole trip without even entering a pub. On the other hand, drinking a refreshing beer in the park while people-watching (and dog-watching) was definitely worth it.
- The British Museum, while definitely worth a visit, is just as problematic as expected. They know they have a lot of imperial plunder, and they're never going to let it go. Even the text accompanying some things (especially the Elgin marbles, aka the looting of the Parthenon) is super defensive. It's especially fun when you go up to the neoclassical section and see pieces of early 19th century British art directly copying the real thing you saw downstairs. There was one piece in Greek style, with neoclassical figures in the middle, two Egyptian painted sarcophagi on the sides, and a giant rampant gold eagle on the top -- SO bizarre.
The gift shops are a trove of cultural appropriation. Do people really still think that a scarf or tote bag printed with a pattern of another culture's coffins is a good plan in this day and age? Really?
Yes, there's the argument that the Parthenon panels would have been destroyed (or at least in much worse shape) if they weren't shipped over to England when they were. Well, while that is likely true, here's a counter-observation. I've never heard anyone make a similar argument about the Saxons and Danes and Normans who used the Roman ruins in Britain to make the foundations of their buildings. And it's not as if modern London hasn't been seriously damaged in war anytime recently.
The museum also clearly relies on the vast array of artifacts they own, and spends comparably little time and effort on education and sensical presentation. It was not easy to figure out the proper order to go through rooms, and the significance of different items frequently wasn't clear. Now, it's obvious that the museum wants to make money off selling guidebooks and maps, but still. This is a problem when you're trying to learn.
So, yes. There was certainly a lot of really interesting stuff to see, but that doesn't make it any less problematic. I liked the Assyrian section very much. For instance, the king above is claiming that he, being blessed by the gods, personally has conquered the entire world and made it great, including things like personally raising all the food in existence. It certainly raises some interesting questions about the concept of kingship, ownership, and agency at the time. Plus you have to love the idea that text can just go anywhere. Why not put it right on top of a fantastic stone panel that your best masons have been carving for the past year?
- While we're talking about collections of other cultures' things, let's talk about Sir John Soanes' museum. This is the home of the architect who designed the houses of parliament and his own house as well. He was a collector and essentially made his house into a museum while he was still alive. Phones aren't allowed on inside, so no pictures here.
The basement is called "the crypt," and is designed around the stone sarcophagus of Seti I. Evidently Soanes had an argument with the British Museum over keeping this. Above the sarcophagus there are a few stories of overlooking balconies, culminating in a elaborate glass cupola that lets light all the way down to the ground. And the entire place is filled with figurines and fragments of statuary. FILLED. Rooms and rooms full of every last piece of Greek, Roman or Egyptian artifact he could get his hands on.
And that's not all! There's a room filled entirely with paintings. One side of the room is a very shallow cabinet, which opens out to reveal ANOTHER layer of paintings. Hogarth's whole Rake's Progress is here, locked securely into the cabinet until a guide opens it out and explains the entire story from painting to painting. There's also an architectural drawings room and several other rooms being restored.
The front of the house has two stories of intact 18th century drawing rooms and salons, which I actually thought were the most interesting part of the museum, and certainly a lot less problematic than the hoard of statuary. Next time we are in London I want to search out more sites that specifically preserve or focus on that kind of everyday history.
- On that note, the Museum of London. This was the best museum of the trip, hands down. It was arranged in a reasonable progression, with lots of actually useful educational information, and it certainly helped a lot that they were tackling the history of the city of London itself. No cultural appropriation involved.
So, did you know that before London was founded, the people at the time constructed rush bridges from the south bank of the Thames (such as it was; it was really a big marsh) out into the river, and that from there they would, presumably for religious or ritualistic reasons, throw not only valuable weaponry but human heads into the river? And also clay pots that we now suppose were symbolic of heads? YEP.
I got to learn all about which buildings there were in Roman Londinium, and how they were laid out, and why they prioritized which ones. The museum is presumably built where it is because you can look out a window at a strategic point and see the actual Roman wall of an administrative building which is just still there. (There's another Roman wall near the Tower, which I didn't go see.)
And then there was the rest of the history of the city, all laid out in order. By the time I got to the late 17th century stuff, I had to cut short my visit and go meet John while simultaneously avoiding rush hour as much as possible, so I didn't get to see as much as I would have liked. Future visits: yes.
- Finally, on a totally different note, the Tate Modern. This was a great choice, even though I found all the historical museums more interesting overall. The collections are certainly impressive. For instance, there was a whole roomful of Rothkos, presented in low light so you could stare at them and get the optical-illusion effect of the center squares growing outward.
It was really difficult to take any pictures that remotely approached being decent, but here are a couple.
- I don't know why I'm presenting this as an entire section, because we only saw one thing, and that was King John at the Globe Theatre. This was on because this summer is the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. (The British Library actually had the document itself on display, but I didn't end up getting there.) Of course, the subject of the play is not actually the signing of the Magna Carta, but still.
Needless to say, for two dorks with graduate degrees in writing, this was a non-negotiable.
The Globe still sells groundling tickets for standing room on the main floor for cheap publicly accessible theatre. We considered this, but my ankle was still sprained (on a side note, let me just mention how exciting it was to stomp around London in a boot all week), so we decided it was a better idea to actually get seats. So we bought two tickets to the highest tier and tromped up the stairs to watch the performance from there.
This was our view of the stage:
Overall, an excellent vantage point for the entire performance.
The play itself was well acted, but it isn't performed very often, because it is just not one of the best Shakespeare plays out there. In some ways it combined the slapsticky humor of some of the comedies with the actual historical events that you'd get in most history plays. That's not a combination you get a lot nowadays, but it shed some light on what the typical plays might have been like at the time. You have a performance with a narrative that pleases your rich and powerful benefactors and sends a clear message to the crowd, but also entertains that crowd and makes them remember your story or characters in a particular way. In this case, you get King John as a temporizing figure who really, really wanted the crown, to the point that he basically immediately jumped into war with the French, but you also get a clear picture of the succession being passed down to his heir etc at the end. Super interesting.
That said, OH MAN could some scenes have used some editing.
- I know you guys were waiting for this part. The thing is, I definitely didn't feel the need to eat a big fancy lunch by myself every day while John was off working. Instead, I ate a good selection of sandwiches in Russell Square and various other parks, and that was great. That said, we did go out to dinner quite a bit.
- First, we went to Veeraswamy, the oldest Indian restaurant in London. I don't know that I've ever taken an elevator to enter a restaurant before, but I certainly have now. The food here was good -- especially John's drink, which was a delightful and intensely colored green apple juice -- but it was disproportionately expensive for what we got. I guess that's what happens when you're in a historic restaurant in a very expensive city.
Indian food in London is a bit sweeter than you might expect. This was surprising (even though we were warned about it), mostly because a lot of American food is also already pretty sweet. John prefers the Indian food we get in our very Indian-heavy part of California; I like the London Indian food just about as well, which is saying a lot, because I LOVE Indian food of all kinds.
- Tas. This Middle Eastern restaurant has several locations around London, and they are worth going to. We actually went to two of them, because one was next to the Globe, and the other was very near our hotel. The other reason is that it was just easier to make sure we could get good, serious, protein-oriented vegetarian food if we ate Middle Eastern. Lentil soup and hummus and grape leaves and lots of delicious puffy bread! And it was fairly reasonably priced as well.
- The Salt and Pepper Cafe. This little nook was around the corner from the British Museum. I had some very nice, very fast, and relatively inexpensive breakfasts here. You have to love a spinach omelet served with salad for breakfast. If you want a bowl of oatmeal with fruit and plenty of cream, this is where to go get it. Also: all the coffee!
- Pierre Victoire. This French bistro is smack in the middle of Soho, right around the corner from Soho Square. We ate outside, which is not a normal thing John and I ever do, and watched people walk past with their dogs on an expedition to an evening nose around the square.
I had the massive slab of fish with clams in the picture, and it was just about exactly as fantastic as it appears. The food was really, really good, the people were friendly and good at their jobs, and I would go here again with zero hesitation.
- I like London quite a bit, and would absolutely go back. In the future, I think it would be great to get out into the more normal neighborhoods -- we were certainly in a very expensive part of a very expensive town -- and experience everything more like an actual Londoner would.
- Finally, I found £1.60 over the course of the trip. Finding money is always super satisfying.