Tuesday, December 4, 2007

London in an afternoon

A few nights ago, I had one of those blue moon moments come along where you truly relish being alive. One so memorable that even while you are experiencing it, you know that 30 years into the future you will look back and feel like it happened yesterday- where you can still see and feel the details, remember specific sounds and in some cases, smells. I have had that feeling before, but the difference was that this time I was actually moved and overwhelmed by the environment to the point where I felt the true and intended spirituality.

On Sunday I boarded a plane for London, and was honestly not that interested in this trip. I have always used a simple litmus test as travel barometer to let me know if I just need a break: If I step off a plane and someone were to hand me a ticket for Paris, would I turn around and get back on? If the answer is yes, then I'm still ok. If the answer is no, then I need to stop to recharge. On Sunday, I was still unpacking from a previous business trip and trying to look toward December 17th, my sister's birthday and last day with IBM. Given that this trip was for an IBM conference, I was definitely having difficulty getting motivated. I still have several thousand chores to take care of before my last day- my email alone looks like what you might encounter if you decided to go clean out the attic of a home that has been in the family for 100 years. I decided that the opportunity cost of not going would far outweigh the benefits in the long run, so after 15 travel hours jammed into a window seat and San Francisco layovers, I arrived at London Heathrow 14:00 local time. There were a considerable backlog of planes waiting to land and our flight swerved this way and that to coordinate a slow downward spiral towards Heathrow’s runways on slot availability. Light, puffy clouds dotted the landscape below and one quick glance out the window in any direction revealed no fewer than seven heavies carving contrails through the sky with 747s zinging by barely four hundred feet above us.

Making my way from Heathrow to the hotel, I decided that the entire afternoon was still open for exploration. Slamming a Red Bull and grounding my gear, I hopped onto a Heathrow shuttle bus and then armed only with a map, camera and a few random Pounds boarded the next Heathrow Express train heading to Paddington Station. The London rail network is efficiency at its purest definition with each station maintaining it’s own unique charm. Paddington Station is an 1800s Victorian Era rail station that looks similar to many European open air train centers- most reminiscent to me of Gare du Nord in Paris with the major difference being in the prolific abundance of shops and bistros that have popped up.

Walking directly off the Heathrow Express platform it is possible to immediately descend down into the Underground Bakerloo Line where you can pick up a day pass ticket for roughly 5 Pounds. The Underground warrants a story all to itself given the culture that surrounds it, but that’s for another day. I moved quickly along the jammed corridors in between the Bakerloo and Central Lines marveling at the unique paintings, friezes and mosaics specific to each stop and enjoying the musicians playing away on different instruments and to different tunes. It’s so great to hear them down there, happy notes bouncing off the concrete walls 200 meters before you stumble across them. Quickly and efficiently, I made it to my target stop located within blocks of the British Museum- a top pick based on the wealth of material inside and free entrance- quite appealing in the age of a weak US Dollar.

London is nowhere near as organized as Paris or New York well squared blocks and wide thoroughfares. In many ways, London still reflects its medieval beginnings with a tight nest of streets that interlock with no particular organization. Main areas, like Piccadilly Circus are open and easy to find. But at the height of rush hour with a crush of hurried locals the streets can become intimidating and it is ridiculously easy to find yourself turned around barely 50 meters from your hotel.

The British Museum is a treasure trove of unique items that are proudly on display for the cultural advancement of society at large. However, many items in the museum are direct descendants of the Great Britain days of imperial worldwide rule. Even today, you can do the who’s who of governments that have an issue with some items here which are in dispute. “Hey, how about returning those _____ that you stole in 17xx?” For example, in 2004 Athens was deep in conversation with England to return priceless marble carvings that had been pulled directly off the Acropolis. The British response? Nope, they stay in the UK. Sorry, Charlie.

Walking into a giant atrium that welcomes visitors to the Museum, I tried unsuccessfully to gain entrance to the current exhibition “The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army” that runs through April 2008 and features a selection of 120 objects as well as 20 prized Terracotta warriors on display, part of the 8,000+ soldiers created to adorn the Emperor of Qin’s mausoleum in 210 BC. Discovered in 1974, these larger than life statues are located in X’ian Province and is widely considered one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century. Since the exhibit was sold out, I took this pic of some clay figure takeoff on the warriors and then moved on to some of my other favorites in the British Museum which no matter how many times I see them am still moved by their uniqueness, beauty and cultural significance.

Topping that list is the Rosetta Stone, which is displayed right off the main gallery. The Rosetta Stone was originally discovered by French explorers in 1799 in the port town of Rosetta, Egypt and resulted in How the stone ended up in English hands remains subject to debate but all rumors point to some shady dealings in a back alley. Regardless, here it stands in all it’s splendor- the first useable tool capable of laying out a path to translate between two forms of hieroglyphic and ancient Greek thereby unlocking the secrets of the Pharaohs.

Across the museum is “Hoa Hakananai’a”, a smaller Moai which in native tongue means “Stolen or Hidden Friend” that the Brits essentially swiped off Easter Island in 1868 when the HMS Topaze arrived. The story I heard from locals on Rapa Nui were that Hoa Hakananai’a was on a long boat enroute to the Topaze before locals understood that it had been moved although given it’s 4 ton weight I have a tough time imagining the crew was able to throw the statue onto their shoulders, making off with it under the noses of the locals. Furthermore, at the time the Topaze was at anchor Easter Island natives were still actively practicing cannibals and appear to have developed a taste for the occasional shipwrecked sailor. So if I were on the Topaze crew I doubt I’d do much to press any issue, let alone outright theft of a spiritual icon knowing full well that I might end up a main ingredient in the evening’s stew. More likely, Hakananai’a followed the more common British model of moving items home from their origin: They paid off a Chief with some random item like a musket or nails who then approved of the transaction. By a strange twist of fate, outright taking this Moai from the island likely saved it from the fate of its brothers still on Easter Island. When Captain Cook first visited Rapa Nui on Easter of 1774, Moai were all upright with their ahu topknots firmly in place. But by 1868 and thanks to internecine conflict, the Moai had been intentionally toppled with many breaking in two pieces when they hit the ground. Finding such a transportable and exquisitely carved Moai likely seemed like a prize opportunity and the potential to save a piece of cultural history to the crew. Indirectly, they also kept it from eroding away thanks to lashing by the elements and sea air. With the exception of a select few that I saw on island, Hoa Hakananai’a continues to be the best conditioned of all Moai that I have seen and its intricate carving designs are stunning. You can read more about Easter Island here.

At 16:30, I stepped off again and headed quickly via the Central Line to St Pauls Cathedral, where I had a plan to finally pick up Light of the World Christmas Cards for mom. Light of the World is a painting by William Holman Hunt, completed around 1900 which shows a figure of Jesus standing by an overgrown and long closed door, prepared to knock for entry. The symbolism of the painting is that the closed door with no outside handle stands for human conscience, which can only be opened from the inside and represents that only we can let God into our lives. The St Paul’s painting is the 3rd iteration of Hunt’s masterpiece created toward the end of his life and the large painting takes up a dominating position in the well lit North Transept as part of the chapel located there. Last year when I was travelling through London I had arrived too late in the day to hit the St Paul’s Gift Store and pick up a stack of Light of the World cards for mom, who I know would love them for sending out her annual Christmas notes to family and friends.

Now determined to get to the store with adequate time, I moved quickly through the Underground corridors, emerging streetside about a block away from the cathedral. Transiting the iron gates at the back of the building, I quickly just as I heard the bells toll 17:00. “Uh oh”.. I put on a charming smile and approached a woman manning a side door that leads directly to the cathedral shop. Despite her polite, clippy dialogue, she couldn’t have cared less that I had just flown in, wasn’t getting downtown again, and knew exactly what I wanted. In typical British regimented because-that’s-the-way-it-is methodology, she proceeded to tell me that it really was pretty much tough crap that I had missed the opening hours by one minute, and I guess I’d just have to wait until my next trip to London. Asking for alternatives, she then sent me on a wild goose chase across the greater St Paul’s area to several card stores that she insisted housed many St Paul’s cards and items. After walking 10 minutes down Fleet Street past 50 Starbucks stores that have popped up like crab grass to one of her “suggestion” stores, I finally realized that she was more interested in just solving her problem by making me scarce long enough to shut her door and never then dealing with me again. Why not just send this gullible tourist on a 10 minute walking tour to a store less likely of carrying St Paul’s Light of the World cards than a Hallmark in Des Moines would. But, it worked and I left her alone to walk the streets, getting more and more pissed off at her ruse with every step.

So this is how I finally led back up to St Paul’s. Redeye tired and bloodshot, poor from the US Dollar weakness, a little sweaty from my speed walking and greatly irritated from the helpful ha-ha-on-you suggestion Easter egg hunt. I was concerned that I hadn’t looked carefully at the evening schedule for Evensong, the nightly service held at St Paul’s that I had been able to sit in on last year and which won me over as one of the most unique services I had ever experienced. To me, Evensong is up there with Good Friday at West Side Presbyterian, Christmas Eve at National Presbyterian, Cao Dai services in Vietnam and Buddhist prayers at temple in Rangoon. Last year I literally stumbled on Evensong and wasn’t even sure I was allowed to sit in until asking one of the ushers, who happily invited me to take a seat and observe. Since it was my first time at a St Paul's service, I naturally thought that I would have to sit well in the back of the church but then saw a bunch of people walking straight up front and into the center dome area. So I followed, and found a seat smack in the center of the domed area where you aren’t just sitting in a service, you are quite literally absorbed into your surroundings and feel overwhelmed by the enormity of setting. In an event that closely follows my trend of always screwing up communion no matter where I happen to be, I managed to do that in St Paul’s by walking to the front of the communion line, taking the wafer directly out of the hand of the priest, keeping it in my hand, stepping right, then taking the goblet out of the hand of another priest for a drink and then realizing that at this church, they place the wafer on your tongue and then guide the chalice. Great. Walking away, I looked down and still had the wafer in my hand. Chalk up one more church that I need to brush up on Communion For Dummies.

I was looking forward to all of this, and figured that at the very least, I’d be able to sit in on Evensong and then afterwards grab some quick food before heading back to the hotel for sleep to line up on London local time. Little did I know that I would soon experience a service so moving that I literally wanted to quickly freeze time, call home, have the family hop onto planes and then have everyone join in to experience such a memorable occasion. There are too many times that I have looked out across a mountain to a sunrise, seen a painting so moving, or laid witness to something so beautiful that the first thoughts are “I wish someone were here to experience this with me”, and that was what went through my mind within minutes of the 18:00 Advent Procession starting. Fortunately for me, I had arrived at 17:30, literally not knowing what to expect but definitely noticing that something was different this night. As I had arrived 30 minutes early, I walked with experience straight past all those people who did the same thing I did initially on my first service- sit in the outlying rows well down the corridor and away from the rotunda. Within minutes though, the entire cathedral filled to the gills and you could tell it was going to be special- the Nave, North and South Alleys and both Transepts began to fill, ultimately leaving standing room only with easily over 5,000 people in attendance.

From my central Dome seat facing southwest I slowly drank in my surroundings, relishing in how much I detail and labor had gone into the tremendous history behind this building. Gazing to the Golden Gallery 280 feet upwards from the Cathedral floor, the St Paul’s dome is one of the largest in the world supported by eight pillars and weighing over 65,000 tons. Sir Christopher Wren, chief architect of the Wren Building at William and Mary is the individual most responsible for the success of St Paul’s and it’s greatness as a structure. Working for over thirty years on the building and through tremendous challenges, he finally saw his son place the final stone block at the top of the dome in 1708 when he was 76 years old. Even at an advanced age, he still insisted on being lifted in a basket to the top of the dome at least once a week to inspect construction progress. He was that interested in the absolute perfection of his building. But here’s a man who despite the massive undertaking, obstacles and his personal status still ended up being humble enough in his beliefs that his final resting place located deep in the southeast corner of the crypt with a simple stone marker.

Between the arches spanning the main hall and continuing around the inner dome are mosaics of prophets and saints, installed between 1715 and 1888 in an area known as the Stone Gallery. Today, these paintings and murals depicting the life of St. Paul look down on you with silent approval and add to the magnitude of the event. Light sparkles off the gold and down onto the standing congregation while priests begin the service and a chill goes up your spine, thinking about how you had somehow managed to quite literally stumble upon this event after forcing yourself to gin up the energy to make the trip into town.

As the service began, the pipe organ gently played out several tunes composed by Bach, Wagner and others, the notes bouncing and echoing off the white-grey limestone walls in a manner where you feel the music, not just listen to it. The lights slowly dimmed as the priests and choir assembled at the front of the cross-shaped church, ambient light streams in through colorful stained glass windows and reflecting off gilded gold statues, paintings and ornaments. Candles lit along the aisles and within the choir lofts assume a softer flickering glow when sequenced with mahogany pulpits. In this manner, with 5,000 hushed souls captivated by the sequence of events about to unfold, a muted spectrum of colors create a uniquely warm environment in dim splendor.

Identified by St Paul’s as one of the years most dramatic services, the procession then slowly moves from darkness into the light with service aspects focusing on Advent themes of life and death, heaven and hell, time and eternity, judgment and healing. Speakers alternate between priests, choir members and selected members. All have profound pieces and articulate through thick British accents to make their words carry even more weight. Over the next hour, the congregation alternates between captivated interest in speaking roles, singing hymns and looking on with silent awe as the cathedral comes to life through lighting additions.

And then it was over and the time had arrived to leave the confines of the church. I walked with the crowd out into the evening air and made my way via the Underground back to the hotel, looking on at mildly bored riders across from me and feeling energized with new found excitement for a new day, a new experience and a new adventure that down the road I would love the opportunity to repeat. The unique aspect of this memory though is that unlike a one of a kind sunrise, this one can be repeated.

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1 comment:

Allison said...

Sounds so wonderful...how fantastic to be so unexpectedly moved by an experience you just "happen" to walk into. Thank you for sharing it!