Sunday, September 26, 2010
Tale of Two Cities
Europe: week one. The Oxford term hasn't started yet, so I've kicked off my travels via a whirlwind foray through London and Paris. This is the first time I've had access to free wireless internet in a week, but part of me has enjoyed the disconnect. It's made me feel free, rambling, untethered to the routine obligations of life in the U.S. But then again, that could also be an effect of the sights I've seen. This week has been a compressed tale of two cities, both very different but very enjoyable.
Here's a compressed comparison of the two.
London and Paris, while both swarming with tourists, are very different in the layouts of their monuments and must-see destinations. Our first night in Paris, we took a boat ride down the Seine, which provided a stunning view and introduction to the city. Eiffel Tower, Invalides, Louvre, National Assembly, cathedral of Nortre Dame, all in a row! A bit mind-blowing. We spent our days exploring these districts, mostly on foot (I quickly became sore from walking), never quite dispelling the illusion of timelessness and refinement. I see why Paris is often considered the most beautiful city in the world!
London, on the other hand, is more of an odd mix. The area around Buckingham Palace, which we visited on Friday, was more of what I'd pictured the city might look like, with fortresslike stone slab buildings clustered around such spectacular sights as Westminster Abbey, Parliament, and Big Ben. But the rest of the city revealed interesting layers of time, space, and culture. A stone fortress from 1200 on one block, a soaring modern glass tower right beside it. A jarring mismatch, something like a time capsule. Paired with more crowds and bustle, exacerbated by the way Brits really do drive on the wrong side of the road! But destinations like Buckingham Palace (where we got to tour the state rooms) had a jaw-dropping elegance that almost surpassed anything we'd seen in Paris.
Coming from the desert, all I have to say is wow. We visited the Luxembourg gardens on a perfect sunny day and sat around the fountain basking in the sun, then strolled the manicured lawns swarming with joggers and bench-loungers. I must say Europeans better know how to enjoy their leisure than Americans. In Paris many couples sat on the banks of the Seine, and grass-lawn picnics seemed a popular activity, especially beside the Eiffel Tower. In London, too, the parks were spectacular - none more than the St. James's park, where beautiful birds dotted the water and over-inquisitive squirrels tried to climb up our pants legs. What greenness, what color!
In the eating department, Paris wins out - no surprise, since I received many precautions about British food before embarking on this trip. What a wonderful variety of breads, wines, and cheeses! The crepes, even from street vendors, were quite good. And don't get me started on the chocolates and pastries...
British food, on the whole, is rather bland, but in a hearty, stick-to-your-ribs sort of way, reminding me of old Dickens novels where orphans line up in the cold for their morning helping of porridge. I've had porridge since I've been here, as well as the standard English fare of fish and chips and roast and potatoes. All fine for a hungry tourist, but not as good as the Lebanese cuisine we tried our second night in London.
Still, not all British food is completely awful. I've had a few good muffins and scones since arriving here, and the chocolate tart and hot chocolate we enjoyed at Buckingham Palace were wonderful, not to mention adorable.
Tough call, but I enjoyed the London and Paris museums about equally. Paris, of course, has the Louvre, which was stunning in architecture but did have me a bit tired of cherubs and Madonnas by the end. I loved the marble sculpture displays, and the later paintings (18th and 19th century) were stunning. Disappointingly, the space in front of the Mona Lisa was crammed, bustling, and not at all suited for real artistic reflection - too many tourists! But as fun as it was to see the Louvre, perhaps more enjoyable was the Musee d'Orsay, with its collection of more modern, realist, and impressionistic art. Van Gogh's self-portrait was amazing to see in person, as were the collections of work by such artists as Monet, Cezanne, and Renoir. As always, I loved the Rodin sculptures, maybe especially so because they made me think of Stanford.
In London, we visited the British Museum, which was astonishing in the breadth of its collection of artifacts. The Rosetta stone, large chunks of the Parthenon's frieze, the bronze bust of Augustus - they were all here. As well as sphinxes, ancient coins from around the world, mummies, Mayan and Incan art, Greek pottery, and so much else that I felt as if I could have spent days roaming all of the exhibits rather than mere hours. British imperialism = a good or a bad thing?
Paris had picturesque weather, around 70 and sunny, with the leaves just starting to turn and the late summer rays floating through the trees - which made it even harder to arrive in cold and rainy London on Wednesday. I went from basking in T-shirts to shivering under an umbrella in no time at all. Still, what else did I expect of England? The weather when we arrived at Oxford yesterday was warmer at least, so hopefully I'll get in a few pleasant days before real winter starts. I'm going to miss that California sun...
Culture and Communication
Europeans so far seem like friendly people (the occasional rudeness of street passersby notwithstanding), happy to help or offer directions, often not in such a rush as some Americans. Being in Paris made me wish I spoke French (or at least read it better than I do with my Latin-roots background), especially since the people we met in restaurants and on the streets were so courteous about communicating with tourists who obviously did not speak their language. Without fuss or disdain, they made themselves understood. Americans aren't always so accepting.
As for British accents, it's hard but I'm trying. The Brits so far have been extra polite when they see that I'm struggling, which is gratifying. I was pleased to see that many of the venues we visited in London openly advertised their British Sign Language interpreting services - not something you often find in America! (Now if only I understood BSL...)
Okay, so European cars deserve a final comment. I was infatuated with all the Mini Coopers and other similarly tiny cars in Paris (and the motorcycles! and trimly dressed professor types on bicycles!), but London is equally quirky with all its double-decker buses and 1940s-period taxi cabs. I'm even getting used to looking on the right sides of the road when crossing the street!