Edinburgh, Stonehenge, Salisbury, and the End Of Things

I must be honest in the revelation that while my stay here has been an incredible experience that I will no doubt cherish my entire life – I am quite excited for this program to be over and done with and to return to California. The novelty and magic of London has worn through to a sense of routine and become ever so much more real in the process. The magic is gone, and a noisy city has taken its place.

Through this process, the world has suddenly become more accessible, believable, and diverse for me. The simple act of being here, living here, eating here, and learning here is overwhelmingly important: it gives me the opportunity to recognize those elements of my native culture which influence me the most, and to expand my perspective to include the influences of a different one.

What have I observed, you ask? More about myself than anything, I suppose. I have learnt (as the English say) that I am uncomfortable approaching situations where I am unsure of the dynamics (on my first visit to a train station, for example, I was scared and nervous to ask questions of the information desk people, and when I did, the words came out completely unintelligibly, with me stuttering hopelessly and making absolutely no sense for about a minute); that I am fond of a more rural environment (only made sweeter in contrast); that I shift, change, and alter my perspective and state of mind continuously with the books I read and the situations I am presented with; that I am beginning to consider pursuing a master’s degree in Multimedia Design (web design); that concentrated effort over time is a much better way of composing poetry that forced completion after initial inspiration; that I would like to refresh my Spanish skills so that I can communicate with my sister and get to know her and her family better; that I truly love and miss making little bits of music on the piano; that I understand the world very much in terms of contrast; that I should read much, much more; that friends and family are exceedingly important and valuable elements of life; and that I don’t know any of my friends and family as well as I’d like to know them, and need to work on that.

There are other, more subtle things, but I will leave them for the present to be asked of me when I return, I’ve got to have some stories to tell :)

On to Edinburgh.

On Friday, April 13th, after arising at six o’clock in the morning to a barely lit world, barely above freezing, barely awake with only a few dozing drivers noisily scuttling along outside from wherever they were to wherever it was that they were going, Tina and I set off for King’s Cross Station at the top of Gray’s Inn Road to catch the 7 AM train to Edinburgh, Scotland. Pavement seems so much more dreadfully solid on cold mornings.

The train ride took just over four and a half hours, and we suffered through the “non-table” seats (i.e., the seats without a table in front of them, rather, more of the same like-facing seats). I was once again struck by the beauty of traveling by train; the landscape forever sweeping quickly at the closest, and rolling somberly in the distance. Our train paralleled the ocean for a time, during which we marked the hypnotic white-crested waves with reverent fixed gazes. There is an innate primeval quality to the ocean, which never fails to capture my attention for extended periods of time – it is an all-too-obvious-but-unfailingly-perfect metaphor for the sheer grandeur that is Nature that amazes me every time I see it.

We arrived at Waverly Station at 11:45 AM, and set about our customary slavery-to-tourist-signs, semi-wandering-but-trying-not-to-look-like-we’re-wandering wandering slowly about, groping each sign with our eyes quickly and coolly for hints of necessary information – generally indicated by large signs with directional arrows and the text “INFORMATION” in big, bold, dark black print. Truthfully, the task isn’t always finding the signs, but rather following them properly (something I generally fail to do on the first three or four tries).

We made our way to the tourist information office and grabbed a map of the city (FREE!) and were helped by a pleasant, lanky Scottish woman in her thirties to find our accommodations and landmarks worth seeing. We thanked her and set about seeking food and familiarity with the layout of the city.

Central Edinburgh is really quite spectacular, with its ancient hilltop castle overlooking all of the city and the vibrant, algae-green grass carpeting acres and acres of parkland bespeckled with elderly trees and picnicking people, all spread out magnificently from where we stood on Prince’s Street, just coming out of the main tourist office.

After wandering around through shops, the Main Park, and “Subway Sandwiches” (no, I didn’t know they had them over here either), we stumbled upon a rather sudden stretch of ancient graveyard. And I do mean stumbled in the most literal sense of the word; blasted uneven sidewalks.

It struck us both as quite interesting and splendid atmosphere for the taking of many pictures, so we stopped, meandered around a bit, played the role of morbidly curious tourists by reading many faded and dissolving tombstones with the mechanical shrieks of cars spackling the background with white noise, and listed a bit harder for the imagined silence of this sacred ground. It wasn’t to be. Picture a graveyard whose supposed eternity has packed up and gone to fool another generation. Stone is not eternal, and the blurred epitaphs all over the graveyard were glaring reminders of this.

We ate Chinese food for dinner at a place called the “Great Wall” which was quite good, and saw a movie at the local cinema that was quite good, and quite cheap (2 pounds fifty each, wow!).

The next day we walked up to the Castle and marveled at the panoramic view from the top of the hill around into Edinburgh, and later went to visit the newly opened “Edinburgh Dungeon,” an entertaining building, meant to entertain with displays of the horrors of torture and disease that have plagued the previous centuries of Edinburgh’s history. Actors lead us through in costume, and it was actually mildly frightening at times. One of the actors scared Tina when he appeared from around a corner and stuck his bloody-looking face into hers and said (with crossed eyes and a weak voice) “Hellllooo, can you help me?”
That night we saw the re-release of The Beatles’ movie “Hard Day’s Night” in the same cinema that we went to the night before (hey, we like movies, the Beatles, and deals on cinema tickets, so we were hooked :)). The movie was great. I find that there’s always something fun about watching other people be just as silly as I am sometimes. It’s great to see John, Paul, George and Ringo at their wackiest, doing crazy, pointless, spontaneous things – it reaffirms my own sporadic and equally spontaneous stupidity in a way that makes things just plain fun. We returned to London the next day.

On Thursday, 19 April, we went as a class to Stonehenge and Salisbury.

The stones stood tall and timeless, indifferent to the blasts of frozen air that numbed our uncovered hands and faces. Indeed, they have stood indifferently for millennia, and stand today as forms without specific function, symbols of a people and time long forgotten, of a purpose only guessed at.

Stonehenge was oddly accessible – only a few hundred feet from a paved road, standing half proudly, half dejectedly in an unmistakably purposeful arrangement of shapes and figures. Crows floated between and above the ominous stones, infusing a sense of life into an otherwise dead structure. They would perch on top and glare down on us in a manner which suggested that they were in control here – not us. These rocks no longer belong to man, but to nature once again. Time has reclaimed them. They are now as much a part of the landscape as the grass and hills around them. I took many pictures, trying to capture a crow in each picture to provide a sense of scale (they really are quite large, some at least 20 feet tall).

From there we traveled to Salisbury where we wandered about for a while before our tour of Salisbury Cathedral. The Cathedral itself was enormous, with a spire reaching 404 feet into the air, capped with a cross and a tiny wind-measuring device. As the sun warmed between sometimes brief, sometimes extended cloud cover and frigid wind, I craned my head back to look at the top of the spire and absently considered just how on earth anyone got that wind-measuring device up there. Maybe there was a ladder inside or something. I didn’t ask.

The east end of the cathedral positively glowed deep blue through the Impressionistic (or so we were told) stained glass windows. It was a colour scarcely dreamed of, with an aura of profound spirituality. I’m guessing that’s what they were aiming for.
A side chapel held one of the four remaining copies of the Magna Carta. This perfectly preserved 13th century document was written in the most perfectly beautiful calligraphy I have ever seen. It’s amazing to see such meticulously clear print, something that is unfortunately disappearing entirely from our culture as we become more reliant on computers and become increasingly impatient communicators.

On the way back I was floored by the brightness of the colours of the English plains. I don’t believe colours have been this vibrant before. It is an interesting, recent change that I welcome openly, but feel at a loss to explain. To be sure, my eyes are still quite inept at focusing without the help of corrective lenses, but it seems as though the colours of the countryside have been intensified infinitely since I’ve been here. There was an unbelievable predominance of jaded greens and pure blues, timeless stone grays and hearty, luminous whites that grouped together and held my attention for long periods of punctuated silence. Perhaps, once again, these colours are made sweeter in contrast to London’s cold, mechanical gray, brown, black and whites.

This is most probably my last London Semester Updates entry, and I have enjoyed the opportunity to reflect my experiences in written form with a receptive and encouraging audience. I thank you all for listening to my many long-winded accounts of experiences, realizations, and philosophies over the course of my time here. I am really looking forward to seeing you all once again when I return.

In closing, I also feel it is important to state that I am looking forward (almost to the point of desperation) to good old American Beef. I have been avoiding this dangerously disease ridden English Beef like the plague, and cannot wait to have roast beef, tri-tip, top sirloin, etc. etc. etc. MMmmmmmm, Beeeef. I will be gladly taking donations from all who would not mind parting with a wee bit of that wonderful meat when I return.