Saturday, April 07, 2007

Travelogue: March 28, 2007

Home Away from Home

Hit the streets of London today and led Matt and Jung on my standard walking tour of London, just as I developed it 3 years ago. Jung had never been to London at all, so I got to feel especially hot shot, pointing out specific photo ops. "This is the best place to take a picture with a red phone booth! If you take a picture laying down here, you can get the classic 'Big Ben is my giant wang' picture!"


In case you're ever in London and want to see all the major super-tourist landmarks in a row, here's your path. Start at Green Park Tube Station, enter Green Park, and cross through the large tunnel of trees. This will deposit you right at Buckingham Palace. Ooh and aah. Walk through the other park in front of Buckingham (St. James Park), and stick generally to your right. When the park ends, continue going down the street on the right (Birdcage Walk). On your right is Westminster Abbey, and right in front of you are Beg Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Take your photos. Hang a left down the street on which Parliament sits, and head down Whitehall. Pass the Ministry of Defense, Horse Guards, and 10 Downing Street (Prime Minister's residence) on your way into Trafalgar Square (pictured here, looking absolutely splendiferous, with a gray tone that make it look like a 1950s-era engraving or something). Take your photos with the lions, maybe check out the National Gallery. Have a scone at the Crypt in St. Martin's in the Fields, if it isn't closed for construction. Head up the street to the right of the National Gallery, called Charing Cross, and pass a bunch of theaters. Turn left onto Cranbourn St. and go through Leicester Square. Stay on the street as it becomes Coventry St., the most abominable assembly of hyper-American franchises in a small span anywhere in the world (Starbucks, McDonald's, KFC, TGI Friday's, Starbucks again, Hard Rock Cafe, Planet Hollywood). Follow Coventry St. into Piccadilly Circus, the Times Square of London, and sit on the statue of Eros as you contemplate your day.

In case it isn't already apparent, I spent 6 months in London 3 years ago, and still the place is more my home than Boston is now, over 1.5 years into my 3-year stay. This is simultaneously a testament to the splendor of London and to the misery of Boston.

Self-Hating Russians

It's not that the Russians hate themselves, actually. It's that I hate them. Or rather, I hate running into them as tourists. First of all, when I'm with my family, it completely obliterates our comparative advantage of being able to talk about people behind their backs in Russian. Now how do we know if the person we're mocking mercilessly actually understands us?

But 9 times out of 10, Russian tourists are the most shameless dilettantes out there. They're nouveau riche, which is fine, because I totally want to be nouveau riche, but they have no actual appreciation for the things they're experiencing. By itself, this is not a problem for me. People don't have to like art or architecture. I don't like most jazz or modern art no matter how hard I try, I don't think less of myself for it (well, slightly less of myself for not liking jazz, but I cope). My complaint is that they just keep on with it so that they can check things off their list and go home and tell people that they saw some famous painting, even though they didn't actually look at the painting, they just saw a crowd gathered in front of it in the museum and decided to stand next to the crowd for a few seconds, perhaps taking a picture of the crowd itself.

And every year, there are more of them, thank you very much high oil/natural gas prices and economic revitalization of Eastern Europe. They haunt me more with every passing trip.

Possibly the Cutest Thing I've Ever Seen

One of the more prominent paintings featured at the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square (incidentally, one of my favorite art museums in the world) is Georges Seurat's "Bathers at AsniƩres," possibly the most famous pointillist painting of all time.


I've always liked this painting, and whenever I go to the National Gallery, I always stop to look at it to discover some new detail. The yellow and purple points in the boy's red hat, the use of complimentary colors in points to create the illusion of sheen, etc. As I was standing in front of the painting this time, a very large canvas, an elderly couple approached, with the man rather rotely describing to the woman the various features of the painting...the fashion of the man's coat, the breed of the dog at his side, that sort of thing. At first, my reaction was disgust...either this woman was grossly overpaying for a very half-assed guided tour, or her husband/gentleman caller was trying desperately to seem cultured and artistic, and was obviously falling flat.

And then I noticed the woman's cane and realized...she was blind. All at once, the scene turned into something so sugary and sweet, my teeth practically rotted on the spot. All of my disdain washed into a vague sense of shame for judging these people so quickly. Suddenly, instead of seeing an overpriced guide or a misguided suitor, I saw an adorable couple, probably 70 years old and married for 50 of them, having a lovely afternoon together. I imagined the patience and care it must take to lead someone through a museum and to try to make them see what you see, and I saw the expression on the woman's face and the way she clutched at her beau's arm as the image really seemed to take shape before her.

And of course, they were both so adorably British. As the man tried to express to her the subtlety of the pointillist coloring technique, he mused about Seurat, "He's quite a scientist with color, and I'm sure if ever you met him, he'd bore you to death about color."

And that, ladies and gentlemen, was possibly the cutest thing I had ever seen.

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