Wednesday, May 07, 2003

So I was lying around yesterday, going, “Oh, gee. No class tomorrow. How boring. What am I going to do with myself?”

Then I hit myself in the head and said, “Girl, you are half an hour from LONDON. Possibly the kewlest city in the world. Definitely the one with the most history, not counting Rome and Athens and okay, Jerusalem, and . . . never mind that. It’s famous, okay? Furthermore, you will only be in this favored position for another month, half of which will be taken up with insane exams and huge papers that you should have started already but you’re too lazy. WHAT ARE YOU WHINING ABOUT?”

So I decided to go to the Tower of London, which I haven’t seen yet. It was a lovely day, and I say that in both senses of the term. It was clear and blue-skied and sunny, without being broil-your-skin-off hot. (In fact, this whole spring has been extraordinarily dry for London. The natives must be getting antsy. “Rain!” they say. “We need rain! Grey skies! Mizzling! Cold wind off the Thames! This way we can mutter about the weather and make our mates jealous by going to Spain, where it is after all supposed to be sunny!”) For me personally, it was also a fun, non-stressful day.

First off, the Tower of London is a bit of a misnomer. I was expecting a tower . . . one. Sticking straight up out of the ground like, you know, a tower. I always wondered how they could fit all that stuff into one little tower. Well, now I know. The Tower of London was originally built by William I (yep, that William) as a living quarters, and he’s not going to live in one little tower. It was this way up until one of the Henries, Hank I, possibly. The reason it’s also a prison is because the medievals were damn efficient. “Hell!” they said. “It’s already got a big freakin’ wall and great defenses and some semblence of plumbing. Just dig another room and you got yourself a place for the criminals! Why build another great honkin’ building? What, are we made of money?”

Over the years, the single castle has evolved into a massive complex with seperate living quarters and incredibly expensive gift shops. People actually still live there today, although nobody’s imprisoned. Even when people were imprisoned, by the way, they were never in jail as we think of it. They had a full set of rooms with all the modern conveniences, like chamber pots and servents to throw the chamber pots at. Sometimes they were even allowed to go hunting. The only thing they didn’t have was permission to just stroll out the front gate and continue their lives as usual.

Naturally, I saw the Crown Jewels, which were . . . glittery. And . . . yeah, glittery. They don’t actually belong to the Queen herself, by the way. They belong to the Kingdom of England, which is an important distinction that I hope no royal forgets after a bad day at the races. It was beautiful jewelry, but there were some ceremonial things included that just made me blink. Things like the Sword of Offering (which sounds like something from a Dungeons and Dragons game) are fairly logical in their origin. The Orb is kind of mysterious, but it’s a pretty kingly (queenly) thing, so okay. But . . . the Ceremonial Spoon? What, in case the Queen suddenly has the urge to eat some Ceremonial Porridge? I’m still mystified as to the origin of this part of the coronation ceremony.

Interestingly, a lot of recent royals have had their own coronation crowns made for them, starting with George IV. Ah, yes, you can always count on good ol’ George IV to spend lots of money for absolutely no reason at all. However, I believe Queen E just used Queen V’s crown. Good for her.

As you can see in the photos here, I managed to get a few shots of the Tower Bridge, but it was so sunny that my camera had problems. But the Tower of London was really pretty neat, and worth the trip. Word of advice: if you can, do what I did, and go on a weekday morning. If you go on a Saturday afternoon, the lines will be insane.

Book for today: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. “Please, sir, can I have some more?” is the famous line from Dickens’ second major book. This is actually a very small episode that takes place quite early, but it’s an example of Dickens’ withering scorn for the treatment of paupers in Victorian England. If you’ve only seen “The Muppet Christmas Carol” and you never realized what a social satirist the man was, Oliver Twist features a scathing indictment of workhouses and smug middle-class morality. Don’t get me wrong, he shows us a picture of the criminal underworld that’s tabloid-sensational. But he also understands the forces that drive his characters. The only complaint I have about this book is that while it is called Oliver Twist, the little main character has very little to do with the determination of his own fate. He virtually disappears in the last quarter. Still, it’s Dickens, and it’s worth reading if you have time.

Monday, May 05, 2003

Okay, quick quick post just to let y'all know that my pictures are FINALLY up! Hooray! Cue the Funky Chicken Dance! Pop on over to my account at Yahoo Photos and give them a quick peruse. There's a lot of stupid ones in the Spain section, because I didn't feel like culling it down. Lots of palm trees and flowers.

Oh--and the rude American story I promised . . . okay, here goes.

So I'm in the hostel in Madrid, wonderful but thin-walled. Thursday night, my friend and I walk in to see the hostel owner (Spanish-speaking only, remember) talking to some American kids in the room next to ours. The guy at the door was looking at her with this totally "Dur?" look. You know the kind I mean. In frustration, she turns to us and asks Jen to translate her request for them to keep it down. Jen did so, and the kid got all offended: "I knew what she was saying!" Doubtful, but if he did, he could have at least nodded or something.

That's not the end of it. Flash forward now: it's about 10:00 on Friday night. I'm hopping an 8 am bus for Sevilla the next morning, and I know I'm not going to get much sleep on Saturday night because I'll be on the bus back to Madrid in order to catch my Sunday flight. Monday I start classes again, bright and early. Right. So I need sleep. Plus I really am tired from my day. BUT the same kids from next door start talking really loudly. I mean, it's one thing when it's a soft background mutter--you expect that in hostels. But this was LOUD. Things like, "Oh yeah, in seventh grade I was like really tubby" and so forth. I could honestly hear every word, crystal clear. After about an hour of praying for them to shut up, I gave up and knocked on their door. Following is a transcript of the conversation.

Me (trying to be nice about it): Hi. I realize it's not that late, but I've got an early bus to catch and the walls are pretty thin here, so could you just be a little quieter?

Kid (overflowing with attitude): Well, we're not going to stop talking.

Me (taken somewhat aback): Um--okay, but I just want you to know I can hear every word.

Kid (even more belligerently): What are we supposed to do, talk in a whisper?

Me (thoroughly exasperated): Fine. I'll wear headphones or something. I just wanted you to know that I can hear you talking. (I leave.)

And they CONTINUE talking, without any effort whatsoever to lower their voices. Around 1 am, exhaustion overcomes me and I pass out. About 5ish, I wake up to hear noise still coming from the room, but it sounds more like a TV or radio. I've become convinced that they left it on to spite me.

I realize that the condition of being an ass is not limited to Americans alone, but there seems to be a special brand of it that only we posess, this kind of the-world-is-my-McDonald's-Play-Area-and-screw-you-if-you-have-feelings-about-that. It was flabbergasting. I mean, did you ever once notice an apology in there? Anything that even hinted of it? No. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. No wonder most of the world hates us. I hate us, and I am us.

Okay, this was a lot less quick and somewhat more bitter than I meant it to be. I'll recommend a good book so as not to end it on a sour note.

The Story of Tracy Beaker Jacqueline Wilson. I'm actually not sure if she's available in the States, but I hope so, because she's a major bestseller over here. Anyway, this is not your normal sunshiney perfect-world children's book. Tracy Beaker's mum has left her in state care for the past several years. Tracy ain't no Oliver Twist, though. She gets in fights with the other kids, lobbies unashamedly for her favorite adult to adopt her, and generally looks out for Number One. But there's real sweetness under her shell. The other big thumbs-up to this book is the ending, which is not saccharine-sweet, everything-gets-fixed, happily-ever-after. Jacqueline Wilson isn't afraid to show us the way that some kids' lives really are, and how they really deal with it. Go see if you can find her.

Thursday, May 01, 2003

I'm back! I'm alive! Okay, yes, it's been four days since my plane landed, but they've been busy days.

Spain was FANTASTIC. I loved the country, even when people were giving me the fishy eyeball because I couldn't halfway speak their language. (My great-grandmother is rolling in her grave. Twirling, actually.) It was warm, if overcast most days, and just lovely. Unlike my last trip, I didn't go haring all over the country. A little bit of haring, but much more relaxing.

Our base of operations was Madrid. We stayed in a lovely little hostel called Hostal la Luz, on Calle Fuentes. Just a recommendation for y'all. I don't know if they have a website, but they're listed in the Let's Go guidebooks for Spain and Madrid. It was nice and clean, and for the money, the room was great. A quick word of warning: the hostel owner spoke no English, so make sure you have a Spanish-speaker in your group if you ever end up there.

We saw lots of things around the city, like the Prado, the Palacio Real, and lots of resturants. Mmmm. Tapas (a light dinner consisting of nibblies and alcohol), chocolate y churros (a dessert that is beyond description and really just has to be experienced), paella (puh-leez tell me you know what this is), and, to my shame, McDonald's. Hey! I was hungry!

On Thursday we went to Toledo, which is between an hour and two hours south of Madrid by bus, so you can do it as a day trip. It's an incredible city, just unspeakably gorgeous. It looks very very old, and that's because it is. (Huh. Who would'a thought.) Ancient Moorish architecture is side-by-side very modern buses and cars, and strangely enough it all seems to work. I took over forty pictures on my camera because it is just that gorgeous. It's on a hill, and in the middle of the hills, and it all just keeps rising and rising until it starts falling. I can tell you, it's great for your eyes but not so hot for your legs. Ouch. We visited the el Greco Museum. He was an interesting painter--painting in the early Renaissance, but his paintings actually look almost Impressionistic, because the brushstrokes are very loose and soft. The el Greco "look" is very famous, that pale, bony face that evokes an impression of holiness, but nobody ever talks about how strange he is for a Renaissance painter. At least not that I've heard, but then again, I'm an English major.

On Saturday, we hopped an extremely early bus and went to Sevilla. Since I didn't get very much time in the city, I don't have a very strong impression of it. We got to see a cathedral, not terribly different from the one in Toledo (aside from the Moorish tower that the Christians just kept around because it was useful), and then the Palacio Real in Sevilla. Apparently, a long time ago, kings didn't have capital cities, but traveled around to all the major ones throughout the year. In each city, naturally, there was a royal palace for them. The one in Sevilla is modeled on the Alhambra--very Moorish in design, even though it was built by a Christian king. I liked it a lot better than the Palacio Real in Madrid, which was coldly grand and very intimidating. The Sevilla one was cosier, warmer, and to my eyes, more beautiful. Eventually, you'll see the pictures.

Update on the photos: I am in the process of uploading them now. But I've got a LOT of pictures, so it's a long project, and it'll be spread out over some days. I also have a limited amount of space on my yahoo account, so if you see a picture there one day and it's not there the next, that's because I'm in a constant state of culling them down. Sorry . . . blame Yahoo. Yes, blame Yahoo for all your troubles, including the ones that are totally unrelated to me. You may also notice that there are no pictures of actual people, not even me. This is because I'm not comfortable with having my picture up for all to see, and for all I know, my friends might be the same way. So just shut up and enjoy the scenery, at this link. I've reorganized them into photo albums of where I've gone, so if you have no interest in, say, Greenwich, you don't have to click. I can't put up a little blurb about each one, though--there's just too many, and we'd all get bored.

That's enough for this blog entry, I think. I won't spoil it by ranting about rude Americans, although I've got a doozy of a story to tell. Next time.

Books for today: Two For the Lions by Lindsay Davis. This is one of that quietly huge subgenres, Roman murder mysteries. Ancient Rome, which is you know me, is right up my alley. Wooohoo! I have to say, the best part is the detective, a middle-class Roman called Marcus Didius Falco. He's been described as Columbo in a toga, and I can definitely trace a resemblence. He's definitely in this business for the money, although there's not much of it, and he has an unexpected chivalrous streak. Watch out for his gal, Helena Justina, who's as sharp as a javelin and definitely no clinging Roman maiden. The mystery is kind of hard to follow, and the ending is . . . strange. But if you're a fan of Ancient Rome and great characters, pick this or any of the other ones up.