Monday, 24 September 2007

Finally, a new post!

Sorry this blog kind of disappeared - I had a new idea for how to run this and then I forgot to enact it. Anyway, I am taking a class right now on Travel Writing based on Emerson's English Traits. So I am going to post what I write for that class here as it is a sample for the things I am noticing about England. (I apologize in advance for how cheesy and pretentious they can be). My first three essays are below.
In other news, I went to Bruges and Gent in Belgium this weekend with my Art History class. We saw a lot of amazing art and ate lots of Belgian waffles with Belgian chocolate sauce but the best thing we did was rent bikes and ride through the countryside to the beach.
Here are my essays if anyone is interested:

Voyage to England

Sitting on the floor of the Toronto airport trying to decide which of my belongings strewn out in front of me were worth the $10/kg overweight charge made it quite obvious that I was taking too much with me to London. I certainly had too many clothes with me and I also had too many thoughts in my head about what London was going to be like and how this semester was going to work. I needed to make room for new experiences and let things happen as they came my way. I’d definitely messed up the ‘travel lightly’ concept with my clothes (I now had on three shirts, a jacket, my heaviest pair of jeans and a skirt over them), but I was determined to at least travel lightly with my mind and leave it open to new things.
The first thing I did that was very un-Leda-like was randomly talk to someone I didn’t know. Waiting for the plane to board, I played cards with this guy named Nick who was also a university student going abroad for a semester. This is what being on a trip to Europe is about, I thought. While I was still wearing three layers of clothes, I was at least doing a good job of meeting new people and going with the flow.
The seven-hour flight to London seemed short for me, a Foreign Service brat who has been flying since she was eight months old. Compared to Malaysia and Nepal, I believed that England would basically be the same country as Canada and the States. Looking out my window at the polygonal fields I realized how different it would be. The first difference (and what would prove to be in the most challenging difference) between England and the Midwest would be its lack of a grid system. The early development of England long before the cultivation of Iowa means that the streets feel different here. London is more like Kuala Lumpur than Canada sometimes. Being a recent British colony, the layout of Malaysian streets follows a British system and the street signs use the same font. When I walk into a grocery store or a stationary store, I see the same things that they sell in little tiny grocery stores in Malaysia. The large supermarkets of Canada and the States are nowhere to be found in central London and my ideas that this city was going to be exactly like Toronto needed to be left behind.
Dragging my 35kgs of luggage around the train station at the airport, things seemed immediately British. I was given directions by a man sweeping the platform with a distinctly cockney accent, the ethnicities of people on the train platform showed immigration patterns different from that of North America, the steep tiled roofs of the houses whizzing by the train looked like something out of Little Whinging in Harry Potter. London seems to be a mix of all the cities I have visited in the world. It is culturally similar to North America, it heavily influenced parts of Asia, and it is certainly European. This city cannot fit into any of the prescribe boxes I was trying to put it in. Those needed to be left behind.

“I’m Late, I’m Late, for a very important date”

Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit is certainly an English creation. Americans, and especially Grinnellians, don’t panic that much at the thought of being late. Since I’ve been in England, I’ve noticed that the English have an amazing ability to be on time.
At Grinnell, it’s expected that if you are supposed to meet your friend at the dining hall at 5:30, you don’t really have to show up until 5:45. In London, however, if a tour for my class starts at 9:00, we will leave at 9:00. All the plays I have been to start exactly on time, and the tube announces when trains will be even a few minutes later than expected. All of this in a city where it is logistically much harder to be on time.
In Grinnell there is only one possible logistical reason for being late, that the train came through campus and you got stuck on the other side for less than three minutes. In London, the problems are endless – the tube can shut down for days, sidewalks can be closed for construction, the traffic is usually horrendous, or (as I find everyday) you can easily get lost in this city of winding streets. Nevertheless, Londoners always manage to be on time.
Last week in London, there was a tube strike where quite a few major lines on the subway system were shut down. People waited to get on buses that would past without stopping because they were too full, making it nearly impossible to get anywhere. Still, Londoners managed to be on time. Everyone was seated in his or her seat at the theatre at least 5 minutes before curtain, and my classes started precisely on the dot.
I visited Greenwich, the home of the Prime Meridian and Greenwich Mean Time, last week and they have a whole museum dedicated to clocks. Our English tour guide proudly pointed out that the British Empire was built on the ability for ship’s captains to know exactly what time it was, and therefore navigate the oceans of the world. The museum’s pride and joy was a clock that is accurate to the second every ten years. The English certainly care about time.
I came to England expecting to see a bunch of quintessential ‘Englishmen’ like Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins singing, “I run my home precisely on schedule/At 6:01, I march through my door/My slippers, sherry, and pipe are due at 6:02/Consistent is the life I lead!” Instead, I saw a culturally diverse group of people on the street. Almost no one wears pocket watches (I did see one man on a bicycle with a pocket watch in his vest one day), but everyone has this amazing ability in common – the ability to be on time.
In Grinnell, we are late all the time with no excuse except that possibly the train came through campus. In London, the tube can shut down and all sorts of problems can crop out but the English persevere and run their homes “precisely on schedule”.

Truth, Fervor, and Civility at Speaker’s Corner

In English Traits, Ralph Waldo Emerson claims that the English hold very strong options and are highly concerned with the quest for truth. Upon my visit to England in 2007, I decided to test how these theories hold out by visiting an ever changing, but yet traditional event – Speaker’s Corner.
Today, Speaker’s Corner is full of religious fundamentalists and political activists. Upon my visit on one Sunday afternoon, I was bombarded with a white supremacist, Christian and Islamic fundamentalists, a Syrian activist, and Iraq War protesters. These Brits I discovered on soapboxes at Speaker’s Corner certainly had strong options and were incredibly concerned with the truth (or their version of it). Even groups comprised of recent immigrants held up Emerson’s notions of opinioned Brits. However, it is not fair to make conclusions about the entire English people based upon the lunatic ravings of the people I found at Speaker’s Corner. What could I then take from this experience? The English trait that surprised me at Speaker’s Corner was the civility with which the English viewed this discourse.
At Speaker’s Corner the fervor in the speakers’ eyes and the way they spoke was a kind of passionate intensity I had never seen up close before. Men were confronting each other with opposing opinions and yelling their version of the truth right in each other’s faces. However, there was no hint of a move towards physical violence, everything seemed constrained by these unspoken rules of civility. Not once did anyone push anyone else, nor have I heard of Speaker’s Corner becoming a place where these beliefs ever get physical.
Visitors to Speaker’s Corner approached the speakers on their soapboxes and questioned them. These interactions, while heated, had an air of reflective discourse about them. People, even those with unwavering fundamentalist opinions, were happy to discuss their views with the public in the tradition of English civil debate.
The British political system is based on a system where people yell at each other in a polite and formalized forum. Parliament is simply a structured forum for yelling your opinions at other people. Persuasive speeches and angry heckles live within a system of ‘Right Honorable Members’ and ‘Madame Speakers’.
The English character is a fascinating combination of intense opinions and polite rituals. In England you can yell and scream, threaten people with hell, tell them to go back to their own country, and say basically whatever you want as long. These English rules of polite, formalized debate keep everything quite civilized.

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Day 2 of Classes

The other thing I forgot to write about was that I went to the Notting Hill Carnival, which is the biggest carnival in Europe. It's like Carabaana in Toronto but way bigger. The streets were packed and the music was really loud but it was a lot of fun and the costumes in the parade were amazing. Today on my 3 hour lunch break between classes I:
1) Went to Covent Garden but was really disappointed that the entrance to the opera house was not on the actual square. So either they have changed everything or the whole set up of My Fair Lady is a lie. I wanted to find the pillar Henry Higgins sits behind but no luck. :(
2) Walked around the theatre district - it really is amazing how many big shows are right there at once. I'm definitely going to Avenue Q and I'm trying to find out if there are any crazy cheap bargains so I can go to more. Tonight is my first night at the theatre, I am going to Rafta Rafta with the program. It's at the National Theatre and it's about a comedy about a British-Indian family.
3) Did a few rooms in the Egypt and Ancient Greece collections at the British Museum. It took me an hour to do 4 small rooms, so my British museum exploration may be epic!
In other news, I have changed classes. As long as the switch goes well, I am no longer in Ethno-National Conflict and am in Travel, Writing, and English Traits taught by the head of Oberlin's English Dept and focuses on Ralph Emerson.

First few days in London

Hi! Welcome to my blog. If I do not become overwhelmed with homework and fun things to do I will update here about the things I do in London. My first day of classes was today - I had two of them and I have two more tomorrow. So far they seem interesting. The best part of today though was my trip to the British Museum. It is only a 2 minute walk away from where I have class so between class I went and saw, amongst other things, the Rosetta Stone, an Easter Island statue, a whole bunch of mummies, and a huge ancient Greek vase once owned by Napoleon! Since the museum is free, I've decided that I am going to go there everyday between classes so I can see everything in small doses. I think tomorrow might be Ancient Greece day. When I woke up early this morning (at 9:00) I went for a walk around my neighborhood and bought school supplies- it's so cool to live right downtown!
That's all for now - I'm off to bed since I have class at 8:45 tomorrow.