36 hours in London
Navigating London by foot is like being left out of a secret that is otherwise widely known and understood. The city looks fine on a map (to some extent), but in practice the habitual absence of street signs and conversion of one road's name into another's make directionless (clueless) wandering rather inevitable -- which is all fine by me.
I arrived on Sunday morning with only a few definitive engagements (a show on Wednesday, a tour on Monday), and the rest is improvised.
A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving. Lao Tzu
I'm writing this longhand in my journal as I enjoy a massive dosa at Sagar in Covent Garden. The theaters are buzzing right now, the last few audience members pouring in for Mamma Mia and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. A dozen things are always happening around me, regardless of where in this city I am.
The British Museum, the surface of which I only just scratched this morning, is one of many examples of this. Each room is half-filled with uniformed school children of all ages and nationalities, and stuffed to the brim with antiquities including the Rosetta Stone and an entire monument to the Nereids. But one is reminded from time to time of the uncomfortable reality: that this once-empire which rested on the "barbaric" civilizations it conquered continues almost to celebrate that brutal fact of its history. It is a museum, not a imperial statement, but photos of British officers posing with East Asian crafts and the native artisans who made them serve as a reminder of the people who are no longer the owners of their own creations.
But aside from the questions of origins and acquisitions lies a larger topic for consideration. What do we monumentalize, and why? Certainly the archaeologists who preserve them have no misconception that their Mesopotamian urns are studied or even valued by the general public. But here, in the city of museums and galleries and theaters, I ask the question: why do we love this? Why do we continue to revere certain things?
Adrián Villar Rojas said, "I make monuments because I am not ready to lose anything." Strictly speaking, the purpose of museums is for study. Contemporarily we might say that their purpose is both to educate and to entertain. But isn't there something that says, "We are not ready to lose this"? Isn't there a reflexive human tendency that says the creations of other human beings are worth saving?
So we build monuments to monuments. We place ancient Greek temples inside modern British ones, and we construct Ferris wheels and skydecks to marvel at entire cities from above. Walking by the Houses of Parliament this evening, I was reminded of the imperialism I thought of earlier today. If buildings mean something, then this building means authority, importance, and wealth. If cities can mean something, this one perhaps says that civilization is beautiful in its own right -- that all our travels, arts, and architecture are ages old and enduringly magnificent.
But these are just two days' impressions. If I learn to get around it, I'll see what else this city has to offer.