Think Pieces on London

by David Hartsough (2015-01-02)


The following are a series of think pieces / short essays I wrote for my "Expositions on Travel" class while studying abroad in London. Each was written for a particular prompt that I have since forgotten, but I'm sure was hugely important for you to understand them. Whoops.

First Impressions of British Londoners: Transit and Family

But first, a slightly irrelevant preface to familiarize you with the author.


As I woke up and my eyes opened for what was certainly not the first time that day, I was pleased to see that two of the three movies I was watching had not finished. Ahead of me, Denzel Washington consoled a coworker, the dad of some large family just returned home, and Donatello, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, barely saved Megan Fox. These things all conveniently occurred on small, seven inch screens attached to the back of seats 43G, 44G, and 45G on the Boeing 777 that I was strapped into. My seat, 48H, was unfortunately parked behind seat 47H, whose screen has only the options of either admiring the flight plan from O'Hare to Heathrow or flipping through the channels: How the Universe Will End, Disney TV, and Disney TV. I opted to not watch stars explode in a documentary fashion but to take advantage of my view across the aisle. Luckily, once Denzel finished his bit on the screen, the Norwegian fellow in seat 47G put "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" on.

If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, use the facial expressions of the person who is wearing the headphones attached to the seven inch screen to help you get a better understanding of what just happened on that screen during that dialogue scene just then. Unless the fellow with the headphones on is from Norway because the man in seat 47G never expressed any emotion.

The fact that this Norwegian fellow managed to maintain the same stern face he had when I first looked over to observe him playing a game on his iPad was particularly impressive. At first I rationalized that the stern face was a direct result from the puzzling challenges he faced in his Norwegian version of some Bejeweled-like game, but then I noticed how bright and colorful and simple and all-around entertaining the game was. I was surprised he couldn't match the smiles of the cute, little fruits animated on his iPad screen. The difficulty of this fruit game alone could not suffice for expression of pain he maintained. What could the cause be? How could this man feel and display such a worrisome expression of suffering during comic episodes with Danny DeVito on seat 48G's seven-inch screen or during deliciously dainty servings of American Airline packaged meals?

Perhaps I'm misunderstanding happiness and human expression/emotion in general, or perhaps you and I and the rest of the world must accept the fact that, besides the Norwegian man himself and possibly his female acquaintance, we will never come to understand why this stern-faced man expressed such pain. Regardless, I was still thoroughly pleased by my three movies and three course breakfast of some strange yogurt, tidbits of oatmeal and things in a bag, and just the top section of a mushy blueberry muffin (also bagged).

Not the Preface

Fast-forward to the airport, where it was 10 something in the morning in London and I had at a maximum but three hours of sleep. As I stood awaiting a bus, a small British boy ran past me, laughing, while his father was running with a large smile around the corner, tracking his son. A fellow American girl beside me remarked on how dangerous that was, but to me, the father and son seemed so calm and happy. They weren't worried or thinking about the worst possible case scenario. They felt safe in their airport and were enjoying each other in a notable bond of trust.

Fast-forward to the bus, where it was still probably 10 something in the morning in London and I still had but three hours of sleep. The bus driver welcomed us, made a small joke about how he just got his license yesterday, and took us into London by Kensington, then Westminster, and all the way to our hotel by Russell Square. This British man also seemed rather calm, happy, confident, and thereby, trustworthy to me. He drove the bus at considerably high speeds while taking sharp turns and entering narrow passes with ease and finesse. Luckily, the same American girl who made the remark from earlier fell asleep before she could notice the driving and make more remarks. While the average American onlooking the traffic and travel in London would find it to be a hectic or dangerous mess, the London drivers themselves must have an entirely different perspective because they remained cool and confident with every decision and navigation.

Outside the bus, the city was awaking to a new Saturday morning, full of misty rain and wonder. While there were many similarities between this city and the large cities that I've driven through in the states, the most distinguishable thing about London for me is the design and layout of the houses, streets, sidewalks, and stores. There is notably more brick and stone than the average American city, and the general architecture featured more Victorian styles that us people from across the pond seem to idolize. Like most cities with a population of over eight million, the houses and buildings were all tightly tucked together. The streets seemed more narrow than I was accustomed to, and the walkways darted back about buildings in a seemingly random manner. Although I imagine there are many shortcuts for those most familiar with walking throughout the city.

Fast-forward to another important form of transportation: the tubes. After many flights of spiraling stairs, I boarded a train in the London Underground. Beside me was a British woman with her three children at the train doors. I enjoyed the family's little jokes and the innocence of the young children. At one stop, one of the boys put his arm in the way of the closing doors. The train beeped as the doors opened up again, and the little boy said to his mum, "I didn't know it would do that." Here again I noted how the mother remained calm and cool about the situation.

Rewind back to the hotel where, for but just a passing moment I watched a British family walk by me. The father had his son straddling his shoulder, while he held onto his son's right leg with his free hand. The father and son seemed so comfortable and trusting with each other. Even though the soon did not seem entirely secure atop his father's shoulders in that way, the mother calmly trailed behind, quietly pushing the younger daughter in a stroller. I could not help but admire the calmness, confidence, and trust that these British people displayed because I kept picturing my mother in the same circumstances and laughing to myself while imagining her freaking out a bit over the various scenarios I witnessed. No offense to my mother, but she, like many other Americans, can barely handle the stresses of Midwest traffic and travel sometimes. Not to mention how often American parents like my mother can seem overbearing and overprotective with their children. I don't wish to be wrongly assuming/too quickly concluding anything about the British Londoners, but I also can't help but wonder how different life would be if I lived in a society whose people more often maintained a culture of calmness, confidence, and trust amongst each other.

Why Am I Going To Travel?

I'm going to hop on plane that will fly four thousand miles over 82 quadrillion gallons of water to another country whose people speak the same language as I do yet would have much better understood this sentence if it were rewritten to say, "I'm about to take a six thousand kilometer flight across the pond that's got about 310 quadrillion liters of water."

Why? "Study abroad?" While that initially send like a satisfactory answer, I suppose it's just a fancy way of saying "traveling while doing school work too." I know why I'm doing school work. But why am I traveling?

If you ask people a question like, "What's on your bucket list?", traveling is by far the most popular answer. I've found that it's not just people in the Midwest (mostly plain, flat corn fields) who answer questions like that with something along the lines of "travel." The people who answer in that manner actually encompass a vast majority of the world. Clearly humanity regards this whole "traveling" business as rather important, significant, and (dare I say) meaningful. But how did this come to be so? What do people get out of traveling that they would consider the experience such a key goal in their lifetimes?

Travel is defined as "making a journey, typically of some length or abroad." Interestingly, the etymology of the word, according to its Wikipedia article, is a little unclear, but it probably derives from the Old French word travail, which actually means work strenuously, toil, or labor. We still occasionally use "travail" in English today as a synonym for struggle. However, I can guarantee that "work strenuously" and "struggle" are not on the average modern bucket list. The Wikipedia article suggests that this etymology and semantic change in meaning for the word "travel" reflects the change in difficulty of travel over time, and I would go so far as to say these things also demonstrate how humanity has changed its perception on the purpose and takeaways of travel. Obviously there's some interconnectivity between how we view travel's significance and how we view its difficulty. For instance, because I believe that Mars is much too difficult for me to travel to before I die, traveling to Mars has little to no importance or meaning to me (and I choose not to add "travel to Mars" to my bucket list). Although, perhaps I'm suggesting that interstellar travel will be a rather high priority for people in the next millennium and will frequent the average bucket lists of that time. Following this train of thoughts leads me to ask, "When travel was most difficult, what was the most popular item at the top of people's bucket lists?" This question illustrates my mental condition of ADHD and marks the first of many tangents and semi-irrelevant thoughts. To conclude this paragraph, I'll summarize: if we follow the history of the word "travel," we can see that the ease of travel is almost directly proportional to its significance to humanity.

Still, while decreases in its difficulty explain a little about the modern perception of travel, that does not satisfy the question, "Why travel?" Luckily, the very same Wikipedia article on travel also features a small section entitled, "Purpose and motivation." Here the article states that people travel for recreation, leisure, "pleasure, relaxation, discovery and exploration, getting to know other cultures, and taking personal time to build interpersonal relationships." I personally asked a few people who value travel highly why people want to travel so badly. Some of the responses included the idea that people often believe that "the grass is greener on the other side." Others suggested that people just want to experience change sometimes and want to see something new. Still others mentioned that it broadens one's mind and even gives new perspectives, while also presenting opportunities for learning and self-discovery. I suppose that all these answers hit home for me in some way. I'm leaving the states with the expectations that where I'm headed is different and unique and will offer new and unfamiliar cultural and social experiences. Although I will be doing school work all the while I'm traveling, I will still be having plenty of fun, too. But mainly I'm traveling to try new perspectives. I believe that perspective shapes reality. I want to explore difference in people's day-to-day lives and what influences them. And if I encounter particular differences in the daily lives of those abroad that I find better or more appealing than that of my own in the states, then I will consider how to implement changes in my life at home that would mimic the differences and result in similar positive influences on my own day-to-day experiences. If I can change my perspective for the better, I'll change my reality for the better right along with it.

Oh, and I have to admit that a part of me does believe that the grass may be a bit greener there. I hear the countryside is beautiful in the UK and Ireland. And there's also this idea that Americans have this stigma of being a largely ignorant group of people who lack culture and tact. So perhaps if I spend enough time around these British chaps, I can leave behind a bit of my ascribed status of baseness.

A Timely Tour in the British Museum.

In the west wing of the British Museum lie the Greek and Roman galleries. Room 11, nearest the entrance to the museum, marks the start of the British collection of Ancient Greek artifacts and therefore the start of this tour. Please enter this room. Here you will see that between the tiny tidbits of artifacts sprinkled about the room there are large amounts of reading, so for those of you who are interested in that sort of thing, feel free to stick around in this room. The rest of us will continue on because it doesn't take much time at all to circle the room, see every bit of coin, jewelry, weaponry, cookery, or whatever, and really take it all in. My personal record time is 47 seconds, but please, if you wish to beat this record, kindly find a time when there are little to no people slumped over the large readings.

The main attraction of Rooms 12 and 13 is the showcasing of the progression of Greek pottery over time. If you hadn't guessed it, the museum inform you with its little readings that the pottery did in fact get better as the culture and technology developed, so I'm hinting that the best vases are at the end of each room. Please admire these by quietly whispering, "Ooo, that is really neat." and taking a few photos because we all know that no one will believe you saw these artifacts in real life unless you can provide a picture. If you have really doubtful friends, you may even choose to take a selfie. If in some strange possibility you have no means of taking a picture, don't worry; you can easily find a picture of any of these artifacts that would be much better than you could have tried to take in the first place. After you've selected your favorite angle of the artifact from the various options on Google Images, simply Photoshop yourself adjacent the artifact.

Now you'll notice that that Room 13 seems to move straight into Room 15. During my first go around of these galleries, I was content in believing that the British are a bit goofy and can't count sometimes. However, they merely chose to be tricky and sneak Room 14 up a small set of stairs in the walkway between the other two rooms. I'll now ask that you each go up to this room in small groups for two reasons: first, you can't fit more than about three people in the room and second, because I believe it would be quite enjoyable for each of us to ask the lonely museum worker sitting in the chair in the back of the room if the obnoxious squeaky wooden floors in the room have any cultural connection to this Greek gallery. I'll go last and report to you the worker's final reactions. Besides this worker, you can see the frieze from the Temple of Apollo, which features some depictions of Greeks in two battles. On the worker's left hand side are the Greeks versus the Amazon women warriors. On the worker's right are some drunken centaurs trying to steal the "womenfolk" from some rather upset men. According to the museum's little reading up there, neither battle displays either side as being "clearly victorious." I don't know why the Greeks wouldn't just make themselves look awesome and really kicking their foes butts.

Moving along, Room 15 has the Harpy tomb of Kybernis. Please make sure you examine the "Plan of Xanthos" before reviewing all the artifacts from Xanthos around the room, or else you will be confusingly frustrated by the signs that say that the adjacent artifact is from "Building H." Everyone knows that the Greeks did not have a Building H."

Next, Room 16 shows some statues and other artifacts from the Sanctuary of Apollo. This room shares the same area of Room 17, which has an incredible display of the Nereid Monument. Luckily for me, it appears that Rooms 19 through 22 are closed. But that's alright because not many people care about Alexander the Great or consider his expeditions of any significance.

Now here's the moment you've all been waiting for. Through the doors between these two beast status is the Parthenon Gallery. As you move through the doors, all your attention will be drawn on the Elgin Marbles on the back wall of Room 18, so we will simply scurry passed the two little rooms you won't notice on either side before Room 18.

Anyway, here in Room 18 we have the frieze from the Parthenon, Athena's temple on the Acropolis in Athens. If you can't seem to make out what's going on at any particular section, that's because some bombs hit these in 1687. Now please don't misunderstand me, the Turkish bombs did not hit here in the museum; we didn't get our hands on these until the beginning of the seventeenth century. And luckily for you and I, the museum provides some helpful suggestions and explanations of what you might be looking at. At either end of the room here you'll see some metopes that feature more drunken centaurs fighting Lapiths and attempting to steal more "womenfolk." Now if you'll excuse me, it's certainly lunchtime, so I'll quickly summarize the other galleries of Greek and Roman artifacts. Upstairs there's a lot more statues, vases, tombs, and even some Roman busts. However, these are all a bit smaller. If you like more big things, the museum has stashed some large bits of buildings and pillars in the basement. You can also find some neat inscriptions down there, so don't forget about those two rooms in the lower level. I hope you've enjoyed the tour and feel like you've made it through these galleries in a timely manner. Cheers.