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Montaigne's Tower

London Semester Journal 2008

During the winter of 2008 I served as the Resident Director of California State University Fullerton's London Semester and posted a blog about culture shock and transformation as experienced by fifty students from CSU Fullerton and CSU Long Beach. I'm reposting the blog in the form of a weekly journal with three primary audiences in mind: existing students; future students (those who want to know what the experience was like, and who would like some evidence to gauge whether or not the program is worth the expense); and also an imagined audience of readers who enjoy travelogues—who view them as philosophical, literary, and personal journeys of discovery.

Week 1: January 7-13, 2008
The Pre-Tour and Arrival in London

Every journey should start with a disaster. That way, you’re prepared for anything and don’t take ease for granted. You are grateful when schedules are kept, trains come on time (or at all), and ankles aren’t sprained. You are surprised by the diversity of life rather than annoyed by its complexity. That is, after all, the whole point of traveling. If you don’t want to be surprised, challenged, or stunned by the unknown, stay home.
Our journey to London starts with a disaster. The plane that is supposed to take us from LAX to Chicago has mechanical troubles, and we are delayed for four hours. One by one we find each other (by the bright yellow AIFS tags on our luggage, or by looking like people going to London--who knows how fellow travelers find each other?)—the group of students from Cal State Fullerton and Cal State Long Beach that are taking the pre-tour to Paris, Bruges, and Brussels. While waiting we tell each other travel horror stories and feel better (This is nothing compared with THAT), and doze from the adrenalin high of rushing and then having to wait.
We should have missed our connecting flight in Chicago, but I guess the thought of putting such a large group up for the night in Chicago is worse than inconveniencing a hundred other passengers; the flight waits for us. We stumble blearily onto the plane after dashing through O’Hare’s gargantuan halls, and immediately take off. My first thought, after relief, is: What about the luggage? (After years of travel, you learn one simple rule: never leave home with anything heavier than a toothbrush, a notebook, and a ballpoint pen.)
My second thought is: Who cares? We’re off to Paris. We all made it. And the disaster helped to bring people together. It also revealed our character traits: the Lone Wolf (who kept wandering off by himself); the Complainer (who expressed vocally all the worries everyone else probably had); the Organizer (who, by the time we left LAX, had arranged for all the students staying in the apartments to get together for a communal wash/study day at the local laundromat). Of all the potentially traumatic cultural differences, the high cost of doing laundry is what seems to worry the students most. Also, there are ugly rumors about the poor quality of bathing opportunities. I tell them that there are ugly rumors about Americans in Europe: that they take long showers and hog the bathroom; that they are loud; that they are too happy.
One student looks worried and asks, “You’re joking, right?”
That’s why it’s so important to travel. You can’t tell people things; it has to hit them between the eyes.
A miracle: not only do we arrive safely in Paris but our luggage does too. The relief on students’ faces, as we wait in a foreign airport surrounded by people who look sort of like us but different (sleeker, more polished, rather like otters vs. drowned puppies), not knowing if we’ll be met, is palpable. Things! When we touch them, we are touching ourselves. Some of the students have brought too many bags; not only are they charged extra, but it makes traveling uncomfortable. Weighed down, anxious about keeping track, they miss a lot of the surroundings; and they are turned even more inward with their heavy layering of technology—their cell phones, ipods, laptops, electronic books and even an occasional real book (well, okay, most of the books are textbooks, but one student brings along for “light reading” Voltaire’s Candide. Sometimes I have hope for the future of the past).
A second miracle: AIFS, the organization handling the students’ experience in Europe, is at the airport to meet us in the form of a handsome young man named Peter who, although only 23, has just come to work for AIFS from a similar job in South America. He speaks Spanish, French, the usual European etcetera. Although some of the students arriving on their own have to maneuver the taxis or the Paris Metro by themselves, we have taken the group flight and are pampered. I notice how happy the students are now with simple things. They cheer when the first piece of luggage shows up; they are relieved when Peter leads them to a bus. After a disaster, you no longer take things for granted—the first important step in the transformative process of cross-cultural experience.
A bus takes us to the Mercury Hotel right beside the Gare du Lyon (one of the many monumental train stations in Paris), an incredibly convenient hotel within view of the Bastille monument, its gold statue twinkling in the clear sky down one of the spokes that branches out from the train station. At the hotel we meet Jen, our primary AIFS guide for the tour as well as the person who will live with the students once they get to their digs in London. They take to her immediately. She gives the students survival tips: watch out for pickpockets; leave your passport in your room; tip 10%; don’t look like a tourist. She teaches the students a few of the basic phrases, of which the most important is “Pardon.” They listen, but the more serious form of culture shock is in living arrangements: they must share rooms. Those who shared the disaster of the delayed flight at LAX adjust easily; but those who came on their own are like new dogs that have to be sniffed and vetted before being allowed into the pack. There are murmurings. But the next cultural jolt—a clever AIFS maneuver--bonds everyone together.
Jen gives everyone a Metro ticket but says they’re on their own after that. The Metro ticket gets us to Pont Neuf where we were told we would have dinner before catching an evening boat ride down the Seine; but once reaching the bridge where we are to meet to go on the bus ride, she sends us off to find our own dinner. There is palpable shock at being turned loose in a big city in which suddenly WE are the ones speaking a foreign language. Where to go? How to order? What are the rules? Mommy!
Shakily, forming small groups or taking off on their own (the Lone Wolf), they break loose reluctantly from the collective hoard, cross the street, and disappear down narrow alleys lined with shops and cafes. The streets are labyrinthine, non-parallel. I join up with two students, and we try to locate the Pantheon (where Victor Hugo, the Curies, and the inventor of Braille are buried), for which there are many signs, but we never find it; but along the way we find a church hung with gargoyles, and a plaque and sculpture portrait of Gabriel Garcia Marquez; we sit outside a café, French-style, eating cheese, legume soup, salad with lardoons (crispy ham bits).
A third miracle: we all manage to find our way back to the bridge. As we walk along the Seine (cobblestones; yellow lights and dark shadows; a man walking his dog), I listen to the students talking. Can’t you just imagine Jason Bourne running along here? I’m afraid to use the hair dryer in my room. Why doesn’t MacDonald’s have lettuce and tomato on their hamburgers? My boyfriend didn’t want me to come on this trip.
We head down the Seine. Lights and shadows in the water; huge buildings like French ladies, going for height and a cool grandeur; bridges with separate personalities and histories; the Eiffel Tower sparkling, dressed in gold lame. The cold air off the water reminds them that what constitutes “cold” in California is inadequate preparation for a European winter; they need gloves, hat, warmer layers. But they forget the cold as they haul out their expensive gadgets for capturing the moment. Their cameras are complex and their images beautiful. Do they know what this or that building is? Not necessarily, but they’ve got a great picture of it.
Afterwards we walk back to the Metro, and Jen suggests that they share expenses by buying a “carnet,” or set of ten tickets. After a moment of shock, they begin to form alliances. It is difficult to move en mass through a crowded underground, but they manage; and when one of the student’s tickets doesn’t work, they don’t abandon her. They cluster around on the other side of the barrier, hand over their own extra tickets, share. What a concept.
A coach picks us up for a morning tour of Paris. We hit the usual highlights (the Pantheon—at last!—Napoleon’s tomb), but we also learn about the Shakespeare and Co. bookstore, owned by an eccentric Englishman who keeps dozens of cats and takes in impoverished backpackers; why policemen are called “chickens”; that Hemingway strangled pigeons in Luxembourg Gardens for his dinner; that, like pieces of the true cross, Napoleon’s penis keeps turning up for sale. We all stand on the bronze star outside Notre Dame (one of the many gold stars throughout Paris that mark the old meridian that was eventually replaced by Greenwich) and learn that if we make a wish, we will always come home to Paris. While the students stream into the cathedral or off in search of crepes, I watch as, one after another, French families take pictures of their young sons and daughters standing on the star (are they leaving for university or travel abroad?). The young people standing on the star close their eyes; they are focused on the solid ground beneath their feet, and I can almost see a magnetic line of force linked from the star to their feet as they shake themselves and walk off. Dorothy clapping together her ruby slippers. I want to go home.
We have some time before the bus leaves for Bruges. I overhear one student say, “I’ve had my adventure; I want to go home.” Another sits down for an éclair and an espresso and writes on a postcard, “I will never again drink Starbuck’s coffee or eat a Dunkin’ Donut.” As we get on the bus for Bruges, one student asks another, “What did you like best about Paris?” and gets the answer, “The cheese.”
On the bus, the students haul out their technology. Although the bus has a DVD player, it won’t play American DVDs (thank god). Two students share earphones and play chess on a laptop. I lean against the glass and watch the graffiti and the names of the many trucks (Grimonprez, Cheveaux, Marck Schubel, Transports Internationaux, Clement Logistyka), and notice that the paintings in the Louvre showed skies the same color as the skies I’m now watching—a kind of pastel blue with cotton-puff clouds. We pass the sign for Disneyland. Jen says that in northwest England, where she comes from, they have Camelot. The driver of our bus pays forty Euro to drive a stretch of tollway.
We arrive after four hours in the small, medieval town of Bruges. After checking into a chain hotel (Ibis), which is clean, streamlinedly modern, and totally out of keeping with the surrounding architecture, we go on a walking tour with our guide, Eric. He is low-key, efficient, serious in demeanor, and tells few jokes. I notice that the plane trees (as in Paris, referred to as the “lungs” of the city) are severely clipped and tied in horizontal lines (these are Germanic lungs). Eric would prefer to stick to his agenda but waits tolerantly as the students stop every few feet to take photographs. I realize that his sense of humor is alive and well (if Germanically subdued) when he says quietly, “Now I will talk to you about what you have photographed.” The humor runs like fine gold beneath the concrete exterior. “We have 25,000 in Bruges, but in the summer 3 million because of tourists. Why do they come? Because we were too poor to industrialize, and therefore we didn’t get bombed. Yesterday our medievalism and poverty seemed archaic, and we were ashamed of it. Today we are rich, simply because we didn’t change.”
Bruges was an important place of pilgrimage. “Our knights went on crusades, and came back with pieces of the true cross, a drop of Christ’s blood, a drop of Mary’s milk. If all these pieces and drops from around the world were joined together, we would have a forest of trees, and a river of blood and milk.”
Pilgrims came from all over and stayed in the Hospital (a place of hospitality), and if they were lucky they had to share a bed with only one or two other people, and none of these people were sick. “And if they were really lucky, they came on one of the two days a year when they washed the sheets.”
I ask what language would have been spoken in Belgium during the 11th century. “The common people would have spoken medieval Dutch; the clergy, of course, spoke Latin, and the nobility spoke French.” I ask what money they would have used at this time. “They used pounds, which had the same units as the English monetary system before they went metric.” Eric adds, “The French, of course, used the ecu.” I suddenly remember that when the European Union was formed in 1992, the original plan was to use the Ecu as the European “dollar.” During what culturally significant political battle had the Ecu succumbed to the Euro?
The group is beginning to divide itself into the matutinophiles and matutinophobes (those who rise early or late). Some students stay late in the hotel bar (24-hour service; the staff go to bed when the patrons do); when I leave the bar they are, amazingly, still together as a group rather than split up, and they are playing a group game that involves holding up ten fingers and taking turns naming things they hadn’t done (“I’ve never eaten meat”; “I’ve never ridden a bicycle”; “I’ve never had a one-night stand”), the person with fingers still held up winning the game. They have also been playing communal word-games on the bus. Another group of American students sulks in a corner playing card games, reminding us of how well we get along. The students take this for granted; I think, “How lucky we are.”
I want to hire a boat, but learn they are closed in January. I see several boats along the canal, and watch as they throw a grappling hook into the water and come up with a bicycle; two; seven altogether as they turn a corner. Why would people throw bikes into a canal? I wonder how often the garbage collectors find bones among the trawled debris of the canals. (“Finger bones of Christ!”)
We gather on the bus at noon. Some of the students are very groggy, others invigorated. Some managed shopping in the morning—lace; postcards; a chocolate penis. We pass green fields filled with short-legged, long-haired, thick-bodied horses. The driver broadcasts the radio, and the language sounds like a mixture of French and German. We enter the mega-sprawl of Brussels—as large in geographical area as Paris but with half the population; expanding rapidly because of the EU; stuffed with Eurocrats. After we check into our Novotel (another chain, this one with red tones and a basement spa), we hop on the bus for another tour. Our guide is funny, self-deprecating, a master of the strange sound “phfft” (used with the words “stupid” or “dumber”). We learn that Belgium has 10 million people, speaks 3 languages, has five political parties and no guns. Like Paris, it has a river called Seine, which was covered up after an outbreak of cholera in the 19th century. Because Belgium produces so many comic strips, 33 comic strip murals have been painted on walls (we pass Tin Tin and his dog). “Our beer is better than Dutch. We expelled the Dutch. Before we were Dutch, we were French, and before them Austrian, before them British. Only Portugal and Russia haven’t invaded. Phfft.”
Belgians must attend school until they are eighteen; can drink beer when they are thirteen/fourteen but not whisky until they are eighteen (phfft). Taxes are 50% but cover school, social security, health care. A student asks about energy sources. “Nuclear plants. We built them near the Dutch border, just in case. The French build theirs near the Belgian border. Phfft.”
I ask if he varies his tour in relation to his audience. He says that Americans are especially interested in economics, the British in the Belgian royal family (King Leopold was an uncle of Queen Victoria). The French prefer folklore, food, and Belgian jokes. He proceeds to tell me an elephant joke (Why is an elephant gray and wrinkled?—because if it were white and smooth, it would be an aspirin). I grew up with elephant jokes (Why did the elephant wear blue tennis shoes?—because his green ones were in the wash). Was I using a humorous motif that came all the way from Belgium? Where do jokes start?
Every beer has its own special glass. “If you go to a place that uses the wrong glass, walk out. They don’t know what they’re doing. Phfft.” He smiles. “We are always partying. Why is that? Belgium is always the battleground. Between the French and the Dutch. We have Waterloo, the Battle of the Bulge, all major battles. Belgium is a crossroads for battles, languages, cultures. What else can we do but laugh? Phfft.”
In store windows, fountains run with chocolate.
We catch the Eurostar to London and pass from sun to rain. Students are taken by van to student apartments, or to the AIFS office on Malet Street in Bloomsbury until they can be taken by taxi to their home stays.
The next morning we gather at the Student Union (ULU) for orientation, followed by a bus and walking tour of London. We head through the theatre district, over to Buckingham Palace and Westminster, then across to south London, where we visit the new Tate Modern (in an old factory) and the Globe (built by an American, Sam Wannamaker, who couldn’t believe the English didn’t have a shrine for the sacred Shakespeare). We walk across the Millennium Bridge to St. Paul’s Cathedral, where we catch the bus home.
Free day on Sunday. I practice riding buses and visit the British Museum to look at the exhibit on the Atlantic Slave Trade that my class will be visiting (how incredible that this resource is just down the street from our classroom). I eat lunch at Wagamama’s, a chain of Asian Noodle restaurants where you sit at long tables, community-style. I wander in and out of narrow lanes, and sit outside in the crisp wind to eat a delicious pastry at Maisson Berteaux on Greek Street in Soho. A very skinny teenager, wearing only a shirt and a scraggly beard, begs for change. I offer to buy him a pastry but he walks off, disgusted.
The cost of food varies enormously in London. A sandwich shop near the university sells sandwiches and soup for less than two pounds. A restaurant at the top of London’s tallest office building has meals for several hundred pounds. I stop to read the menu of “Richard Corrigan at Lindsay House (Restaurant and Private Dining Room)”. For fifty-six pounds you can get a starter of frog legs sautéed with Herb Gnocchi and Watercress Puree, an entre of Monkfish with Octopus Daube, and a choice of Farmhouse Cheese from Our Islands, or Cheesecake with Clementine Marmalade, Cranberries, and Hot Nuts.
I head for Trafalgar Square to catch Evensong at St.-Martins-in-the-Field, but am waylaid by the celebration of the Russian New Year. Trafalgar Square is packed with people watching a Russian rock concert. I get around the square by going through the National Museum, and get caught by a public art project in which the public is asked to vote on five choices for a plinth in Trafalgar Square. One entry is by Antony Gormley, who did the beautiful figure walking on water in the underground crypt at Winchester Cathedral, as well as the Angel of the North. He proposes having one person an hour stand on the plinth and do whatever they want to do, 24 hours a day, for a whole year. The public is invited to write or record their views about public art, and their choice; and the area is mobbed with people eager to do so.
I make it to St.-Martins-in-the-Field in time, and bathe my ears in the sound of harmony. Afterwards I step out of the pew and, not realizing there is a step, go sprawling in front of the altar, giving my ankle a twist and my ego a blow. American tourist, phfft.

Week 2: January 14-20, 2008
Settling into London, Day Trip to Bath
Ankle too painful to walk, so I missed the first British Life and Culture class, which apparently was a fantastic overview of London.
I take the day to get acquainted with my flat, Marquess House in Islington, owned by Tom Berger, an American professor of Shakespeare. I love the flat. It’s roomy and well equipped, not only with all the necessities of mundane living (sheets, towels, kitchenware) but with touches of the sublime—a view of gardens, an old church, interesting art work on the walls, and a wonderful library. I have chosen to sleep in the study under the poster of Shakespeare painted in yellow, red, blue, and gray from a 1986 Shakespeare conference in Berlin, and the bookshelves there are filled with books by and about Shakespeare. I leave the large master bedroom, which has no books (but two windows with great views), for guests. The artwork on the walls is diverse and interesting, from medieval sea charts to theatre posters. But most of all I love the books—not just the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays in the study and the travel books in the hallway, but the two bookcases in the living room. Instead of Da Vinci Code, John Grisham, and Steven King, I find, in alphabetical order, Jane Austen, William Boyd, Angela Carter, Margaret Drabble, Kazuo Ishiguro, Doris Lessing…and am happy to sit down and ignore my ankle with the help of Julian Barnes’ History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters.
That night I dream that an American girl goes to a bookstore and asks if they have a translation of Shakespeare. The clerk asks, “A translation into what language?” “English,” she replies.
The next day my ankle still sore but mending. I strap it to go to class, and after class head home to rest it before meeting the students at the play, “Cinderella,” at the Old Vic. We are up next to the rafters, at an angle; but we can see and hear Stephen Fry’s wry takeoff. The humor would be rated R in America; here, it’s a performance for both children and adults. We clap, we shout, we get up and down. The audience is part of the play.
The next day I go down to the Leicester Square Theatre Booth and get a ticket for Ackroyd’s “Absurd Person Singular,” and then head for the Tate Modern. I take the bus to King’s Cross and the tube to St. Paul’s, and walk over the Millennium Bridge. Doris Salcedo’s “Shibboleth” (a crack along the length of Turbine Hall) is too intellectual; I am more moved by the double row of birch trees planted outside the Tate, which create a sense of arctic beauty outside the stern brick façade. A Wood comes to the Bankside Power Station. When I walk back across the Millennium Bridge, the sky is a rich dark purple, opaque like poster paper, a backdrop for St. Paul’s floodlit, battered whiteness.
I’m back in time for the 7:45 PM opening of “Absurd Person Singular” at the Garrick. The seats are too narrow, I can’t see around the head in front of me, and my knees are wedged against the row in front of me; but the play crackles with class humor.
The AIFS event scheduled for Thursday night is a trip to Bangla City, Brick Lane, past Christ Church (after which “Whitechapel” of Jack-the-Ripper fame gets its name). We all meet at the top of the escalators at Liverpool Station and walk to an Indian restaurant, a narrow building occupying several stories. We climb the stairs to the second floor and our table takes up most of the space. The food is less spicy and more expensive than “Little India” on Pioneer Boulevard in Bellflower, to which most of them have gone. The price of the pappadoms is especially shocking—a pound apiece. But the company is good.
Unable to sleep, I finish Margaret Atwood’s book, The Handmaid’s Tale, a chilling and horribly believable tale in which society’s control of reproduction takes precedence over individual rights. How easily society can change.
Friday, I go with the students on the AIFS Day trip to Bath in the rain. Nigel from Kent is our guide, a man who spent almost 30 years as a policeman. He describes his training as a Blue Badge Guide, but most of us are more interested in his training as a policeman. What’s it like to be one of almost 35,000 policemen in a city like London, when you can’t wear a gun? We learn about the 12 armed vehicle units that cruise the city, ready to respond to calls, and about the anti-terrorism units that carry machine guns (“In this green and pleasant land, why do we need guns?”). We learn that crime rates are down, in part because London is subject to extensive camera surveillance (but what about privacy, the students ask, and I remember the Official Secrets Act that always haunted officials when discussing crofting) (and why in the world would CROFTING, of all inoffensive activities, be affected by the Official Secrets Act?). He trained in Peel House (Robert Peel is the man who started the police), a thirteen-week course followed by six months station observation, then two years on probation patrol. A policeman has to work for 30 years to retire with a pension worth 2/3 of his pay. Shortly before he reached this age, Nigel got hit on the side of the head in a pub fight and developed night epilepsy (he has seizures only during the night), and decided to retire with a combination of regular and medical pension. He says that many policeman use their retirement as “a license to drink,” but he didn’t want to do that, so he became a Blue Badge Guide (I hear the pride, the pleasure, in his accomplishments—what a change, after almost thirty years of being an object of fear and distrust as “the copper,” “the pig,” “the bill”).
As we travel west, Nigel points out the neighborhoods—Earl’s Court that was “flooded with Aussies and New Zealanders” (“the Scots settled north of London”), now a neighborhood occupied by Arabs. We pass Heathrow, built in the 50s; a road was punched through on a track already well traveled, because this was the road to Bath once traveled by the Romans. It would have taken a week for the Romans to march from London to Bath. The airport used the abundant gravel laid down in the flood valley of the river Thames, leaving giant pits that gradually filled with water and are now recreation spots.
The town of Bath lies in the valley of the river Avon (not Shakespeare’s Avon; there are many rivers called Avon, perhaps because the name means “river” in Celtic), benefiting from the hot springs that well up from below. According to radiocarbon dates, water from the River Avon began to trickle down through limestone about 10,000 years ago. When it reached 2700 meters, the intense heat and pressure within the earth’s crust forced it back up. It flows out of the hot springs at a rate of 13 liters per second, or a quarter of a million gallons of 120-degree (Fahrenheit) hot water per day. Do sacred sites occur at places of great danger or beauty? The Celts used it long before the Romans came, calling it Sulus (the equivalent of Rome’s Minerva, goddess of wisdom). The Romans combined the Celtic and Roman names, and gave Bath the name Aquae-Sulus or Sulis Minerva, a holy reservoir that was soon organized, Roman-style, from tepid to strong heat to cold (the frigidarium sealed the pores). Soap wasn’t used (the Celts invented soap—a detail he doesn’t mention); the body was oiled, the oil scraped off. Standing in the dank display with its metallic fumes, it is easy to imagine the Romans sweating, oiled, withdrawing to alcoves in the baths to conduct business.
I am particularly interested in the Roman practice of scratching curses with a stylus onto pewter or lead and dropping them into the springs (the names are Christian, Celtic, Roman, some 150 names cursed for trivial things, like stealing two gloves, a bracelet, six silver coins, a Vllbia—whatever that is). The letters are reversed and the pewter or lead is folded over, for the eyes of the goddess alone.
As we walk through spitting rain, we imagine men and woman in strict dress code (men wore swords, and women weren’t allowed to wear aprons); Beau Nash being carried, wrapped in itching broadcloth, in a sedan chair from the baths; Jane Austen penning her distaste for social backbiting (Persuasion; Northanger Abbey); Oliver King leaving his name on the abbey he designed (a rebus of an olive tree with a crown); the Freemasons inserting their designs into the city (like the crescent and green in the shape of a key). We learn that Johnny Depp owns one of the houses in the Royal Terrace Crescent (the first example of crescent architecture in Britain). “He paid only four million pounds. The most expensive house in Britain sold recently for sixty-seven million.”
I haven’t mentioned another indulgence associated with the flat—a wonderful young woman named Daiva who comes in every two weeks to do housecleaning. I meet her for the first time when I’m just putting in a second load of laundry. “Don’t worry!” she says enthusiastically. “I do!” I leave the flat to get out of her way, but when I return, the flat is filled with the smell of damp clothes, and I see that she has draped all the laundry over the radiators. I get a sinking feeling. Is the dryer broken? I discover that she suffers from the European delusion that dryers are servants of the devil. “Is better to let clothes dry naturally.”
She did, however, iron my shirt.

Week 3: January 21-27, 2008
Much Ado About Nothing, including Magic Rings

On Monday, Bob Craig continues his introduction to London, with slides. I am struck once again by the importance of the Thames. After the fire of 1666, Christopher Wren drew up plans to turn London into a city with vast boulevards and organized neighborhoods—like Paris or Lisbon. But the merchants wanted to rebuild immediately. The same footpaths and mish-mosh housing emerged, this time of stone. That’s what gives modern London its messy streets that require taxi drivers to spend two years learning “the knowledge” (even GPS hasn’t displaced them).
At 1:45 we meet at the Westminster Tube Exit #4 under Big Ben. It is raining. The Guardian is selling newspapers for 50 p. with a free umbrella. We head for the south bank in the proper manner—by boat (but not the small skiffs of the oarsmen, but in a modern boat with bar, skylights, and toilet). We stand outside the Globe in a cold wind and spitting rain. We learn that the Globe has room for 3,000 people, which convinces me that Shakespeare was more of an entrepreneur than I had realized. We walk on to the site of the Rose theatre, where Shakespeare first saw London plays and what great actors could do. The original playhouses were hotels: horseshoe-shaped structures into which carriages could be driven; stages were erected, and people could watch from the balconies of their rooms, or stand out in the courtyard around the stage. The actors spoke directly to the audience. No “fourth wall”—a modern fiction. In Shakespeare’s time, the audience was incorporated in the action.
We continue on our walk, past the bull-baiting ring and the “stews” (prostitutes soaking in hot tubs, waiting, like lobsters, to be picked out by their clients), and pause beside murals on the wall showing the smoking of tobacco. “When the tide’s down, you can walk on the riverbed and pick up the stems of old clay pipes in which tobacco was sold.” The pipes were thrown into the river after they were used. As the price of tobacco went down, the pipes got bigger.
After walking past the prison called Clink, and the gibbet where bodies soaked in tar were left to rot and drip on the walkers below, we see the Golden Hinde (Sir Francis Drake’s ship) and the church where Shakespeare’s brother was buried. After the tour I walk back along the Thames. The giant spider is being dismantled in front of the Tate. I notice that the tide is out, and go down the steps and over to the river bed where I find, in great profusion, the stems of old pipes, large and small, and a great quantity of red tile glazed with white.
The next day I share my finds from the Thames, and one student says, “Shakespeare might have smoked that pipe!” One of the bowls has the imprint of a crown.
That night we attend another AIFS optional play, “Much Ado about Nothing,” at the National Theatre. I have found a bus that goes from my door to the theatre, and get there half an hour early. I wander through the open spaces, buy some postcards of Shakespeare’s head constructed from the titles of his plays, and look over the Thames. The tide is out along the Queen’s Walk, but it is too dark to look for pipes and tiles.
For some reason I always forget the plot of “Much Ado about Nothing.” I think this has to do with the title. Couldn’t Shakespeare have called it something else? It’s a modest title for a scintillating play (on the other hand, the original name for Henry VII was “All is True”). The stage setting is ingenious—slatted wood that creates barriers but doesn’t interfere with vision from three directions. Benedick sneaks from one semi-barrier to another listening to the conversation he is intended to hear. A swimming pool is introduced (which, like a loaded gun, you assume will be used—but when and how?). When Benedict jumps (to surprised applause) into the pool to avoid detection, he is a gnome, a scruffy sprite, an echo of “Gilroy was Here” as he peers over the edge of the pool. The plot is complex but well spun. The actors take their time. The production is three hours long, and we are spellbound throughout it. I give away my Shakespeare postcards to the students, who are intrigued by the design. Michael: “I wish I’d gotten more AIFS tickets. I never expected Shakespeare to be like this. I came out of a sense of duty—you know, Shakespeare in London.” Shakespeare made accessible!
After class I take the tube to Embankment, walk over the Hungerford bridge, buy more Shakespeare cards from the National Theatre to replace the ones I gave to the students. The tide covers the river bed. I walk back to Leicester Square and buy a ticket to “Shadowlands” with Charles Dance. Dance is a kind of quintessential Englishman, tall and fair-haired, rugged-jaws, stiff upper lip, eyes of liquid light. I last saw him in the excellent BBC production of Jewel in the Crown. I walk through Covent Garden but have no desire to buy anything except Underground notebooks from the London Transport Museum, but they no longer make them, and I leave emptyhanded. Everything looks tinny and plastic now. Outside, a huckster clown persuades a crowd to cheer and yell about nothing, which causes more people gather to see what’s going on. I walk down Charing Cross Road, in and out of bookstores. I buy Neil Gaiman’s book, Neverwhere, a fantasy set in the London Underground.
I find the restaurant, Belgo, tucked into narrow Shelton Lane around the corner from Cambridge Theatre where “Chicago” is playing. They have a new device: the price determined by what time you go in (between 5 and 6:30). You descend into the trappist-like cave below, with its Belgian beers and chocolates, its moules et fritte. I have sausages and potatoes mashed with carrots, a class of crystal beer.
I walk slowly down to the Novello theatre but am 45 minutes early, so wait in the lobby of a nearby hotel and start Gaiman’s book. I get so engrossed that I almost forget to go to the play.
I am in the second row from the front, close enough to see every glint and wince in Dance’s wonderful eyes. Now as for the play—I haven’t much patience with C.S. Lewis’s Christianity and am prepared not to be moved. Dance chooses to play Lewis with a limited set of mannerisms (nervous laugh, hands in pockets); and after all that English self-control (the confirmed bachelor in his Oxford shell), the two scenes of Narnia provide a stunning contrast. The first scene, so unexpected, is high drama—the glorious light of Narnia contrasted with the gray, mundane stage setting of an Oxford don’s rooms. After that, the play becomes somewhat tedious, although the actress who plays Joy is much better than Debra Winger in the film. I hear a man behind me say, with a mellow uppercrust accent, “I was rather taken aback by Joy; she was a bit too brash for my taste.” And since that’s exactly the effect she had on Lewis’s friends, who couldn’t stand her, I thought perhaps the casting worked. It was a shade overdone, but the wit was right. But Lewis’s grief was underdone. Perhaps that’s English grief for you—no wailing, just body language of becoming unhinged; bending over, hand over face, a few dry sobs. The audience wept, in a restrained, sniffling manner, but the theatre had a lot of empty seats.
A good night’s sleep provides a principle of survival: keep moving until you drop. I wake filled with purpose. I want to go to Liverpool to learn more about the history of slavery there, and to see Antony Gormley’s statues embedded in the shoreline. I want to master my cell phone, and I call the telephone company to connect my two sim cards (domestic and international). Even the alien technology of cell phones doesn’t drain my energy, and I set out for the East End with one of the guide books from Tom Berger’s magnificent collection, searching for a home for one of the characters in a book I’m writing. The day is alternately overcast and clear, a stiff wind blowing, but not freezing. Whitechapel street market is full of exotic vegetables, saris, kitchen utensils, fresh fish. Jew and Muslim walk side by side, with top hats and bears, long robes and head scarves. One young woman is dressed from head to foot in black, but the effect is striking. Both dress and scarf look painted on. Her eyes, heavily made up, sparkle behind designer glasses. That’s all I can see—the flashing eyes on a small, tight shape rigged out in clinging black.
I walk past St. Dunstan’s, an ancient church that survived the blitz, although nearly fields didn’t; it lies near a working farm, where sheep graze amidst the urban trash. St. Dunstan’s has flint insets, marbled with an orange glow, against the sooty white stone frame; weathered gargoyles look down near-sightedly. Leaving the church yard I enter a garish street of kebab shops, post office, Cheap Stuff. Cars go by playing Indian music. I walk to Regent’s Canal, but the Ragged Museum is closed (open Wednesdays and Thursdays, and Sundays from 2-5). The old buildings along the canal are built of deep brown bricks; the new ones have the color of yellow shit, as if reflecting a change in diet over the centuries. I walk along the canal past scruffy fields, the Docklands highrises on my right some distance away. Graffiti on the overpass that leads up to Miles End Road reads “JJ heart cock.” A young couple picnic under the graffiti. She is standing on the table, her long knitted scarf wrapped around her neck against the wind, and she looks like she’s dancing. When I enter the Miles End Underground, East End disappears.
I get off at Russell Square and walk to the Bloomsbury Theatre and buy a ticket for Pete Firman’s comedy/magician routine called “Hokum”. Firman is a scrawny little guy with messy hair and tricks up his pants, which he shows by dropping them. There is the usual scatalogical humor: he swallows a huge long balloon and “shits” it out in the shape of a poodle. In the opening scene he holds up large velvet sheet, asks guy in front row to think of a fruit, asks him to say it out loud---“pineapple”—then drops sheet to show himself in a giant banana costume. It’s a hokey setup. He abuses the guy for not conforming to type (“statistics show that 99% of all males asked to name a fruit will say banana”), chases him out (boo), later gives him a beer out of a popped balloon. Jabbing himself in the arm with a needle is realistic but his ventriloquism is nonsense and his ring-juggling needs work. Despite the number of kids in the audience, he keeps up the mother-fucking and shit jokes. His goal is to play in Vegas.
With a beautiful weekend forecast (clear and windy but not too cold), I catch the 341 bus down to Waterloo and take the Queen’s Walk along the bed of the Thames. Almost immediately I find a pipe with stem short but bowl intact, and then—as if that’s all I wanted to find, a pipe with its bowl and stem attached--I just walk. In some places there are only stems, and I leave them be. In other places there are large deposits of ceramics, or of animal bones. I wonder how the flow of the tide affects the deposits. I notice that large pieces are dropped by the tide high up, and the smaller pieces left below, now revealed in low tide. I wonder how much churning goes on, and if there is a sink rate for pipes; how likely they are to rise to the top, or if these are only the small tip of a gigantic pipe cache below. But most of the time I wallow in the diversity of shapes and colors, thinking I could paint a lifetime of pictures. The closer I get to the river, the sharper the wind. I think of Virginia Woolf walking into a river with her pockets full of stones—what despair; what courage; what relief.
There are boys leaping up against the side of the wall, just below the National Theatre area where graffiti and skateboarding is allowed. They are testing themselves against sand and stone. I walk further along the shore, finding flint like white worms or tree roots with glossy black interiors. The ground here is mucky, and my shoes sink deep. I run across the surface, gathering mud, but refuse to go back to safer ground. I run down to the very edge of the water, which is starting to lurk back up the sands in fitful waves, and look down; and there, an inch from my mucky shoe, lying on top of the web mud but untouched by it, is a ring.
It is clean and sparkly-bright in the sun, a gold ring with a jeweler’s mark, with alternating diagonal bands of what look to my unpracticed eye to be diamonds and rubies.
I slip it over my little finger where it tingles. I wonder who it belonged to; whether it is very old or very new; whether it was thrown away in anger or lost in grief; and how in hell it came to rest, unmuddied, at the edge of low tide, so easy to miss, at just the right moment.
There is only one explanation. It is a magic ring. A ring to tell me that sometimes good things happen in the world.
And as if to remind me that there is no magic in the world, only coincidence, by the time I get home one of the diamonds has fallen out. Unable to sleep, I finish Anthony Burgess’s word-galumphing tale of Shakespeare’s love life called Nothing Like the Sun; how he came to marry Anne Hathaway and go to London, who the Dark Lady was; where his words came from. His lusty, dirty life.
If life’s a stage, I am audience only; a witness of stones, rings, and rivers.

Week 4: January 28-February 3, 2008
On How to Get What you Want out of Life

For our British Life and Culture class, an actor named Russell Grant lectures on the history of theatre in London. Constantine destroyed Roman theatre. Plays were revived during medieval times under the guise of passion plays, with local enactments, local actors, local themes. Shakespeare transformed theatre by making characters real, not stereotypes. A good playwright could earn rock-star money. Shakespeare retired with a house in London, a huge house and land in Stratford-on-Avon. There was a huge difference between the bawdy mob-screaming pits and the polite elite performances where one never reacted.
By 2 p.m. we are at the Globe for a back stage tour with an actor named Nigel, who gives a wonderful introduction to how plays were performed in Shakespeare’s day. The students take the usual millions of photographs from the balconies, from where the “groundlings” stood under the open sky (on mud mixed with hazelnut shells, the hazelnuts having been used for dyeing). They are told to remember that an “audience” is one that hears, not sees. I ask him what he thinks of the play, Shadowlands. “Well,” he says, with that off-handed English ability to skewer, “A bit of desperately seeking Susan, don’t you think?”
I walk over the Millennium Bridge with some of the students, guide them down to the bed of the Thames where we look for pipe stems and magic rings. We go separate ways at the tube station, and I think about expectations, how to get what you want from life. There is more magic in the fellowship of the imagination than in what stimulates it; not the ring but the mind. I could toss the ring back into the Thames and still have the mystery of its existence. The ring is mere excuse for a journey.
The next day we see Avenue Q. I think the jokes are limp, the music repetitive, the story shallow. Once you get over the idea of muppets violating protocol (having sex, for example), that’s about it. On the other hand, a show that includes a song about Schadenfreude can’t be all bad. The students, on the other hand, love the play. I ask them why. One student says: It’s purposefully attacking one convention after another; it’s technically excellent, with the coordination of human and puppet actions and expressions. To me, the puppels are like Roman masks. There are no human beings here, just stereotypes (the gay guy trying to come out of the closet, the girl who can’t get a date, the henpecked husband, everyone’s “a little bit lacest”—as if that makes it all right). The student says: it’s intentionally shallow.
I struggle with this concept—the idea of art as intentionally sub-prime.
I want the songs to be better, the jokes richer, the outrage deeper.
I want Shakespeare.
Instead, I go the next night to see The Sea (Haymarket). The stage is framed like a picture. The screen is covered with a video of crashing waves, and the sound of the sea fills the theatre—very dramatic. But when it starts, the figures behind the screen are difficult to understand. I assume they’re in the ocean having a hard time, but two of them seem to be arguing, and as the screen goes up on a stage set highlighting a store counter, I realize I haven’t any idea what just happened. And what’s the relationship between what just happened and what unfolds in the shop?—who are these characters, this aristocratic lady in Victorian dress, her companion full of passive aggression, and a cringing, boot-licking store owner trying to sell her gloves and curtain material but knowing she will pull out and he will be left with the bill. The plot thickens. A young man comes in; he was in the boat with the young man (drowned) who was going to marry the old woman’s niece. The store owner is part of the coast guard who didn’t rescue them. He is also nuts (he believes the people coming ashore are aliens, and therefore it’s best to let them drown). Is he already nuts, or has he been driven nuts by his frustration at not succeeding as a store owner? The old lady, stiff and upright and totally certain of her actions and superiority, is clearly enough to drive anyone crazy. Magnificent scene when the manager rips into the 162 yards of velvet ordered by Lady R. that she then cancels. He’s obsequious and furious at the same time. The niece is placid, mourning without depth, and at the end decides to go off with her fiance’s friend—because there is nothing better to do. An old man living in a shack on the beach gives us philosophy (“I believe in the rat”). The young man says to the girl, “I’m glad that you—“ and the play ends. There is drama, unpredictability, a beautiful stage setting with mist billowing and rocks gleaming with wetness, and mystery. The timing is odd. The fury of the store manager would seem to be the crisis, but it is followed by philosophy and an uncertain ending. Lady R. wins our understanding, if not affection. If given a choice, I’m sure the students would have preferred Avenue Q, but I was thrilled by The Sea. It doesn’t give me everything I want, but it gives me the most important part: the unexpected.
On Friday we leave at dawn for Stratford-on-Avon. A beautiful crisp day. Snow is predicted, but never makes it down from Scotland (where conditions are fierce). Bob is with us again, full of jaunty good humor and interesting tidbits of information. We visit Shakespeare’s birth place (slate floors, low ceilings, timber, wattle-and-daub, lead-lined windows with small panes scratched with the names of playwrights who came to worship); walk past tourist shops with names like “Othello’s Bar” and “The Creaky Cauldron” (shades of Harry Potter) to Holy Trinity Church where he is buried under warnings not to disturb his bones. I walk along the Avon and watch the swans and ravens
During the weekend I head out to Warwick Station on the Bakerloo line to Maida Vale where Blue Badge guide Shaughan leads a tour of Little Venice. He quotes poetry and sings bawdy songs. I learn that pineapples are symbols of hospitality, and also of great wealth (people used to rent them to create an illusion of prosperity). I learn the origin of the phrase “legging it” (when boatmen pushed the boats through a tunnel because there were no horse paths under the bridge). We visit the church where John Donne first preached; and see another church that was started by a man’s vision in which 12 angels (living people) were appointed to the church; it was believed that when all of them died, the world would come to an end. Today they are all dead but the congregation of 20 (down from hundreds) continues to attend and await the end of the world.
Maida Vale is also called Media Vale because of all the famous people living there (Joan Collins, Bjork, writers, actors, singers, comediennes). Other tidbits: Stucco originated when Buckingham Palace had ugly brickwork that had to be covered up. Maida Vale houses have stucco only on the front—not as rich as Belgravia (near Buckingham Palace), which has stucco all over. With tongue half in cheek he tells us that taxi drivers have large brains, especially the hippocampus—discovered during autopsies (“Nothing else except the part that gives political opinions”).
I get off at the Angel and wander in the general direction of my flat, trying to get lost. After awhile I finally succeed, and have to ask for directions. My rescuers turn out to be Americans studying law in London, who are themselves wandering in search of Thai food. We help each other.
I finish Anthony Burgess’s Eve of Saint Venus. After reading his book about Shakespeare’s love life (Nothing Like the Sun), I wanted to see if he wrote Shakespearean prose all the time. No, that was a clever device; he’s a discriminating wordsmith. My only caveat: who influenced whom, CS Lewis (That Hideous Strength) or Burroughs? The atmosphere created by the close proximity of Venus was very like the final scene of Lewis, but Lewis wasn’t bothered by paganism; his faith covered the universe.

Week 5: February 4-10, 2008
Polish Shadows
The program has its first catastrophe: a student slips in her Home Stay flat and breaks her leg in three places. Jen and I go to Whittington Hospital (Archway tube station at the edge of Zone 2) to visit her, and our arrival coincides with that of her mother. Doctors are undecided about whether she can travel because of the danger of blood clots; and she has to be in a cast for at least six weeks. In a place like London, this is an insurmountable problem of transport and access. It is clear that she will be going home.
Walking back to the tube, I pass a pub called Whittington Stone and realize that we are at the edge of London where the semi-mythical Dick Whittington paused and heard the bells of London telling him he would be Lord Mayor. What would have happened to Dick Whittington if he’d broken his leg in three places?
I am reading my way through Tom Berger’s wonderful library. I finished Anita Brookner’s book, Providence, and Marele Day’s Lambs of God. Brookner’s portrait of a woman suspended, beautiful and yet tangled in other people’s expectations, was riveting, even though I don’t normally like this kind of topic (I like my women stronger). The description of her French grandparents was deeply touching (the acrobat who expressed himself with food, his wife with sewing); and I even felt sympathy for the heroine’s cad of a lover—perhaps if she had been more expressive…but no, look who he settled for, an empty-headed younger woman, unable to see beyond his own nose. I loved the interplay of the intellectual study of the Romantic with its actualization. The conclusion—the heroine’s being blindsided by her lover’s treachery, on the day of her own triumph, because she “didn’t have enough information” is enough to let you know that the heroine lacks the insight to be transformed. The agony will continue.
Day’s fey tale of a triology of forgotten nuns doing battle with a modern priest was charming. I didn’t quite believe the ending (would such a priest wear the garment of his humiliation after his return to the modern priesthood?) but accepted it as a gracious and sweet conclusion—a gift by the author.
I’m up at dawn on Friday to be at Victoria by 7:30 to catch the train to Gatwick to catch the plane to Poland. We swoop across the channel and arrive in Krakow at 1:50, and are bussed to our hotel at the edge of the old town center. The weather is gray but not the intense cold we expected; no snow, but a dash of rain in the evening on the square. I manage finally to persuade an ATM machine to give me 100 zlotys, and Kelly and I invite a student to join us in a vegetarian restaurant. I have a vegetarian hunter’s stew loaded with sauerkraut—fantastic flavor. A mysterious metal head is luminous in the old town plaza.
Up at dawn in my long narrow room, I read Antonia Fraser’s Oxford Blood (I’m now in the F’s in Tom Berger’s library) and wish I’d brought along another book. I’ve been eating a rarefied diet of good words; this one is much ploddier. I am struck, once again, by the central theme of class in British fiction. The aristocracy and their bloody blood. When the restaurant opens at 7, I am the first to approach the buffet and am puzzled by the array of dishes. Some I can recognize—cereal (cornflakes and coco puffs), deviled eggs, fried sausages, rolls, butter, and jam—but the spoon-shaped humps of gray, yellow, and purple have me stumped. I finally ask one of the waitresses leaning against the wall if she can help me. She points to the ovals shaped by spoons--egg, cheese, fish, cheese and raisins. And what about the little bowls of greenish gunk sprinkled with brown and white flecks?—pudding. The fried triangles are fish, to be garnished with pickles and mushrooms. I take a plateful of strange mounds back to my table and nibble my way conscientiously through a not completely pleasant dining experience, washed down by diluted and sugared juice.
If the students had breakfast, they had it at the last moment. They admit to having stayed out late drinking vodka in various combinations as bizarre as my breakfast.
A very angry but humorous Pole takes us on a five-hour tour, starting outside the Jewish quarter. She portrays Poland as our Flemish guide had—stuck in the middle of wars, used by great nations, abandoned and betrayed—but with more anger, as if by giving these tours she is shaking the world awake to the glory and righteous indignation of the Poles. According to her, Poles invented everything but haven’t been given credit. In 1683 Poles saved Vienna from the Turks, and for their share in the battle they took coffee (had observed Turks drinking it and benefiting from it) and opened the first coffee house in Vienna. Polish mathematicians were the ones who solved the German code of Enigma, and gave it to the British, but the British claim they broke the code. The Poles gave this information to the English in exchange for a promise that Britain would protect them from Germany—but Britain broke their promise (both England and France had agreed but reneged). Poles told Britain that the Germans had developed bombs and rockets that would be used again Britain but Churchill didn’t believe them.
We stand outside the Jewish synagogue, where she tells us that the great Polish King Kazimierz in the 14th century issued a declaration of tolerance that attracted Jews from everywhere. But they lived separately, and in the 19th century 75,000 out of 140,000 in the city were Jewish. Some were reformed Jews who identified themselves and were identified as Polish, and they served in the army, attended secular schools, and formed an important part of the resistance. During WWII Poland was crushed in three months between Germany and Russia; one million Jews were killed, and half a million Poles. After the war, Jews served in the Polish Secret Service to identify the Poles that collaborated with the Nazis, which made many Poles angry and afraid. In 1968 Stalin told all Jews to leave Poland. In 1989, Poland was freed from Communism, but the Jews were gone. Only 150 Jews attend the synagogue in Krakow. In the film “Schindler’s List,” Spielberg used this area of the Jewish old city for his movie (not the ghetto across the river). Many Poles were upset that Spielberg did not convey how many Poles helped Jews, risking their own lives. After the war, 70% of the people identified as “Righteous Gentiles” were Poles.
After she leaves us (the cloud of her anger and humor hovers for awhile), some of the students (those suffering from vodka hangovers and an excess of walking) return to ther hotel; others wander through the central plaza market searching for ways to spend their zlotys. I take the path that circles the old town center, eating the leftovers of lunch handed to us last night: a cheese roll, a delicious orange (very orange, very sweet and succulent). In the evening I continue my quest for Polish cuisine, and try Zurek (soup).
The next morning I finish Fraser’s book while waiting for the restaurant to open. The language is pedestrian, the plot predictable; I am offended by the final outcome of blood (the bounder turns out not to be such a bounder, which is in part be explained by the fact that he is, in fact, the aristocrat’s real son) and by the sexual politics of the heroine. A bad book leaves a bad taste in my mouth. The buffet has the same mysterious mounds. Today I bypass them and focus more on bread and fluorescent jelly, while the English students at the next table descend on the coco puffs and croissants.
At 10:00 we are on the bus to Auschwitz, checked out of our hotel, loaded with more sandwiches, an orange, and one of those long white bars of sugar-soaked bars that break off crisply; apple juice; no napkin.
Auschwitz is so well preserved, so efficient—so German. A new guide meets us. Her grandparents died in the camps. She is quiet and descriptive, the words spilling out of her lips like toads and diamonds. I say to her, when we happen to walk next to each other, that it must be difficult for her to conduct these tours day after day; she says that now she no longer cries.
Although it is winter and cold, the crowds are enormous. Is this Disneyland or Santayana (“Those who do not remember the past…”)? We shuffle past the photographs, the maps, the mounds of shoes, the eyeglasses, the cloth woven from hair, the suitcases carefully labeled with names and addresses, as if they belonged to some different world of order. I am numb. One of the students runs off to cry. A few people mutter about George W. Bush. But we are as dumb as the sheep of Nazi Germany. The world will not change. All the deaths are depressing; the knowledge that we could turn around and do it again in a heartbeat is more depressing. The students buy books, pass them around on the bus, and I have a flicker of hope.
We take the short trip to Birkenau. If Aushwitz is the hows and whats of extermination, Birkenau is the is of death. Although we arrive by bus, the victims of Birkenau arrived by train. The train goes straight through the gates, through the open arms of the red brick station and watch tower, into the vast space of intentional destruction. We walk for over a mile through the bitter cold—through the small, crude wooden huts (we have descended from human to bestial between Auschwitz and Birkenau), and down the long rail to the crumpled remains of an exploded crematorium; to the ugly memorial on which rest candles and long-stemmed roses. The tall trees touch the sky; the emptiness is broken by standing chimneys (all the wood from the remaining huts having been shipped off to build other camps at the end of the war); those too sick to move were rescued by the Russians, while the Nazis shipped the still-living on to their efficient deaths. We are cold and quiet on the trip to the airport. I spend my remaining hundred zlotys on Polish chocolate bars for everyone. Let there be joy where we can make it.

Week 6: February 11-17, 2008
Exploring Southall, Greenwich, and Stonehenge

It is surreal to be back in London (if it’s Tuesday, it must be Auschwitz). And yet I’ve lived for long periods in places that have yielded less.
We have an early British Life and Culture class today. Our enthusiastic and witty AIFS tour guide, Bob Craig, explains how we got from the all-powerful to the anachronistic, constitutional monarchy without power today. I grow more and more impressed by Bob’s ability to package information in compact, rich bundles. If he were a comedian, he would write The British Monarchy as a Football Game (“Ooh, what a foul! The ball passes from Richard III to the Tudors…”).
I am finally coming down with the flu bug that all the students seem to have. I drag home after Wednesday class, so sick that in the evening I watch a horrible attempt to enact history: Attila the Hun. Why do the Romans have English accents whereas Attila has a Scottish accent? I finish E.M.Forster’s Howard’s End. Wonderful surprises in the development of character and plot. Although I knew the heroine would get the house in the end, the getting there was a joy. Funny—I felt the usual claustrophobia of class and gender, and I didn’t particularly sympathize with anyone, but I followed like a camel with a hook through my nose. Whywhywhy? Look closely at the writing. The mysteries of language.
On Friday we take a freezing cold trip to Stonehenge and Salisbury (guaranteed to prolong flu). The first time I came to Stonehenge, I was fresh off the student ship that landed at Southampton, and the poppies were in bloom and the stones accessible at 4 a.m. when I walked there, I was so impatient. The next time I visited, the stones were protected by a fence. Now you can walk right up to the stones but you have to pay to get in. On the bus trip, our guide, former policeman Nigel, points out the barrows that spring up, like molehills, throughout the Stonehenge area. The students run from one photographic opportunity to another, and try to photograph each other leaping into the air. All my photos are too late or too early; they’ve already landed or are about to leap. In the afternoon, we see one of the original Magna Cartas in a room filled with light and carved faces, and the students are frustrated at not being able to take photographs. It doesn’t exist if you don’t have a photograph. Heaven forbid that we should just rely on memory.
On Saturday, fighting a relapse, I stay in and read Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand—a light form of time-travel surprisingly satisfying (carefully crafted plot that interweaves past and present).
On Sunday I’m restless. Feeling that London is passing through my fingers, I join up with the London Walks tour of Greenwich, which meets at Tower Bridge and takes off on a boat down the Thames. It’s a gorgeous day. I listen to more negative gossip about James I and his Danish queen, and wonder why no one thinks to mention that James promoted cartographic exploration of Scotland and sponsored the King James Bible. (English hostility toward the Scots?) I walk back through the pedestrian tunnel under the Thames (where someone’s ghostly music echoes from the unseen curve upward ahead of me), and catch the light railroad back to where I can connect with the tube. Public transportation, thy name is London!
In the evening I read Anita Brooker’s slim little jewel, Hotel du Lac. At first I think I am reading the same plot as Providence (older intelligent
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