The day before we left for London, 650 miles to our east, a small group of Russian separatists or rebels–the media has different names for them depending on who they like on a particular day–targeted a Malaysian airliner as it flew en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. Whether or not they knew it was a passenger airliner is unclear. They fired a BUK surface to air missile and the plane exploded in-flight killing nearly 300 people.
We were having the time of our lives in Fuschl, Austria in a fine bed and breakfast on a lake. Shannon, already a nervous flyer-did not know about MH-17 and we aimed to keep it that way. It would do no good to let her know what happened and it would just worry her needlessly. We were doing a good job of it until we got to Schwechat Airport in Vienna. Television screens everywhere lit up with the investigation and the inept response from our own American government. Adding to it, the aircraft before ours at the gate was a Ukraine International 737 bound for Kiev. The terminal, a hustling and bustling place of activity was a bit quieter–and reporters were rushing, cameras, voice recorders and press credentials in tow, to make the plane. The cat was out of the bag and Shannon knew…
Our flight to London was beautiful. In fact, our flight from London to Vienna on July 2 was also beautiful. Both legs were operated by British Airways and both on aircraft not quite full with great flight attendants, a decent organic ham and cheese sandwich and a quick two-hour flight time.
Leaving Austria was harder than we expected, though we knew it wouldn’t be easy. Tears flowed and goodbyes were long. I knew we had stayed as long as we could and that Rainer, Michaela, Conni and Vicky would be happy to have their lives and home back-but it was no good being rational. This wasn’t about logic. We missed them before wheels up–and we continue to do so.
We arrived in the evening to tighter security and passport controls but even so, got through in less than an hour from gate to street and into the MPV that carried us to 24 Lancaster Gate, Hyde Park, London. Rainer arranged for us to stay in a time-share flat that his company uses frequently and with the exception of the fact that there was no air-conditioning, it was perfect. A note to Londoners-I know you don’t think you need it, but air-conditioning would really make a number of the buildings in the city a lot better. And as the keepers of the mantle of western civilization, air-conditioning would make your city a far better place.
It was a quick trip and Saturday morning, Sue and I were up looking for a few groceries. Predictably, we got lost, but a very nice Londoner took good care of us. “It looks like you’re lost,” he said.
“Hate to admit it, but yeah-we are,” I said.
“Oh, well,” he said after we told him what we needed. “You want to go down this way over by Lancaster Gate to the Wait Rose. The place you’re looking for, quite frankly, is shit. Don’t go there.”
He was right, too-and I still think about the kindness of many of the Londoners–combined with the overwhelming number of Burqa-clad women and Arabic speaking men. There is a book called Londonistan. I see what that was about now.
Before we left on the trip, I finished the book The Bohemians by Ben Tarnoff. In it, he writes about the relationship between Mark Twain and Brett Harte among others. At the end of the book, he writes how Harte, who faded in fame after captivating the west with stories like The Luck of Roaring Camp, went to London to lick his wounds and never return. While Sue and I were out that Saturday morning, we passed by a building sign near Lancaster Gate. I didn’t get a photo, but it is indelible in my mind’s eye: “Francis Brett Harte, American Writer, Lived and Died here.” I got the chills. I felt at home–and far away, all at once.
But then, we were off and walking across Hyde Park to Buckingham Palace to see the changing of the guard. It was a grand–and very crowded–affair. Shannon wanted to get a closer look and the two of us crossed the street while Laurie and Sue stayed back. We got a good view, but not before some poor young Czech chap (we knew from the language he and his family spoke-and we’d heard the language around Vienna and were schooled on the various Slavic languages in the area) blew chunks all over the sidewalk. We got fragged. It wasn’t pretty–so from then on, Shannon referred to Buckingham Palace as “Puke-ingham palace.”
From there, it was on to the Whitehall, Big Ben, the London Eye–all of them on a giant walk. It was hot, humid and we were getting tired. The Abbey was too crowded on Saturday and so we didn’t go inside that day. I asked a kind British police officer for a recommendation for a pub in walking distance that didn’t feature people like us: tourists. He was more than happy to oblige and congratulated me on my bright choice–and off we went to The Sanctuary. It was our first of two visits–great beer on tap, Fullers London Pride among others, at cellar temperature, and great food. Everyone in the joint had a lovely British accent and while it might not be Shannon’s vote for favorite place, the three of us loved it.
We wound up at part of the Imperial War Museum’s Churchill War Room and what a find. One of the bus tour-guides, a very nice guy with whom we traveled on Monday, said that he and his fiance, a museum curator, believed it was the best curated museum in all of Great Britain. It would be hard to disagree.
We spent more than two hours in the war room, the place from where Churchill ran the war. For me, a natural history and literature buff, it was exceptionally invigorating. Having toured the Salt Mines in Salzburg, a few kilometers from Berchtesgaden and Hitler’s Eagle’s nest, it was exciting to round out the trip by looking at the Allied side of things.
We saw Churchill’s war cabinet room with the wooden chair where he sat when the group met. The Prime Minister and his cabinet met here for hours on end making plans, drawing up defense and attack positions and debating the politics of each move. Every guest was given a handheld digital audio device, just like in Westminster Abbey, and you could go through the rooms at your own pace. On it, they not only include an audio guided tour, but samples of things like WWII era London air-raid sirens and re-enactments of Churchill and his cabinet debating.
There was Churchill’s bedroom where, strangely, he didn’t sleep that often. Most of the time, even at the height of the war, Churchill would return home knowing the risks involved–but then, as you’re told repeatedly when you’re down there, if one of the German bombs had hit the government buildings above, there was very little chance that anyone would have survived. It wasn’t fortified. The Brits got lucky for lack of a better word.
Sunday was the British Museum and I was astounded and ensconced by the Sutton Hoo exhibit with its quotes from Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf all over the exhibit. It brought the entire epic to life for me–the Anglo-Saxon masks and the gold jewels, the armor, the swords. I was a child again, I really was. This has been my quarry for a few years now, this Anglo-Saxon and Medieval English literature–from Beowulf to King Arthur feels like Disneyland to me–it’s an escapist world where you’re left to draw your own conclusions. At first, the morals seem very clear–black and white, but when you analyze who Grendel is and what his mother must have been, you get a different take.
The same happens in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight when Gawain simply does what his creed tells him to do–but then, in his quest to accomplish the task set before him, is tempted and challenged in ways he never believed possible. And his survival is not only to his credit, it’s a symbol for something beyond winning–it’s a holy crusade–of which all people are capable-and somehow, Gawain, the youngest knight of the round table, Arthur’s nephew, achieves immortality by admitting his flaws, accepting what he thinks is his fate. It’s remarkable.
It’s also England–an England that existed for a thousand years. But as you visit the island, you’re left thinking that it may be in its twilight now. In its mad imperialist rush to conquer the world, it has reaped a bit of what it sowed and now, the Muslims, the Hindus, the Sikhs–all of them have come here–and many of them are simply resentful, some revengeful and still others are vicious and seeking a way to strike back. London is a big, bustling, crowded city, a seething cauldron where civilizations are again colliding. Who knows where it will lead?
The best part of London, I saved for last. It was Sofie, our first foreign exchange student from 2007/08 who came to visit us with her sister, Kristien and Kristien’s daughter, Justine. What a gift! We spent two days with Sofie and her family and we ate together at the Hard Rock Cafe and a perfectly quaint pizza joint that our cab driver favored near the London Zoo, at Regent’s Park. Sue, Shannon, Sofie, Kristien and Justine went to the zoo while Laurie and I sat in Regent’s Park watching the people and enjoying the fine weather.
We talked for hours together, catching up on our lives. When Sofie lived with us, she was 18 years old and the past seven years have seen her grow into a fine young woman with a real estate career, her own apartment and a life she loves. We agreed to a five year plan and we will return to Europe then, going to Sofie’s home in Antwerp, Belgium as well as France and maybe Ireland. If I had the means and my way, I’d leave tomorrow.
On Monday, we took the hop on-hop off double decker bus touring London and finally made our way to Westminster Abbey and took the tour. On the audio-phone we were given, we punched in the requisite numbers and heard the grand and unmistakeable voice: “Welcome to Westminster Abbey….I’m Jeremy Irons.” It was incredible.
Essentially a functioning church most famous as the venue for Royal family weddings (with the exception of Charles and Diana), but in fact an indoor cemetery, the Abbey’s grave markers are those of western civilization: Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Henry V, Elizabeth I, Henry VIII. Poet’s corner is a dream for English teachers: Wordsworth, Chaucer, Dickens, Auden, Dryden, Shelley, Owen–the list is endless. The place is one of somber grace and glorious memory. It’s hard not to walk by the most decorated central grave marker of the Unknown WWI Soldier and not see in it the metaphor for this “warlike state.” Great Britain in its prime was an imperialist global force that fought and conquered around the globe. The island nation still celebrates that history, all the while coming to slow realization that the chickens are coming home to roost and its empire is no more.
Photography of any kind is prohibited in the Abbey and one sees why: it is, after all, a place of remembrance and faith. Still, it was hard to resist–and I may or may not have taken a photo of my favorite English author’s grave…
Cramped, crowded and hot as we were–we were given many gifts in London: from Sofie and her family to the British Museum to Big Ben, the Abbey, the Sanctuary pub and the original Hard Rock Cafe with Eric Clapton’s Fender stratocaster–the first item donated to the Hard Rock Cafes around the world–to Winston Churchill’s war rooms–we ended our vacation soaking up the essence of the beginnings of western civilization.
How could we ever have done better than that?