Here it is: the last post to this blog, which, with the end of my 10 week adventure in the UK, is seeing its curtain call. What an amazing ride, literally and metaphorically. Thanks for joining me on a life changing journey that has rekindled my love of travel, England, and now Oxford. I’m back in San Francisco, but forever altered by the people, the scenery, the culture, and the spirit of Britain. And not only did I manage to bring home amazing memories and a new perspective, but thanks to a dear friend, have been gifted with my very own electric tea kettle – a daily ritual that evokes warmth, tradition, history, and Englishness. A bittersweet and final “Cheers” everyone!
It was bound to happen. Traveling, cold weather, too many pints, and not enough runs have made friendly acquaintances of me and a bloke called influenza. Like 19th century fever and chills sick. I was shivering so badly last night I actually scratched myself in the face, and now look like I’ve been in a knife fight. Joy. Anthony Trollope once said ”When a man is ill nothing is so important to him as his own illness,” so this post is probably not going to get its due attention and will probably be filled with random mistakes brought on my too many meds and partial delirium. Hope this chilly season finds you in full health and a forgiving blog reader.
Oh my. It seems my last post, waxing poetic on my newly ignited love affair with a town called Edinburgh, may have disgruntled its competing rival London. Jokes like, “It’s a city on a rock with a bunch of skirt-wearing angry people” made me realize that the long held history of one-upmanship between these two towns is alive and well. But who am I to squelch healthy competition, especially when it’s to my advantage, as my recent weekend visit saw London going into operation uber charm. And charmed I was. This is my first time here during late November and the neighborhoods were in full on Dickensian festiveness, from the twinkle of holiday lights to the warmth of mulled wine huts. But perhaps romance is in the constant discovery, the novel, and new. Like a good book, you want it to continually reveal more with every read. And this visit showed me parts of itself I had never seen. The hidden stacks of the British Library, the remote village of Greenwich, the tucked away pubs among the theater district. The layers and layers of London kept unfolding in a way that makes one wonder if she will ever be completely known. Samuel Johnson knew that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” My recent romantic tryst has me fully invigorated, teetering on a full-blown commitment and giving new meaning to the proverbial “L” word.
I’ll be honest. Prior to traveling to Scotland, my knowledge of this land was mostly skewed by popular culture memes and movies: Red- headed Groundskeeper Willie, kilt-wearing Fat Bastard, entrails gutted Braveheart, and bagpipe blowing Mike Myers (“If it’s not Scottish, It’s crrrrap!”). Throw in some haggis and Scotch Whisky with some Bloody Mary Queen of Scots and Macbeth, and my strange highland stew of Scotland clearly needed a little seasoning. So when I arrived at Edinburgh station to the breathtaking view of the floodlit castle perched on a hill surrounded by majestic Gothic architecture, the flavor profile began to shift. Sure, I could have been won over by the interesting political history, the rows of charming Rose Street pubs, or the rich tartan plaids, but beyond a doubt, the reason Scotland has now secured top billing as one of my favorite places on the planet is its people. Absolutely, 100%, the people. From the moment I got into a black cab, the genuine friendliness and warmth showed itself in Hamish, my cabbie, who enthusiastically explained all the sites. Then there were Malcolm and David, the two business gents at the Cafe Royal, who gave us an invaluable education on the Scottish campaign for independence, the Scots and Gaelic languages (http://www.scotslanguage.com), and the local pub scene. All culminating at one of the funnest late night hole-in-the-wall fish and chips joints complete with broon sauce and Irn Bru (the local soft drink) indoctrination. Our highland road trip continued to lead us to ruddy cheeked George, a retired seaman who was on his way to church with his two Scottish Terriers. He happily let us play with them and take them for a short walk before he was off to pick up a couple of elderly ladies in town. But the highlight had to be Joe, an 84 year old pub owner in Craigallechie who had been tending his 6 seat neighborhood legend of a place for 50 years. He sang us songs and poems and is so beloved by the local patrons that they are all collaborating to keep the place going when he retires. If we hadn’t been leaving the next morning, we were invited to a fish fry with the Scottish salmon caught right from the river next to the pub. Needless to say, all these people not only made us feel welcome, but indeed made us feel like family. Isn’t that what anyone wants from travel to a new location? To feel a connection to the culture and its people in an intimate and meaningful way? In my incredibly short stay in Scotland, I feel as if I’ve made genuine friends, an irreplaceable souvenir that shows me the real spirit of Scotland and its culture – a spirit of pride, warmth, openness, passion, gentility, and sincerity. Hopefully some of the following pics have captured some of that same spirit as well.
A litte Robbie Burns tribute to Scotland and an appropriate and affectionate fairfaw.
“Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North,
The birth-place of Valour, the country of Worth;
Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,
The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.
Chorus.-My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart’s in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go. ” Robert Burns
As I research British writers in England, it only seems appropriate that I follow in their footsteps to the continent in search of artistic inspiration, an elixir for the rain, and an itching for adventure. Italy, and specifically Florence, in the 19th century was like Paris in the 20th, a haven for expats to explore the Italian classics and commune with other literati. The Shelleys, Byron and Scott; the Brownings, Dickens and Eliot; Henry James, Forster and Lawrence all spent time in Florence and all saw its influence on their imaginations and their writing. But whom are we kidding? The cucina Italiana, the hillside wine, and the “dolce far niente” lifestyle is probably what really kept ‘em coming back and also what lures me to Tuscany time and time again. So when my dear friend Charlotte (an Italian food importer – can you believe it!) offered to meet up in Florence, I was reminded of E.M Forster’s line from A Room with a View: “It is fate that I am here,’ George persisted, ‘but you can call it Italy if it makes you less unhappy.” What followed were five incredible days reveling in the local chianti, seasonal cooking, and fiorentini spirit – all that artists, writers, and lovers of life have been enjoying for centuries. Salute!
For more great reads on literary Firenze, check out these.
Florence and Tuscany: A Literary Guide for Travellers Ted Jones
Florence: A Literary Companion by Francis Henry King
A Room with a View E. M. (Edward Morgan) Forster
It’s just too good. I blew into the Old Smoke for a long weekend and barely inhaled a whiff of all the incredible art, food, theater, and history this city has to offer. In a word, overwhelming. Since my focus is on literary England, here are my jaunts around Dickens’ and Shakespeare’s London. Ok, perhaps with a few pubs thrown in. My cursory tour does not in the least do Dickens justice, so here are some links to give you a more thorough history (kudos to Aubrey, friend and tour guide).
I have to admit, like Jane Austen, I didn’t really love Bath at first. When I arrived, it was dumping rain and I was staying in a rather unsavory part of town trying to stay on my travel budget. The sparse room I rented was fine enough, but the loud German teenagers next door, the intermittent cold/hot shower, and sketch walk back at night left me feeling less than Miss Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. The second day culminated in absurdity when I was walking into town in the rain and a squealing pig truck blew by me leaving me in a 10 minute toxic stench, only then for me to step on a used condom. Yup. Used. Thinking the Jane Austen Centre would be a highlight pick-me-up, I was sorely disappointed to see the dilapidated cardboard cut-out displays and unenthusiastic, droning guides. And I already liked Austen! Imagine the poor sod who wasn’t a fan to begin with and got dragged there by his Regency obsessed girlfriend. Where was the Jane Austen ring so precious the entire country banned together to take it back from Kelly Clarkson? Where were all the original manuscripts? I’m guessing the Chawton House Museum is where the magic happens, and this sad-for-wear depression was a final nail in my proverbial image-of-Bath coffin. Or so I thought. Take two. In swooped Mr. Darcy in the guise of one of my best friends, Kellie, and Bath began to redeem itself. She worked her mileage points and scored us a kick-ass room at the posh Francis Hotel, the skies turned blue bird clear, and she brought her hilarious, irreverent, and zany sense of humor to the rest of our stay. The Roman Baths were a mind blow, the Bath pubs were quaint and charming, and the architecture came alive. How could this town have had such a schizophrenic showing? Was it the town that changed or me? Whatever shift Kel brought was no short of miraculous and I’m thankful for the change in perception. So here are some pics of both cities, good and bad all rolled into one bi-polar ball.
Whew! This week was heady. I just had my mind blown last night at Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, a play that somehow manages to blend chaos theory, existentialism, the time/space continuum, and literary philosophy in a cleverly wrapped 2 hours and 45 minutes (thank God for the mini ice cream cups sold during intermission, so I could regressively swing my legs in the seat and decompress for a bit). I knew Stoppard was genius in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Shakespeare in Love, but this guy’s brilliance is even more remarkable knowing he fled Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia as a kid – an amazing success story in its own right and a well-deserved honorary doctorate at Oxford this year (http://www.ox.ac.uk/staff/news/encaenia_2013.html). This week also found me at a book discussion on The Value of the Humanities by Helen Small, who, regardless of her overuse of the words “polemic,” “rhetoric,” and “fiscal discourse,” gave further insights into the reasons we should teach and study art, literature, and philosophy (not one of the least compelling being that it just makes us plain happier!). And of course my Children’s Lit course continues to blow open the limiting box I had originally put “kids” stories into, giving me much deeper and richer perspectives on what I thought were simplistic tales like Peter Rabbit and Wind in the Willows – man, was I wrong.
Perhaps this ability to shift perspectives is what I find so compelling about travel and education (two things I’ve never, ever, regretted spending money on). They change you. They change the way you see the world and the people in it. While I understand that we travel with a certain amount of metaphorical baggage and lens on the world, I think changing location and surroundings offers us a chance to strip ourselves of our old identity and see in a fresh new way. Call it the proverbial mountaintop, but my life back in San Francisco looks different when removed, when I can see the bigger picture. And speaking of pics, this week’s view on my world all seem to revolve around the idea of shifting perspectives, altering realities, and ultimately calling into question who we are…or at least who I am. Perhaps still searching, but having a ball doing so.
We’ve all felt it. That “ sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past” (Oxford English Dictionary). My own nostalgia for university life is, in many ways, the reason I became a Professor and, in many ways, why I’ve returned to campus life at Oxford during my sabbatical. The Beatles sung about it in “Yesterday,” Woody Allen scripted it in Midnight in Paris, British television even has a “Yesterday” channel. Pining for a time of idealized Edenic innocence before any knowledge of loss, separation, or death seems to be in the very fabric of human culture and condition. The Golden Age of Edwardian children’s literature speaks to this glorified time in what some have called a creation of the “cult of childhood.” King Edward VII’s reign from 1901-1910, saw an era of British patriotism, imperialism, and prosperity (especially in contrast to the two great wars which would follow in 1914), and with it, an explosion of today’s most beloved children’s classics like Peter Pan, Wind in the Willows, Peter Rabbit, Winnie the Pooh, and The Secret Garden, all reflecting and celebrating a time when life seemed simple and carefree. Aren’t we all longing to go back to Neverland, The Hundred Acre Woods, or the Secret Garden, a place in which we had none of the challenges we face in our present day – no divorce from a spouse, no death of a parent, no aching nights of quiet desperation. Robert Hemmings’ article “A Taste of Nostalgia: Children’s Books from the Golden Age–Carroll, Grahame, and Milne” argues that children’s literature is really for adults and “that the nostalgic impulse of such books is imperialist by nature. The adult is the imperialist who shapes childhood as subjugated ‘other’ with his own values and desires, and anxieties about those desires.” This microcosm of imperialism perfectly reflects the macrocosmic imperialist values that the middle and upper-middle class economically and socially benefited from during the golden age. Not surprising then that all these children’s texts are written by authors of privilege and set in middle to upper-middle class worlds. For most of us then, this idealized childhood did not exist and yet we still seem to long for it as if it were our own.
While America can relate to nostalgia in its affection for a mythical world of Norman Rockwell paintings and 1950’s idealized sitcom families, it seems the British sense of nostalgia is much more acute. Some speculate it is due to having seen war up close, on its homeland, or perhaps it’s just because England has such a long and proud history. But whatever the reason, the reverence for past in this country is everywhere. My recent visits to the Pitt Rivers Museum (an antique’s road show explosion) and the Sheldonian Theater (a veritable tomb to St. Christopher Wren) show an adoration and nostalgia for history, tradition, a time before that was somehow more grand, more perfect, and arguably more English.