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The View from my Window – a London essay February 28, 2012

Posted by markgeil in Travel.
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There are no raindrops on my window, but there should be. It’s raining outside, and cold and windy, because this is London, and it’s February, and gentlemen need a good reason to wear a cap and a tweed waistcoat. Even without raindrops, though, my view is distorted by the ripples in that grand leaded glass that seems just right for a building like this, a building that’s 250 years old.

This is my office, for two weeks at least. There is a marble fireplace, and16 footceilings, and that stately window. Outside there’s a courtyard with an old clock that always reads one minute past two and dormant ivy scaling stone walls. And more stately windows, returning the gaze of my own, of capricious sizes that suggest floors between floors.

This was all built for some chap called the 2nd Earl of Bessborough because he needed somewhere to put his sculpture collection. Someday I shall commission a Palladian villa be built to accommodate by CD collection. Now, since it’s been taken over by Roehampton University, this old villa houses students and lecterns and books.

There are books in this office on shelves that no one could possibly reach without an extension ladder. There are books on anatomy and physiology, nutrition, training… and one at the end of a middle shelf called “Football: The Beautiful Game”.

I’m tucked into a corner desk among two other professors during my visit, working at a computer that feels so dissonant. Seems I should be sipping tea and reading Shakespeare or listening to Handel. Part of travel is testing the stereotypes, which is why travel is good for you. I love the fanciful notion of old Britain, and I always hope those stereotypes prove true. For this trip, so far, so good.

I flew directly over Ireland on the way here, but the Emerald Isle was safely sheltered under a thick canopy of clouds. Finally descending through the clouds, I saw old houses in rows with little gardens, soccer and rugby fields, and grasslands where royalty surely once hunted deer. I saw the River Thames, partitioned from above by bridges far more opulent than their utility ever demanded. It was all so very British. I was delighted.

On the way to customs, aboard the moving walkway, we proceeded past a wall-sized poster of a beefeater and I saw a little girl turn, salute, and declare “Hello Solider!” in the most charming British accent I’ve ever heard. On the ride from Heathrow to the campus I saw foreboding stone walls that once separated a convent from the rest of the world.

And then I saw my office, with its crooked floors and ancient character.

I used to imagine I would find a part of myself in England, a chunk of my true character inhibited by my New World environs. When I studied for a month at Oxford I threatened to buy myself a vestigial walking cane and embrace that inner Englishman. There I’d be, a pretentious young American with his walking cane and his pocket watch traipsing the cobbled streets and feeling quite at home.

I’ve come to realize that I’m no more British than I am Chinese, and that’s okay. One can appreciate, and even participate in, a culture without the need to feel any ownership of it. I think it might even be better that way. The need to intimately identify with a people or a place can set you up for disappointment when the connection is lacking, and that disappointment can be a robber of rich experiences. So now I happily fling myself into a culture with little regard to how removed I might be from it by station or history. And it is that new rich experience that affects and shapes me.

Oh, but I do love England! And every now and then I become utterly foolish and disingenuous and ask a question of a merchant in my fake British accent. I am content, though, without a walking cane, to traverse the cobbled streets and gaze out the stately window on a place that is not home, knowing what a great privilege it is just to visit.

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London Wanderlust February 23, 2012

Posted by markgeil in Travel.
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If “wanderlust” means the desire to explore, the motivation to discover new places, the inborn courage – or foolishness – that sees a long, winding, potentially interminable and misdirected path and says “let’s just see where this might take me”… well, then, I’ve got wanderlust. Naturally, then, when a student’s computer crashed and an afternoon Skype was cancelled, I had to scratch the itch of exploration.

There is a massive “Royal Park” adjacent to campus called Richmond Park. Hundreds of deer roam its confines, and they’re even celebrities now since appearing in a viral video starring a mischievous dog named Fenton. My free afternoon happened to be adorned by bright warm sunshine, so I picked up a weird British sandwich and some biscuits and decided to head out wandering.

They bought me an “A to Zed”, which is a handy book of maps, and I found Richmond Park, and noticed it’s adjacent to another massive greenspace called Wimbledon Common. Familiar with that name, I looked a little closer and sure enough, there was the “All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club”, right there on map 135. I really have no concept for how far things are on these maps, so I decided just to head in that direction and see if I could make it. Who knows, maybe there’d be a lovely game of croquet on.

I’ve learned over time that the danger of these journeys is encountering obstacles that aren’t really apparent on the map. I hit the first such barrier at Kingston Road, which is a really more of a highway, and not an easy one to cross! Parkland beckoned on the other side, so I dashed across, only to find the pedestrian subway that I should have taken after I crossed.

On my map the parks are covered in dotted lines representing paths, and I successfully navigated my way down a dotted line to the nearest landmark, the Wimbledon Windmill. I don’t know why there’s a windmill in the park. It wasn’t turning or anything. I could have learned all about it at the adjacent “Wimbledon Windmill Museum”, but the tennis courts beckoned, and daylight was fading fast. I crossed Wimbledon Common, hiking along at a steady clip and enjoying the fresh air, and then traversed a posh neighborhood that actually had detached houses, not the typical flats-in-rows. These had Porsches and such in front of them. I figured these were the sorts of places that the tennis stars rent out for the tournament. I also wondered if these homeowners despise the annual zoo of tournament time. I wanted to interview one, but none were out. Rounding Newstead Way I got my first glimpse of the familiar green and purple of Wimbledon, just down the hill. I had made it! It was actually a stunning view, because just above the roofline of Centre Court I could make out downtown London, and the London Eye in particular.

The museum had just closed for the day, so I could do little but lap the grounds and peer through each gate. I saw Courts 2 and 3 first. They are pristine. Good grief, even Court 8 is pristine!

Then I reached some excellent views of Centre Court, which is just massive. In a large room that was part of the complex I watch an unexpected event: hordes of boys and girls, all with numbers pinned to their shirts, trying out to be ball kids. They looked well-prepared as they executed a carefully choreographed dance of standing, running, and kneeling around a pretend tennis court.

I never could find Henman Hill, but I saw lots more beautiful grass courts, and even a handful of clay and hard courts. The sun was setting as I left the complex, and apparently there was no croquet happening, so I began the journey back.

As much as I am a fan of wandering I do not like backtracking, so I found new streets and new Porsches and a new entry into the park. And so it was that I was now in a heavily wooded area, with hardly any light, and an almost useless map, delightfully lost. I pointed myself in the general direction I thought I needed to go and chose paths accordingly, until I saw lights in the distance. Wouldn’t you know it, I was back at the windmill! Wrong dotted line, apparently. No worries, I thought, I’ll head west for a while, then north, and encounter all sorts of new things. And so, westward ho!

A sliver of moon was now visible, as was a bright star above the last hint of setting sun. I decided to make like a Magi (Magus?) and follow the star as best I could, since it marked the west. I soon found myself beside a small pond, and I stopped to watch the ducks and listen to all sorts of strange bird calls. It all started to take on a certain eeriness as the last light faded. Twisty trees loomed large, and little squirrels made a racket in the leaves much larger than their size would merit. And I was all alone.

I continued hiking, feeling a lot like the hobbits in the Lord of the Rings book I’m reading right now, and wondering if Tolkien ever hiked a similar wood here in England. I reached a fork in my chosen path, and my star was right in the middle. The rightward path “felt” better, as did a left fork when the path split again. And then I noticed a curious row of small trees that seemed to form a gate where my path crossed. I wasn’t sure, but it almost looked like the trees formed a large circle, and I paused for the briefest moment at the threshold.

In the distance, at what might be the center of this circle of trees, I thought I could make out some sort of bench or monument. As I got closer, I could tell that it was indeed a monument, and my gaze followed it up, up, and I gasped. I was standing beneath a massive stone cross.

I hadn’t seen it as I approached, either because I was watching the ground or because it was too dark. There was a sword on the cross, and inscriptions around the base. The side I had approached read:

“Nature provides the best monument. The perfecting of the work must be left to the gentle hand of time, but each returning Spring will bring a fresh tribute to those whom it desired to keep in everlasting remembrance.”

Circling the stone, I better understood, reading this:

“The land around, 42 acres, is dedicated to public use in memory of all those who, having been resident or belonging to the families resident in the adjoining districts, gave their lives in the Great War, 1914-1918.”

Once I finally made it home and studied the map a bit I learned that I had inadvertently crossed into Putney Vale and chanced upon the War Memorial, erected in 1920, and the Memorial Gardens. In so doing I fortunately missed a very large Cemetery and Crematorium, which might have been too creepy for even me to bear on such a dark and lonely night.

I’ve whispered a prayer of thanks to God for sending me along the way of the cross. I set out to find tennis courts, and instead I encountered a stirring reminder of the living God in cold stone. I am far from home, and alone, but the Ancient of Days is living and moving.