fifty shades of gray
Predictably, it rained a good deal of the time we were in London. And even when we did not need umbrellas, the sun rarely shone during our five-day visit.
Fortunately, London is the kind of city that is perfectly enjoyable even in inclement weather. It rained hard our first morning, so we spent most of the day going from one museum to the next. We started at the British Museum, which is essentially a repository for all the artwork extracted from regions that had had the misfortune of falling under the rule of the British Empire: precious metalwork from ancient Iran, sculptures from the Parthenon, relics from Mesopotamia, African carvings — all conveniently displayed under one roof.
On the one hand, the museum is a testament to colonialist exploitation. How much better would it be if the countries where these priceless relics originated could showcase them in their own national museums instead? On the other hand, how many of these works would have survived had the British simply left them where they had found them? And how much poorer our understanding of our past be if these works had not been preserved and studied? There was a large stone slab on display, for example, with a sizable hole bored through the middle of an intricate ancient carving. The slab was being used as an oil press when the British found it.
We had made plans to meet S’s friends for lunch and only had 3-4 hours to spend at the British Museum. We tried to stick to just the highlights — the Rosetta Stone, Ming Dynasty vases, Easter Island statue, etc — but found that it was impossible to simply walk by all the other incredible items that were on display. We spent a good deal of time in the Egyptian wing, gawking at the mummies and their elaborate burial accoutrements. D was also fascinated by an exhibit on ancient coins and the origins of money, and we both enjoyed the less-visited collection of African art in the museum’s basement.
S’s friends are members of the Tate Modern, so we headed there after lunch. As with many of London’s museums, general admission to the Tate is free, but being accompanied by museum patrons meant that we could also have free access to the paid installations and temporary exhibits. Like the British Museum, the Tate Modern requires many visits to do its extensive collection justice. We checked out a highly touted temporary display of artwork by a little-known Lebanese artist but the work was a bit too abstract for our taste. The “Poetry and Dream” collection of surrealist art, however, was very much to our liking.
From the Tate we walked across the Thames to St. Paul’s Cathedral, but decided not to enter, saving it for another day. One of the largest cathedrals in the world, and of great historical importance to boot, St. Paul’s took several hours to fully appreciate. The cathedral is also the tallest point in London, and even if one does not care about its religious, artistic, or historic significance, the dizzying climb to the top of its dome is not to be missed.
In many ways, London reminded D of New York City: the underground trains that make this vast, multicultural metropolis easy to explore; the markets, parks, and architecture that make London such a great walking city (when it’s not raining); the incredible variety of cuisine from all over the world, and the equally limitless entertainment options. Our visit coincided with the London Film Festival and we managed to buy two of the handful of remaining tickets for one of the festival’s better films — a real treat since there is nowhere in Moldova to see an English-language movie (all of the films in the movie theaters here are dubbed into either Russian or Romanian).
Even though we mostly saw London under the feeble light of a leaden, cloudy sky, we enjoyed our visit immensely and hope to have another opportunity to return soon.