Friday, June 22, 2012

London Gratis

Though I have vowed not to fret over money, I don't want to be a spendthrift either; so I searched for complimentary things to do in London.  Not an easy task in the most expensive city for tourists in the world!  This year has been about enjoying life and seizing the day; unfortunately, both of those require seizing the checkbook.

Greg suggested our first free activity: a visit to Abbey Road Studios.  By midmorning, we arrived outside the landmark studios where classic albums such as Pink Floyd's opus, Dark Side of the Moon, and Cliff Richards' humble request, Listen to Cliff, were recorded.  Greg just stood there in awe; not over Sir Cliff or even Roger Waters nearby genius, but because Abbey Road Studios recorded all of the Beatles' brilliant work from 1962 to 1970.  He had seen the birthplace of their talent in Liverpool, and now, he was at the location where their gifts were captured to share with the world.  Inside the studio walls, Rubber Soul, Help!, Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, Let It Be, and their final recorded album, fittingly entitled Abbey Road, had been performed and recorded.  The world would be so much less without the work completed here.  I, oblivious to literal signs (as my usual), thought we could just walk in because the gates were wide open.  The "sign" in my mind's eye read, "Gates open at Abbey Road Studios. Walk in and hang out with the bands."  As I gravitated towards the entry, the vegetarian catering truck missed me by an inch as it delivered lunch for the musicians.   So much for signs and opened doors.

Denied groupie access, we placated our fanaticism with graffiti.  I happened to have a Sharpie in my purse so we each took turns writing our names on the street wall as many had done before us.  I was very popular with other pilgrims on the street thanks to my trusty Sharpie!  Next, it was time for the crossing of the street.  Thousands of people come to Abbey Road every year for a picture of their party crossing Abbey Road like the Fab Four in 1969.  There is even a webcam set up to capture these passages.  It felt a little silly, but another group offered to take our picture on this busy traffic day so I said, "What the heck!"  The kind photographer captured us and several cars about to run us down.  Surviving another narrow miss, I took a better photo of MY fab four walking safely across.  The kids can share the photo with their grandkids and tell of how they almost got hit by a London taxi crossing Abbey Road.

With no vandalism or jaywalking tickets given, we left one gratis outing for another:  The British Museum.  Walking up to the entrance, Wyatt asked, "Why do they call it the British Museum?  Why don't they just call it The Museum like they call the British Open, The Open?"  I had no answer because I knew it was a rhetorical question.  Even though I'm not sure he knew what that meant, I knew he was an eleven year-old boy who loved sarcasm.

Inside, we ventured first to the Rosetta Stone- the codebreaker for Egyptian hieroglyphics.  This single, carved stone unlocked an entire civilization.  We followed the path from this keystone to the Egyptian exhibits.  The British Museum housed the most Egyptian artifacts outside of Egypt, much to Egypt's chagrin.  We toured the floors viewing everything from daily Egyptian life to their strange obsession with the afterlife.  Egyptians didn't stop at preserving bodies for the hereafter.  Mummies were buried with all the accouterments they may need in the afterlife.  Gold, jewels, games, food, and sometimes even pets, were placed in the tombs for the dead's use.  A copy of the Book of the Dead, lain on top of the mummy, contained words or incantations to transport the deceased to the next world.  Staring at each display case with fascination, I suddenly felt as though I were violating the dead.  I again felt ghosts nearby.  With a shake of my head, I walked on to the Greek and Roman artifacts.  Cold Roman marble and Grecian urns housed no specters.

We headed to the Picasso drawings for our final museum destination.  From 1930 to 1937, Picasso produced a hundred drawings intended for a book to be published by one of his patrons, Ambroise Vollard.  Greg and I had seen an exhibit of Picasso's in Atlanta's High Museum and loved the emotion he captured in his work.  Though the Vollard Suite were etchings and not his colorful paintings or sculptures, we were not disappointed.  Love, lust, anger, hate, compassion, fear, and sympathy leapt from the papers.  How Picasso transported the viewer to his studio at a particular time amazed me!  Some drawings made me smile at his egotism; others made me blush at the raw passion on the page.  Greg and I examined every drawing while the kids had fun playing rock, paper, scissors on the bench after a five second glance at the "naked people," as Anabel put it.

After pizza and salad in Seven Dials, we walked Shaftesbury Avenue to Piccadilly Circus taking in all the sights of the West End along the way.  Meeting Londoners bustling about on this Friday afternoon, I imagined I was a character in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway.  My story-arc would be told only to give way to a stranger's narrative after I passed him on the street:  Jenny Brooks perused the shoppe window wishing she had a new frock for the Dalloways' party as Big Ben struck two o'clock.  "Oh, dear, I must be getting on to the butcher's."  She headed down Shaftesbury passing a young man and wife at the corner.  The young man mumbled to himself, "Evans, Evans....."   I loved Virginia Woolf's 1920s London!

Back in the twenty-first century, our storyline followed Piccadilly to Hyde Park and on to Knightsbridge.  Our last free, must-see activity in London was Harrod's department store.  The kids had no idea where I was leading them, but once we entered this massive land of Capitalism, they grinned from ear to ear.  We glided along the Egyptian themed escalators as an opera singer (live!) serenaded us.  Making our way to the Toy Tree and Children's area, our mouths hung open with incredulous wonder.  How could there be this much stuff in one building?   Harrod's is a rich man's paradise and a poor man's hell.  We had a ball playing with the toys, but it was painful pleasure.  Once again, I found myself worrying about money.  I hoped the children would understand why we could not spend a pound more...

From Paddington Station, we returned to our temporary home in Bath carrying only our memories as souvenirs of our "on the house" day in London.  While our arms were light, our minds were full..... Who am I kidding?  Wouldn't it be great to really go to all these places and not fall prey to the lust of souvenirs?   I lied.  We bought a t-shirt at the British Museum and a couple of thank you gifts at Harrod's for family and friends back home.  So in the end, the day turned out to be: London non gratis... C'est la vie.

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