Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Week 10: Why I Came in the First Place

I try to make a habit out of not geeking out very often, but every now and then, I have to indulge my inner nerd. Today was one of those days. Averyl and I took the chance to see the Writing Britain exhibit at the British Library, and it was just stunning. Something I didn't expect to discover while in the U.K. is what makes a good museum or exhibit (believe me, I've seen some terrible ones). I suppose Writing Britain had a leg up on most of the other things I've seen. I've obviously got a natural inclination to the written word, and I often feel a little faint at bookstores because I just enjoy them too much, so seeing books—some really, really, really old books—preserved and displayed beautifully and kept under tighter security than some jewelry stores ... well, let's just say I was happier than a pigeon with a french fry. Er, chip. (My British English is still a disaster. I say "pants" instead of "trousers" daily. No joke.)

When I started thinking about doing a field study in London, I kept thinking, "There has to be something in the water there that produces good writers, because England is just chock-full of them." I wanted to see what this place was that had inspired so many people to write such high quality literature. I mean, this is a relatively small island and yet it's the nation that has produced some of the most inspiring stories ever known. I mean really, what on earth is going on here?

I'm sure there's some kind of scientific or historical or sociological or whatever study that could be done to justify the massive proportion of British writers (and more importantly, outrageously successful British writers) in the whole scheme of world literature, explaining how things involving the climate, politics, health, spirituality, and economic qualities of this small corner of the globe somehow propelled it in literary production. I, however, am not doing that kind of study, nor am I interested in ever trying to possibly do such a one. (If I'm honest, I probably wouldn't even be interested to read anything other than the Spark Notes of that research because it would be an enormous beast of work.)

At any rate, London has left me with something of an enormous question mark: how could this possibly be the inspiration for so many people? Culture shock left me bitter, blaming modern London for being creatively destructive, as well as being filthy, stifling, and tourist-plagued to boot. I saw somewhat in Scotland what I'd hoped to find in London—that sense of the magic, the mystical, the fantastical. That was gratifying, but I still wondered how on earth London could continue to be a creative resource, having clearly lost that magical feeling that seems to be present in so much of the British literature from previous centuries. (I obviously can't comment on the areas of the UK outside of London.) I have so many happy memories of reading these stories, and I felt a little gypped that I wasn't having visions of teenage wizards or orphans coming into inheritances or period romances that could someday be spun into tales that could place my name indelibly among the Literary Gods. 

In all seriousness, my time in London has been so far from skipping around town on cloud nine just because I'm here; it's been a lot of the opposite. I'm not trying to be a downer or anything, because I have had some incredible experiences here and I'm happy a lot of the time, but I've been surprised at how hard it has been to be here. Lack of literary inspiration has been remarkably low on my list of troubles (although, being somewhat involved with one of my classes, it has been a little higher than it would otherwise be). Though it's not a problem, per se, it has been frustrating. I've asked myself, "Why doesn't this city have magic for me the way it has for others? How am I ever going to write my essays for my classes when things have been so difficult and I haven't been running around worshiping London for the past nine weeks?"

This is why I loved Writing Britain so much. (You thought I was never going to get back to it, didn't you?) Writing Britain is very much what it sounds like—an exhibit of how different people have written about Britain, how they've written its very landscape and character into their work, including the city, the country, the water, and London specifically. Not only was it fascinating, I was getting all kinds of nerdy over the various books and manuscripts and things they had on display. But I also loved it for another reason, and that's because I realized I have a lot more in common with those writers than it initially seemed to me, and that maybe I'm not having an overly pessimistic perspective of London after all. 

I realized that writers have been dealing with a Britain that they've seen progressing downhill for literal centuries. To illustrate that, one of the major sections of the exhibit, and the main face of the advertising campaign, was this:

Yes, "Dark Satanic Mills" and a landscape with a bunch of fire in it, emphasizing the hellishness of Britain's dive into the Industrial Revolution. Talk about dark. I started thinking about the stories I loved so well—Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens, North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy—not all necessarily featuring London, of course, but I think they still count. You know what I realized? These are dark, dark, dark, dark stories. I mean, lovely and beautiful, but not at all ignorant of the injustices and industrialization and injuries that are very much a part of the real world that we live in. They aren't sugar-coated fairy tales by any stretch of the imagination. As for London itself, I began to recall that it is often shown in an unfavorable light—because it's city instead of country, because it's full of seedy characters, because it's filthy. 

As I thought about and read through the different writers' work and experience, I began to realize that many of them were very much like mine—tending towards the melancholy and pessimistic. (Please don't let that make you sad, especially not for me; I'm only explaining this because it's clear to me that these emotions I've been having actually are connecting me to the city and its inhabitants and its history, not driving me away.) I realized that it hadn't been the writers romanticizing the sights and landscapes they were describing; it was me doing the romanticizing, because I didn't understand what this city is truly like. I thought it had been my fault, my pessimism, my homesickness, my culture shock that was unfairly perceiving London and casting it as the villain in my field study story. But that might actually be closer to the truth. 

A couple of hours ago, I ran across a quote that is extremely relevant to this whole subject. It's from Peter Cameron's book, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You: 
“People who have only good experiences aren’t very interesting. They may be content, and happy after a fashion, but they aren’t very deep. It may seem a misfortune now, and it makes things difficult, but well—it’s easy to feel all the happy, simple stuff. Not that happiness is necessarily simple. But I don’t think you’re going to have a life like that, and I think you’ll be the better for it. The difficult thing is to not be overwhelmed by the bad patches. You must not let them defeat you. You must see them as a gift—a cruel gift, but a gift nonetheless.”
I've begun to realize how much struggling in this city has been a more real, true experience than being a happy-go-lucky student going crazy and having a fun time all the time.

Yes, it's been the grit of the city that has contributed to my challenges; but it's been the very same grit that has forced me to see a side of life that I often like to pretend doesn't exist. As unpleasant as that has been, I think I'm the better for it. 

Maybe what I thought I'd find in London is something that isn't actually there.

Maybe I've found real London after all.


This post is done, but I need to take a moment to brag. Today I saw the 1,000 year old Exeter Book. I read text directly from the notes and manuscripts and proofcopies of George Eliot's Middlemarch, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, Jane Austen's Persuasion, George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, Charles Dickens' Hard Times and Our Mutual Friend, Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd and Tess of the d'Urbervilles (my favorite book!), Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures Underground, and many many more. 

Oh, and I read a section of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone directly from the paper on which J.K. Rowling originally wrote it. It's okay to be jealous, because the fact that I was able to do that is awesome and I would be jealous too if it wasn't me that did it. 

Did I almost burst into tears a few times in the exhibit? Okay, yes. What can I say? I'm a lit nerd. I'll defend myself and close with the words of one of my favorite present-day authors, John Green, whom I have quoted here before: 
"Nerds like us are allowed to be unironically enthusiastic about stuff ... Nerds are allowed to love stuff, like jump-up-and-down-in-the-chair-can't-control-yourself love it. ... When people call people nerds, mostly what they're saying is 'you like stuff.' Which is just not a good insult at all. Like, 'you are too enthusiastic about the miracle of human consciousness'."
"Saying 'I notice you're a nerd' is like saying, 'Hey, I notice that you'd rather be intelligent than be stupid, that you'd rather be thoughtful than vapid, that you believe that there are things that matter more than the arrest record of Lindsay Lohan'." 
Maybe it's okay to fly my nerd flag a little more often. :)

Monday, July 9, 2012

Week 8: Romance & Public Transportation

So because of my A/C adapter going the way of all the earth last week, and then because of our mid-semester retreat to Scotland, this is coming a week after I intended to post it. But whatever. Here's a post from my personal blog, describing a few of my London discoveries:

This past Wednesday night (June 27th), I made a most astonishing discovery. It came upon me as we were walking from The Globe after a particularly risqué performance of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Loathe though I am to admit it, I prefer the Heath Ledger/Julia Stiles interpretation, most especially, now, for the lack of blinding white full-moon-light (if you catch my drift …) involved. At any rate, I think 10 Things I Hate About You injected a fair portion of romance that the original play lacks, and this lack of romance, in combination with the aforementioned moonlight, left me feeling somewhat less than amorous.

You can imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that London is quite, well … romantic. (Or, as Averyl would put it, “ro-tic,” since there was actually no “man” involved.) We had walked out of the theater and were crossing Millennium Bridge (the one the Death Eaters destroy in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which is how I recognized it) when this enormous and potentially summer-changing discovery occurred. 
Death-Eater-ized Millennium Bridge
Real Millennium Bridge
I should point out that Averyl and I had had a conversation a few hours earlier about how sometimes you want to jump off a bridge, just for the thrill of it, but looking at the Thames quashes that desire almost instantaneously. It’s a foul, filthy, brown river with outrageous quantities of rubbish floating in it. I mean, it is really disgusting. The kind of thing that would make you want to bathe in bleach if you ever accidentally touched it. Visually, it has no redemptive qualities, in my opinion.

Anyways, as I was saying, we were walking over the Thames on Millennium Bridge. It was pretty late, as the play had started at 7:30, so obviously it was dark outside which meant that you couldn’t tell that the river was brown anymore. Instead, all you could see were the reflections of lights on the water, just sparkling all twinkly-like. Each of the bridges were lit up and looking ever so lovely, and the absolute treat of it all was looking at St. Paul’s Cathedral sitting right at the end of the bridge. The way it’s lit up at night is like seeing life in high-definition—by which I mean that when you look at St. Paul’s at night, you feel like you’re seeing more of it, crisper details. Maybe it’s just the fact that my eyes have been afflicted by allergies and my contacts seem to get dirty fairly easily and quickly, so it’s entirely possible that my vision is usually diminished. But that cathedral… Wow. It was a remarkable sight.
Millennium Bridge at night
I suppose this whole thing is a little pathetic. After nearly two months of living here, you would think that I’d have discovered the city’s romantic side. I know that, more often than not, I’m the kind of girl that enjoys romance in movies and books and all, but not in real life because I just can’t get into it without feeling Kraft Mac’n’Cheese “The Cheesiest” … but even still. You’d think you’d be able to drop an English major who lives on a steady entertainment diet of Masterpiece and 19th century novels, and expect her to immediately realize the romantic potential of one of the world’s greatest cities.

But not so! During the daytime, I’ve got a pessimist’s eye for tourists (because, as a 3-month resident, I’m allowed to hate them a little bit) and pigeons (sorry Natalie!) and litter and expense … and frankly I’m getting more than a little tired of having Fifty Shades of Grey coming out of my nose every time I've spent a few hours in the city. (I’m also obviously more than a little judgmental of seeing so many women reading Fifty Shades of Grey on the tube. Shouldn’t they be a little more embarrassed to be reading that filth in public?)

As for my perceptions of the city come nightfall, if I’m ever out alone past dark (which happens very, very rarely), I basically feel like I’m walking through a death trap that’s riddled with people who want to mug, rape, murder, or take me and sell me into an eastern European human trafficking ring. Don’t worry—I’ve imagined the entire spectrum of horrors that could potentially befall me on my five minute walk from the train station to my front door.

Anyways, I’m getting away from my point (as always), so I suppose I’d best get to it: friends, it is a curious coincidence that in the very same week that I discover the truly romantic potential in this enormous city, I should also fall in love.

Yes, it’s true: I have somehow, magically, mysteriously, and beautifully fallen in love …

... with buses.

Oh, boohoo. Don’t pretend to be disappointed and get your pants (that's British English for "underwears") in a twist. Just calm down and let me tell you about buses and why I’m hopelessly in love with them.

London’s double-decker buses are iconic—of this you are almost certainly aware. They’re as “London” as Big Ben and probably the most frequent way of establishing modern London as the setting in a movie. When you get to London, you can’t help but smile the first time you lay eyes on that flashy cherry paint … and sometimes you can’t help it even after you’ve seen hundreds of them. (Not gonna lie, I’m significantly more likely to smile if it comes with a Magic Mike advert. I won’t ever see that movie, but I can guiltlessly enjoy the fruits of the advertising campaign.) They’re just cheery, and since much of London is a generally grayish-brown sort of color, that pop of red is lovely. Plus, red is my favorite color. I’m naturally predisposed to love setting my eyes on them.

I’ve ridden on plenty of buses recently, but during my first month here, I tried to avoid them since they are much slower than the tube, and besides that, expensive, especially considering how long it takes to get anywhere. Because of all this, it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I first got the chance to ride in the front seats on the second deck of the bus. Riding in any of the other seats, even on that second deck, pretty much feels like riding on any lame old bus anywhere. It’s not a big deal at all. The front seats, however, are like a theme park ride. A really slow and lurchy theme park ride, but certainly more exciting than anything else. You’re right up against the glass and you get an awesome view of where you’re going. It’s so much fun to just watch the people down on the street, and the number of times you think you’re going to hit something (or someone) is so high that you almost feel dangerous. Hark back to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and recall the scene where Harry’s on the Knight Bus, and it squeezes between two double-deckers—you have no idea how accurate of a portrayal that is. Buses are reckless and exciting and I just love them.

Another reason I love buses is that they’re a great way to explore the city without having to walk a million miles. Several weeks ago, I walked twelve and a half miles around London with a hefty backpack and lousy shoes, so I feel qualified to tell you that if you want to really get a good view of London, get a picture of what it looks like and feels like and moves like, you need to spend some time on a bus. Yes, get off every now and then to see the museums and get lunch. (I don’t recommend eating on the bus, both because of the non-optional exchange of hand-sweat from touching the handrails, and because it’s kind of gross to be on public transit and smelling someone else’s lunch, especially if it’s hot and a badly ventilated bus.) By all means, get a closer look. But buses let you see so many interesting things! And they don’t make your feet hurt for days afterwards.

A couple of days ago, I went out searching for this new style of bus that they’ve just developed. I think there’s only one or two in service, and they’re only running on one route right now, but they’re beautiful things. They bring back the old Routemaster style—the kind that lets you hop on the back whenever the bus is stopped, which is something you really come to appreciate after the tenth time you’ve missed a bus by ten seconds and have to wait for another 12 minutes for the next one to come.
Check that back end out. Dat a bootylicious bus right thurr.
...Since I'm being so PC, go watch Beauty and the Beat.
Anyways, I wasn’t bored enough to wait for it to come along the route, so I just got on one of the other buses and took it all the way to the end (though I did catch a few glimpses of this spectre-of-the-transport-gods). I had intended to get off and go to a park to read and work, but then it was raining when I got off so I figured, heck I can read as well on a bus as on a park, so why not get back on? And that’s what I did. I just rode buses around London for a few hours, and it was fabulous. I got to sit in the front seats, and it was a lovely day though I didn't get very much reading done because I was enjoying the ride so much.

I should point out that buses are great for leisurely experiences. They’re absolutely wonderful if you don’t really care where you’re going or when you get anywhere. They are, however, a nightmare if you want to get anywhere at any specific time. Today, for example, we missed our train and so we had to take a bus to another tube stop. (Then I had to take the Underground to an Overground station, take the Overground to get on another Underground line to get to the stop I needed. Talk about your transportation mess.) I was probably on that bus for over half an hour. It was delightfully sweltering outside today which was a grand break from the typical chilly wetness, but the heat is not so delightful when you’re trapped in a metal box with twenty other people. Especially when that box is a single-decker without any of the lovely front seats. If I could have sat in some of those, it would have been much more bearable. Instead, it was a bumpy, lurching oven of body stink that periodically stopped for no reason or person at all. I was not overjoyed because I hate being late, I hate making other people wait for me. It’s a pain in the neck on its own without the added misery of an unpleasant journey.

Perhaps at this point you're thinking me a fool for loving the buses so much. And yet, such is love, is it not? I mean, sometimes you’re just into something that’s great for leisure and entertainment and fun, but not so great for when you’re actually trying to go anywhere with any sort of haste or accomplish anything according to any kind of schedule.

Consider me a hopeless victim of the Transport for London game.

As for the current countdown (which seems to have become customary): exactly four weeks from today I will be back on a plane to the States. I don't know how it's happened, but it has. I've only got a month left. Crazy!!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Week 6: So Many Churches

Yesterday (although it was so early and I took such a huge nap afterwards that it feels like it was two days ago) Averyl, Ben and I attended some of the morning services at Westminster Abbey. Although we had visited the abbey on basically our first full day here in London, we had the opportunity to attend communion in the Shrine of St. Edward the Confessor, which is cool in and of itself, but even more so because it's surrounded by the tombs of some of England's major kings.

The morning prayers and communion were very different from the style of worship that I'm familiar with, naturally, but I still felt that there was a special feeling present during the services. There's a certain sense of sacredness that comes with that place because the abbey has been a place that so many thousands of people have gone to try to get closer to God. It's a different kind of sacredness than we're used to in the LDS Church, but I still found it very moving.

After we were finished at Westminster Abbey, we went to the Brompton Oratory (or the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary). It's a Catholic church, and the first Catholic church I've been in (possibly ever, but certainly) since I arrived in London—the rest have been Anglican. It was very different in style from the other churches I've visited, but still very beautiful.

While visiting both of these churches, I found myself reflecting on a lot of things. First of all, it was so moving to see people worshiping in each of these locations, although it was somewhat sad to walk into these enormous halls with so many seats, and then to see only a few people participating. Ben's project can say a lot more about dwindling religiosity in London than I can, but it's fairly apparent to me that, for all the presence of these enormous houses of worship, religion is not popular among the residents.

Secondly, during this past semester in my Christian History class with Brother Gaskill, we talked about the minimal numbers of people who choose to become clergy in major religions, most notably Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox. It seems that this trend is also occurring in the Anglican Church, because the majority of their clergy are quite old. That being said, it warmed my heart a little bit to see a much younger man among their ranks yesterday—it's such a great sacrifice, and somewhat comforting to see someone willing to make it.  

The third thing I spent a lot of time thinking about was the level of ornateness present in each of these churches. As I've visited each of them and taken note of how they are decorated and designed, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the symbolic nature of these various things. All the while, I kept having this same idea run through my head that has been thrown at me from so many different people: the idea that other churches whose meetinghouses are so ornate are "gaudy" and that this somehow is indicative of them being less true than our church, which in comparison is much more minimalist in design. Although I've always been taught to be respectful of other religions and to appreciate the beauty in these things, somehow this idea got slipped in there as well. 

And perhaps there is some truth to it. I'm thinking particularly of Nephi saying that his "soul delighteth in plainness" which may simply be a words/scriptures/doctring reference, but which could potentially be applied to other aspects of worship (2 Ne. 25:4) ... Or perhaps it's our just our Protestant background informing us that "'tis a gift to be simple" that makes our buildings seem so plain in comparison. 

I just kept thinking, as I was sitting in these churches, that they employ many of the same architectural and decorative strategies that we do in our meetinghouses and temples to symbolize aspects of our faith, especially symbolizing the path to return to God. We might see the bright colors and statues and paintings and vaulted ceilings and filigrees and columns and molding as being "gaudy" in comparison to what we're used to. But don't we employ spires and paintings and colors and staircases and various forms of decor to carry symbolic meaning? Don't we also focus on having everything be of the highest quality in a building that we're dedicating to the Lord?

I guess what I'm saying is that it seems to me that it's simply different interpretations and applications of similar principles: creating symbolic meaning in our places of worship. This might not be the most incredibly insightful post, but I spent so much time thinking about it yesterday, trying to understand what was so wrong about the so-called gaudiness of these buildings, trying to reconcile what I'd been taught with what I was experiencing, that it felt like a bigger realization than it was since now it seems like an obvious thing.

In other news, today is the 20th of June. Do you know what this means? It means I've been here for six weeks. It also means that in approximately 24ish hours, I will have been in London for 45 days. And that means that I only have 45 days more to go in London ... 

... which means this Field Study is halfway over, y'all. :)

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Week 4: The Great Grocery Store

Today marks one month since I left the US. I don't know how this can be possible—I feel both like I just got here and like I've been here for forever somehow. Tomorrow will also be my last day in this flat before I move up to Enfield, and it's kind of bittersweet. While I'm excited for the new place and the good things that will come with it (like a real shower), I've really come to enjoy living with this family and the kindness that they've extended towards me. One of the children didn't realize that I'd be moving, and when she found out on Sunday, her lower lip ballooned out and it made me feel so sad. They're a really excellent family and I feel like I've learned a lot from living with them (including an incredible soup recipe that I will definitely be using in the future). So I'm sad to leave, but I'm glad I've been here and I'm excited for what's to come.

I've obviously been thinking a lot about the culture of London as I've walked its streets and talked to locals and long-term visitors and short-term visitors alike. The thing about London is that its culture is about as easy to pin down as nailing Jello to a tree or herding cats or some other such nonsense, the reason being that London is a massive collection of international people. We think of the US being a great melting pot, where people from all over the world were able to come together and become one thing: Americans.

London, however, is not a melting pot. Not even close.

As I see it, London is like an enormous grocery store. It brings in products from all over and collects them in one place, but in no way are these items melted together. It's divided into sections, each with their own particular focus—just like London's boroughs. It has particular sections that are dedicated to specific regions—like Chinatown, and the Middle Eastern sectors of the city. And then, of course, there are people milling about each of these areas and aisles—these are the tourists.

London is often called the Crossroads of the World, and rightly so. At times, I feel like I'm walking across BYU campus for the number of languages I hear being spoken! Not only does the city become a home for people from all across the world, but it plays host daily to thousands upon thousands of international tourists. In a way, this is has its perks. I love that I can get fantastic, authentic Indian food just a few minutes from Chinatown where there are spits of roast duck and bright orange squid-things, and still be within sight of a regular English pub.

London also has its own history that's remarkably present, which adds a certain sense of anachronism to a walk down almost every street in the city. Standing by the castle built in 1078 (now known as the Tower of London) and your eyes can pass over sections of a Roman wall built in the 2nd century AD and then on to the Tower Hill underground station that opened in 1967 and was refurbished in 2008. That's nearly two thousand years of London construction captured in one glance! Naturally, there are going to be hundreds of residents—homegrown or immigrants—and tourists captured in that glance as well who represent who knows how many nationalities. In fact, the first Sunday I was here, I went to Relief Society and we had small group discussions. My group had an English girl, a couple Scottish girls, a French girl, an Australian girl, and myself, an American. How's that for international?

Having never experienced this city before, I didn't know what to expect. I think I may have thought that somehow I could capture the concept of London culture in three short months and get a pretty solid understanding of it, that I could come out on the other side and be able to describe it in fairly certain terms, that I could catch on to what makes this city tick. It's become overwhelmingly clear to me that this would be like walking into my monstrous metaphorical grocery store, and then exiting with my basket of shopping somehow able to describe what the entire place was like. All the same, I've enjoyed wandering up and down London's metaphorical aisles, and catching glimpses of what each place holds.

So far, the best I can do to give you a full picture is to simply explain what I've just explained: that London is, to some extent, inexplicable. It is defined by its very own indefinability and mutability, by the endless stream of footprints that cross to and fro, over and under each other as people from all walks of life and all nationalities come into this city, to stay or go.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Week 3: Time

Time has been on my mind a lot lately in a couple major ways: (1) the amount of time I've been here and (2) how I'm using my time.

Today (Tuesday/Wendesday/Whatever) marks three full weeks of being in London! It also happens to mean that this field study is a full quarter of the way over. I don't know if I believe it; it seems impossible somehow that such a huge chunk of it can be done already. And next week, it'll be a third of the way complete. That being said, I'm still in the I-can't-wait-to-go-back-home phase, so time can't possibly pass quickly enough for me. Thankfully, I'm pretty much over the misery hump, and I'm actually starting to enjoy my time here. I feel pretty comfortable for the most part, and I feel like I've been able to somehow miraculously adjust (more or less) to living in London.

I think part of the reason that I finally feel like time is starting to cruise is that I put together a full calendar for my field study, complete with (almost) weekly goals for having drafts of my essays and sections of my research paper completed. There's nothing I dread quite like an academic deadline, and let me tell you, having a deadline to stress about means that it's flying towards you at the speed of light. I couldn't be happier about this. I've also set some exercise goals, which I'm really excited about. It's nice to have things to do ... which brings me to my next point.

Life is harder when you don't schedule your time, especially when doing a field study. There have been more days than I'd like to admit where I've just found myself thinking, "I have nothing to accomplish today and I don't want to wander aimlessly through London again. I'd rather just sit home." The vast majority of the time, I talk myself into working on things, but self-motivation can be so difficult when you don't have any person or any plan to feel responsible to. I think this has been one of the things that made the first few weeks being here so hard—I didn't know what to do with my time. And, granted, a lot of that had to do with where I was living the first week; I didn't have keys so I had to be very careful about when I decided to leave the flat. I didn't have a library card, and I honestly was so miserable and culture-shock-y that I didn't even want to think about working on my project, which just made everything worse! What a mess!

All that being said, the difference it has made to have things I'm trying to accomplish every single day, to have goals I'm working towards every single week, has helped turn things around. Yes, there are still days that I just don't want to have to get on the Tube and go all the way across London just to sit in the library until my eyes hurt (in case you can't tell, this week has been especially library heavy, since I'm trying to finish up the first draft of the first section of my paper); there are days when I'd just as well not leave my bedroom, except for the occasional snack. I don't know how I've made it through three years of college without learning this lesson (possibly because I'm a little too Type-A to ever let myself get truly behind on my coursework) ... but I've suddenly realized how much happier I am when I use time wisely. I don't know that I've ever been as aware of my own agency in the time usage department as I have been the past week or so. But it's terribly apparent to me right now that, at least in Field Study Land, a good schedule is the recipe for happiness.

This week has been so different from the previous two. Still hard sometimes, of course, and still some tears. (Though these ones were prompted by a TV show finale and then perpetuated by listening to a song whose lyrics are "Dear Mama, here's a letter from your girl. Well I think my city days are done, and it ain't been three weeks since I came..." You get the drift—way too close to home there.) But all in all, it's been a lot better. Yes, my brain still hurts from all the library time I've had over the past couple of days, but I've got so much material to work with that I feel totally fine. I spent about twenty or thirty minutes just writing a pre-rough-draft and got three full pages of text written, which is incredible speed for me for an academic paper. I  can already tell it's going to be a lot of work getting all the information I have to fit down into a smaller space. I also found out today that John Donne is someone I want to place a little more emphasis on; apparently he was someone who really struggled with trying to accept the new cosmological system, and so his poetry is very reflective of how he worked through the switch. I might have to jump him up in my schedule a couple of weeks, just because I think I'm going to want to spend more time on him. And since he was also the dean of St. Paul's. Granted, he was a pre-1666-fire dean, but he just seems to be cropping up a lot, and I've been a fan of him for several years anyways, so I feel like there has to be just a little bit of justification in giving him a little more attention than I'd originally expected.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Week 2: Walking

London has an interesting relationship with walking. Historically, London writers have a grand walking tradition, and an even more interesting tradition of documenting walks for others to take. I have a guide book of London Walks (featuring 25 walks by 25 London writers), and it's only one of thousands. There are regular London Walks guides, Country Walks guides, guides for waterways walks, food-centric meanderings, published pub crawls. There are guides that specialize in certain villages, in being "quiet" walks, parks and gardens, tea and cakes. A few guides claim to show you "Secret London" or "The London Nobody Knows." I think you get the idea ... Walking is huge. So, I decided to take part in this little walking scheme. 

I wasn't feeling too keen on public transportation, and since London today was unusually gorgeous and deliciously hot, I decided I'd just walk the whole day, maybe find a bench in some park somewhere and read for a bit, not get too crazy. Not getting crazy failed magnificently. I ended up wandering around some twelve and a half miles of London today in jeans, lousy shoes, and a pretty heavy backpack. That's not to say I didn't enjoy it, but let's just make it clear that I've been back in the flat for about five hours, and my feet and calves are still throbbing. That being said, just wandering took me to some pretty cool places and helped me get a really good feel of how this enormous city is compiled in a way that taking the Tube just can't do—there's something about the Tube that makes you feel like each individual station isn't connected to the others above the ground; am I the only one that feels this way? Anyways, it was really cool! I know I walked through Chelsea to Wandsworth, through Vauxhall, then Lambeth, on to Westminster, into the City of London/the Square Mile, then through Belgravia, and back into South Kensington. While I only touched bits and pieces of each of these places, each of them is a part of London, and it was fascinating to see the change of pace and tone as I passed through each of them. (I also seem to have developed a talent of finding high-society crowds to awkwardly amble through. Last week, it was the red carpet event attended by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Today, it was a pack of Buckingham Palace invitees, complete with top hats, ascots, and fascinators galore! You know, I always feel like a total bottom-feeder walking between them in my comparatively grubby clothes. Whatever.)

I think these distinct boroughs of the city are very fascinating in the way that they've developed their own personalities. I was watching My Fair Lady a couple of nights ago, and not only was it fun to see and hear things referenced that I am now familiar with, but it was interesting to see the character of Henry Higgins noting the variations in people's speech patterns, based on the area of the city they lived in. I suppose this is a lot like New York City, the way it has its own five boroughs with their own personalities and accents. I'd guess that most Americans are familiar with a Brooklyn accent, even though it's only a borough in NYC. So strange. Anyhow, London's definitely got NYC beat with 12 boroughs in the city, and a full 32 in the Greater London area. That's a lot more accents! And it's just in London alone! Never mind the fact that there's a whole island of dialectical variation! So far, I can only barely distinguish a northern England accent from a not-northern England accent, and with dodgy accuracy. I don't expect my inner Henry Higgins to emerge any time soon, so I don't expect that to improve at all. 

Regardless, I am proud of one major accomplishment today: I got a farmer's tan. Yes, that's right. I tanned. In London. If you don't realize what a major feat that is, I dare you to come over here and try to get one in a months' time. You probably won't succeed as it's almost perpetually overcast and/or rainy. To be fair, it's very faint and seems to be a little more on the side of mild sunburn than tan, and only that after a good six sunscreen-less hours, but even still, I am proud of it! It was wonderful to see the sun again; I hope it makes more frequent visits over the coming months, as being cold is getting old. (I honestly didn't intend for that to rhyme. It just happened.) Anyways, two weeks down... eleven more to go!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

First Week!

The only possible words to describe the past seven days would have to be: complete roller coaster. I hardly know where to start in explaining things, but I'm going to try to keep things upbeat, so I'm going to organize this into a few categories so we can begin and conclude on a high note. Those categories will be: (1) touristy-things, (2) frustrations and culture shock, (3) research progress, (4) cool cultural stuff.
  1. Touristy Things. We kicked off Thursday with a group meeting, which was awesome. We went on a lovely tour of Westminster Abbey, got lunch at a pub, walked down Southbank to Tower Bridge, saw an ancient Roman wall, had some incredible ice cream (I got Ferrero Rocher flavor ... you can bet I'll be having that again a few times this summer!), spent a few minutes in the Natural History Museum, biked around Hyde Park a bit, and went to institute! Talk about a busy day! But it was excellent.
       On Friday, I went to St. Paul's Cathedral. I was planning on going for my project anyways, and Friday happened to be the day that the BYU Singers were giving a concert, so I figured it was a perfect day to go. The concert was incredible--not only did they sing beautifully, but the acoustics in the dome made it even better. Touring the cathedral was fabulous; I went all the way to the top of the dome, which was almost 600 steps up! The views from up there were fantastic. I'd highly recommend it to anyone!
       After St. Paul's, I wandered around Kensington, Chelsea, and Knightsbridge for about four hours (I was locked out of the flat). It's a beautiful area though and very nice. I walked past a lot of embassies and consulates and whatnot, as well as numerous international restaurants and shops. It was a huge reminder of how international a city London is.
       Yesterday, I went back to the Natural History Museum, to the Science Museum, and to the V&A. I'll probably go back to a couple of them because I only really looked at a few specific exhibits, and then moved on to the next thing. One of the great things about London is that they have so many free museums! (It makes up for the ridiculously expensive admission prices for the religious sites, in my opinion.)
  2. Frustrations and Culture Shock. All I can say is thank goodness for Averyl and everything she's done for housing. If I had to navigate this for myself, I probably would have navigated myself back to the States, honestly. It's stressed me out so terribly and I'm not even the one that's been going out and looking for stuff. Fortunately, some lovely girls from the YSA ward have been letting me sleep on their couch since I got here, which has been absolutely wonderful. I'll be able to move in with a family tomorrow morning. Anyways, enough about that for now.
       I figure I might as well be honest about this: culture shock is hitting hard. It's kind of pathetic, since England is about as close to America as you can get on this side of the Atlantic, but I'd categorize it more as a homesick kind of culture shock than "This culture is completely different from the one I left behind." (That's not to say that London is just like America, because it's not. It just also isn't as different from America in the way that, say, Ghana or Paraguay or Mongolia, is different from America. But I'll get into some cultural things later.)
       The funny thing about culture shock is that it was one of those things that I thought I'd be prepared for. And although I was pretty accurate in guessing which of the "symptoms" I'd display, it's interesting to realize that anticipating outward symptoms is not the same as anticipating the actual emotional impact of culture shock. The emotional impact of culture shock is hard. I don't know how I failed to really think about it, but it's definitely not like you're suddenly doing these things without a reason. You have a reason: you're completely distraught. Whether or not there's a reason to be completely distraught varies and it certainly isn't perpetual, but when it strikes, it's hideous for a little bit.
  3. Research Progress. Although I haven't really gotten into the bulk of my research yet or really followed my schedule at all, but I've found some really interesting things that relate to my project.
       Like I said earlier, I went to St. Paul's Cathedral. Strangely enough, the architect of St. Paul's Cathedral happened to also be an astronomer. !!!!!!. How cool is that?? Not only was he an architect who was influenced by cosmology, but he was an architect of a major cathedral! It's like religion + science/intellect + architecture all in one! I was so excited when I found out. His name is Sir Christopher Wren, and he's someone I'd definitely like to understand better.
       The architecture of St. Paul's itself was also very thought-provoking. What really struck me was that the building is structured to represent our journey to God, so the doors open on the west side, and at the opposite east wall is the high altar. The audio guide I listened to as I was walking around talked about how, when the priest performs services at the high altar, he stands with his back to the congregation, in a sense standing with them, as they approach together what the guide called a "transcendent God." It spoke of God as being "totally different" and "beyond" the people. I found it interesting that this building is supposed to be representative of the people's journey to God, and yet the services suggest that God is unreachable.
       I thought this contrasted very significantly with LDS temples. They, similarly, are representative of our journey to God; but these buildings include the Celestial Room, which is meant to be representative of being in the presence of God. The journey is actually completed, at least symbolically. The Anglican concept of a transcendent God is something I'd definitely like to explore more deeply and understand where it came from. (I probably should know this, since I just took Christian history, but I've forgotten so I'll have to go back to my notes I guess.)
       At the Science Museum, I was really excited because there was an exhibit called "Cosmology & Culture." It ended up being something of a bust, because there wasn't much in the way of new information. That being said, I did get to see some copies of the Almagest, De Revolutionibus, Dialogue Concerning the Chief World Systems, and others, as well as some cool little contraptions. The one that really interested me was a Celestial Sphere made by Vincenzo Coronelli in the 17th century. It's like a globe of the night sky, if that makes sense. It's beautifully decorated with depictions of the constellations, both as stars and then filled out with illustrations.
       I also found a picture and a name that I'm excited to look into a little bit more. The man is named Camille Flammarion, and the picture is an engraving from one of his books, though the artist is unknown. It depicts a man who is in the world's sphere, and then breaks through it and is able to see the spheres outside of it. How cool! It's from 1888, so it's a little bit late for being a huge discovery, I think. But I think that Flammarion will be an interesting character in terms of getting an idea of where the whole medieval cosmology concept went by that time period (since apparently it was still relevant), and how that fit in with later perceptions of God.
    The Flammarion engraving
       I also saw an exhibit called "Signs, Symbols, Secrets," which was about alchemy. Alchemy was very closely related with Medieval/Renaissance cosmology, and there was a little bit of stuff from the museum that suggested God's role in alchemy. Although I don't think this will have a large impact on my project, it may be helpful. I got a good list of 16th-18th century texts that would be relevant to this  area.
       The final exciting thing for my research is that I found a book that I think will be helpful for my project called The Story of Astronomy by Couper & Henbest. It does cover a huge time period, but it does particularly discuss how astronomical discoveries impacted people's perspectives. I think it will be helpful in getting an overview of things, and in seeing how things have changed since the Copernican Revolution. 
  4. Cool Cultural Stuff. 
    • Stay Left. The words of the day during our group meeting were definitely "paradigm shift." It popped up several times, including in a conversation Ben and I had about walking. Some things you just take for granted in a country where you drive on the right side of the road, such as the propensity of everyone to carry this rule to the sidewalks. We don't think about it often, but pedestrian traffic in the US mimics vehicular traffic in a lot of ways. The same thing is true in London. I have to constantly remind myself to "stay left." Sometimes it's hard. When I'm crossing the street, even if I can see cars coming, after I've looked both ways, I always look left again right before I walk. It's just habitual! I'm afraid I'm going to break the habit, come back to the States, and get plowed by a bus. Or just be perpetually confused for a few months. 
    • Buskers. There's a website that I follow called Thought Catalog. It calls itself "a place for relevant and relatable non-fiction and thought," and I really enjoy it. Yesterday, someone posted an article that was about something I happened to have a lot of experience with yesterday: street performers. Or, to use the apparently technical term, "buskers." I walked past a fabulous quartet and a guy who was singing the same song for several hours (or at least, every time I walked by him). The article is pretty cool, and can be found here: It was exciting to see something that I'd just been able to start experiencing on a website I've been following for months. Just to think that if I were home, I wouldn't really know what this is like ... but I'm in London, so I do! It's definitely cool. 
    • Pants vs. Trousers. Remember this post? You know, the one where I posted that hilarious picture of pants and suspenders? Well, wouldn't you know that I messed it up right after getting here. We were in institute, and I decided to make a comment that involved me using the word "pants," which Averyl (thankfully) corrected for everyone. Naturally, I got laughed at. Thankfully I was able to laugh at myself too. I hoped that public humiliation would be enough to permanently change "pants" to "trousers" in my head. No such luck. I've messed it up like three times since then. :)

Whew! I think I'll leave it at that for now! I'm excited to see what the next week holds!