Life and Death in Berlin — Part 1, Life

Life and Death in Berlin — Part 1, Life

Here goes another travel post delayed by a year. Now, however, I don’t feel quite so bad, since I learned that the famous travel writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor, wrote his account of his youthful travels over 40 years after the trip itself. So maybe I’m not such a nincompoop after all. (For part 2 of this post, about the ugly history of Berlin, click here.)


Germany in Mind

Germany: The very word looms over my whole conception of the world.

Like so many of my bewildered generation, when I was in high school I spent a lot of time watching television. The problem, then as now, was that nothing was on. In desperation my brother and I often turned to the History Channel. If we were unlucky, Modern Marvels would be on—a show about the history of automobile manufacturing, or how screws evolved from nails, or something similarly dry. (This was before the History Channel became the Conspiracy Theory Channel, and had no programs about ancient aliens.)

The good stuff were the World War II documentaries. Grainy footage of soldiers marching across barren landscapes, the whistling of bombs released from bombers, stupendous explosions and the bright streaks of tracer bullets fired from fighter planes—all these scenes of battle, so captivating to young boys, were mixed up with footage of one man: Hitler. Every documentary was sure to feature that stiff, stern, mustachioed man yelling shrilly, punctuating his pronouncements with jerky gestures.

It is an injustice to the German language that so many people are exposed to it through the oratory of that execrable man. Naturally, the language in that tyrant’s mouth is violent, aggressive, ugly, shrieking, garbled—as were his thoughts. But the abuse of one man ought not to cast aspersions on a whole language. Spoken well, German can be gentle, sweet, and tender.

I fell under its spell from my very first exposure. In the sixth grade we had a language survey, covering bits of Italian, Spanish, French, and German, to see which language we wanted to study. At the end of the term we were asked to rank our favorites. For me there was no question. It had to be German. The language was strangely akin to English, and yet so different in spirit: purer, stronger, more elemental. I put German as my first choice; and because I was required to list a second and third choice, I absently put down Italian and French. This decision came to haunt me later, for it was soon revealed that there wasn’t a German teacher. I took Italian as my main language—which exposed me to lots of excellent food, but which held no appeal to my immature mind.

These vague childhood impressions were soon supplemented by more definite knowledge. In a college literature class I was exposed to Thomas Mann, who soon became my first literary passion, a model of erudition and eloquence that simply dazzled me. Shortly after that, by a complete coincidence, somebody in my a capella group mentioned that he was teaching himself German using tapes; and when I showed an interest, he offered to lend them to me. I snatched at the opportunity; and from the first tape, the long-dormant passion for German was reawakened.

Once again I found myself enamored of the language—the magnificent German tongue, which combines rustic roughness with intensity of thought, earthiness with cerebral density, not to mention seriousness with silliness. (Click here to experience the silliness.) The next semester I enrolled in a German class, even though it had little to do with my major. For my twenty-first birthday I went to a German restaurant in New York City, Hallo Berlin, and ate sausages and sauerkraut and drank Weißbier, and felt absolutely stuffed and happy; and my fondness for the country has continued unabated ever since.

And all this still leaves out the dozens of the figures from Germany’s history—musicians, poets, philosophers, and scientists—who have puzzled my mind and saturated my spirits. From Bach to Beethoven, from Goethe to Nietzsche, from Kant to Heidegger, from Einstein to Weber, the Deutscher Geist has dominated my intellectual and my artistic interests. The horny grammar and spiky consonants of the German language, the labyrinthine fugues of Bach and the devious arguments of Kant, spiced with sour mustard and cooled with foamy beer—all this had combined, since I was in university, to form an impression of the Germans as somehow special. I wanted—no, I needed—to go see Germany for myself. And I finally did, however briefly, with my trip to Berlin.


First Impressions of Berlin

You might say that all this expectation could only lead to disappointment. This is half true. Nothing could possibly match the absurd image of Germany I had built up over the years: a city dominated by high-tech robots giving every citizen hours of leisure, a society of engineers who philosophize in their free time, every one of them relaxing in a beer hall downing Schnapps and singing Lieders in group harmony—it’s absurd, I know, but I really couldn’t imagine Germany being any other way.

The aspect that Berlin first presented to me was rather ordinary. I took a bus from the airport to the city center (Berlin is very well-connected) and I remember looking out the window and seeing: a city. That’s it—not a space-age colony, not a rustic paradise—a city, comparable to Madrid or Rome. But there was no doubt that I was in Germany. The people on the bus couldn’t be anything but German.

It is always a shock coming from Spain to Northern Europe. By and large, Spaniards are shorter, with slightly darker skin, and blacker hair. The Germans are the opposite in every respect: pale, tall, and blonde. (I’m speaking in generalities of course.) Even at a glance, there is no mistaking a bus-full of Spaniards for a bus-full of Germans.

There is also a striking difference in dress. Spanish people—despite their generally open attitude towards public displays of affection (Americans are often shocked by the kissing that goes on in metros and restaurants)—on the whole dress somewhat conservatively. Clothes tend not to be very revealing, either on men or women. (I have reason to believe, however, that this is slowly changing.) If you wear shorts and sandals before June, you will be stared at. What’s more, Spanish people tend to dress more formally than Americans; you can see women wearing elegant dresses on any day in the week—even among friends—and Spanish offices are seas of suits and ties.

German Male Nudity 1

Germany, from what I could see in Berlin, is quite different. Indeed I’d say the German attitude towards fashion is far closer to ours in the United States: tank-tops, belly shirts, short-shorts, flip-flops, and every other type of skimpy clothing under the sun is embraced. But there is one major respect in which the Germans differ from Americans: they are not puritans.

German nudity
Not a Puritan

You see, compared to Europeans, Americans are prudes when it comes to the body. Flip open a German magazine—not a pornographic one, but any old magazine—and you can see exposed breasts. Advertisements in Berlin feature, not only scantily clad women, but also the exposed male body—hairy, bulging, and thick (see the two examples above). This feature of their culture was revealed to me, in the most literal sense, when I was strolling through the Tiergarten (the central park of Berlin), and found myself suddenly surrounded by naked men lounging on the grass in broad daylight. Part of me was scandalized (think of the children!), but another part was very amused.

Now, I honestly have no idea why Spaniards dress more conservatively but kiss in public, why Germans dress skimpily and sun themselves naked in parks, and why Americans dress skimpily but avoid both kissing in public and public nudity. But I imagine the explanation has a lot to do with religious history.

The city of Berlin apparently has a reputation among Germans. I spoke to a couple of German students a few months before my trip, who told me that Berlin was the poorest region of the country. The city was dubbed “poor but sexy” by its own mayor. According to what I can find, Berlin is heavily in debt and is subsidized by the rest of the country, with the worst education in the country and an abnormally high crime rate. My Airbnb host explained that the city attracted a lot of artists and bohemian types because it’s bad economy made it a cheap place to live. The whole city gives off a hipstery vibe, with lots of street art, outdoor markets, and nifty stores; and like many aspiring artists, the city of Berlin is financially supported by its family.

Grafiti Hipster
Berlin Street Art

Aside from its grungy aspect, Berlin is notable for its layout. The city has no discernable center. All the major monuments seem scattered about at random. The city stretches out in every direction without any obvious plan or natural boundary. I believe this lack of apparent center or scheme is due to two major factors: that the city was pummeled into rubble during the Second World War, and that it was rebuilt while it was divided into different zones, each controlled by different countries. (Yet I have just read in Stefan Zweig’s autobiography that Berlin lacked a center even before the First World War, so I can’t say.) The longstanding division between East and West has left a permanent mark on the city.

I said above that my elevated expectations of Berlin could only lead to disappointment. But this was only half true. For everything Berlin lacked in space-age technology and opera-singing metaphysicians, the city made up for with unexpected charm. I felt immediately comfortable in Berlin, in a way that I rarely feel in foreign cities. Everyone I spoke to was friendly; the city felt safe and even cozy, like one giant neighborhood. Hipsters drank beer in the streets and friends bounced a balls in the park. There was a sense of intimacy, of familiarity, which I could not explain but which I nevertheless felt. (I have a friend who tells me he hated every minute of being in Berlin, so clearly this feeling is not universal.) Aside from this feeling of general contentment, I also found that Berlin is full of fascinating history; and this is what I’m here to tell you about.


A Note on Food, Immigration, & Transport

You may be interested to learn that, outside of Turkey itself, Berlin is the city with the highest population of Turks.

This, indeed, was the immigration ‘problem’ German people worried about before the Syrian Refugee Crisis: that there were so many immigrants coming from Turkey, and many of them were not integrating as fast as most people desired. They weren’t learning German and mixing in German society, but living in Turkish neighborhoods speaking Turkish. This was regarded as an alarming development.

Parenthetically, this is an interesting illustration of the different attitudes towards immigration in the United States and continental Europe. For all the xenophobia that has raged in the United States—and now more than in any decade of recent memory—Americans, at least in cities with high immigrant populations, are far more comfortable, on average, with immigrants keeping their language, dress, diet, and so on, than are Europeans. The controversy in France over the burkini, for example, simply could never happen in the United States. We have more than enough islamophobes, thank you very much, but lawmakers wouldn’t even contemplate passing legislation about acceptable forms of swimwear.

Note that this is not because Americans generally have a more positive opinion of Islam than French people do. To the contrary, I think the reverse is probably the case. But in America we do not have such a strong sense of “Culture”—traditional ways of dressing, eating, dating, speaking, and so on, that pervade every aspect of daily life—as exists in, say, France or Germany. Rather, in keeping with our traditional individualism, Americans conceive of choices in dress, diet, love, and speech as based on individual preference rather than having much to do with tradition. There are traditional sectors of American society, of course; but they are traditional by free choice. And no single tradition (except perhaps vague notions of “freedom” and “democracy”) would be accepted by any large fraction of the population.

Now, I should clarify that I am not denying that there is no such thing as American Culture; nor that the French and Germans are not individualistic; all I’m saying is that Americans don’t like to think of ourselves as living in accordance with any culture except the one we choose through our own free will. And if somebody wants to mess with that decision, they can go read the Constitution!

I am getting off track here. Well, the point is that Berlin has a lot of Turkish people. As a result, Turkish food has become wildly popular, and justly so. I once listened to two German students describe in raptures all their favorite kebab spots. The best kebab spot in any city is, apparently, a source of hot dispute among the locals.

If I can join in on this argument, I’d like to advocate for Mustafa’s Kebab. It is not even a restaurant, but a food stand selling different types of kebab. Trust me: go there and order one. All the ingredients are fresh: the crispy cucumbers and carrots, the refreshing feta cheese, the perfectly grilled meat—it is marvelous, simultaneously delicious and surprisingly wholesome, not to mention affordable, which is why there is always a long line. I ate there the first day and then went back the next.

Apart from this heavenly experience, the other famous dish in Berlin is the Currywurst. This is just sausage and fries with a creamy curry sauce. The combination of sausage and curry did not strike me as particularly promising, but I trust the Germans, and I had the meal twice. Both times I thought that, indeed, curry on sausage was odd; but I like curry, and I like sausage, and fries are always welcome. I enjoy it; but it is a greasy, heavy meal, not ideal for physical activity of any kind.

Speaking of avoiding physical activity, I should add a note about public transportation. Unlike in either New York or Madrid, the transport system in Berlin uses the honor code. You are trusted to buy a ticket and to verify it before every trip. But there is no barrier, gate, or turnstile preventing you from getting on. Bus drivers don’t check; the metro and the tram are hop-on, hop-off. It took me three trips on the transport system to figure out that, yes, I was expected to pay (I watched a few dutiful Germans verify their transport cards before boarding).

This prompted me to look up if it was common to avoid paying, since I had already taken three free trips by accident and nobody had noticed. This brought me to this fascinating article. Apparently there is a relatively small but dedicated band of Berliners who daringly ride the metro without a ticket. This is known in German as schwarzfahren (literally, “black going”—what a wonderful language!). But there are risks. Plainclothes officers, known as Kontrolleurs, ride metros and trams all day, randomly checking if people have a valid ticket. If you are caught without a ticket you can get fined for 40€ as a first-time offense. Granted, there is a chance of escaping the car once you see the agents begin checking, but this is far from assured. I took eleven or twelve trips while I was there and never witnessed any check. But for those intrepid souls looking to fight the man and seek perilous thrills by schwarzfahren, be warned.


Monuments of Life

I made one major mistake when visiting Berlin: I didn’t book a tour of the Reichstag building ahead of time. The Reichstag building (the word Reichstag, which means parliament, literally means “kingdom day”) is the current parliament building. It was originally constructed back in the 1890s, when Germany was an Empire, to house the Imperial Diet; it then burned down in mysterious circumstances in 1933, giving the ascendant Nazi party a convenient excuse to start jailing political enemies. After that, the building lay unrepaired and unused during the Nazi era and the Cold War; and it wasn’t until the reunification in 1990 that the building was finally refurbished and put back into use by the current parliament, the Bundestag (Bundestag literally means “federation day”).

Reichstag Building.jpg

Whatever the building’s history, I couldn’t visit it, since you need to book your tour in advance. (Follow this link.) I went up and asked if there were any free spots available, but there weren’t any until Tuesday, the day after I was going to leave. From the outside the building is impressive: a grand palatial edifice in neoclassical style. As I’ve mentioned in my post about Rome, Roman architecture has been adopted worldwide as the architecture of power; and nowhere is this on greater display than in Berlin. The front pediment of the Reichstag building features a Parthenon-esque frieze of Grecian gods surrounds the German coat of arms, an eagle derived from Roman military standards. Under all this is written Dem Deutschen Volk (literally, “The German People,” but the use of the dative “Dem” implies “To the German People”). Apparently, Kaiser Wilhelm II found the democratic ring of these words distasteful. Considering that he was the last Kaiser, I suppose the joke is on him.

The Reichstag building stands near the equally famous Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor). This is another example of Roman-inspired architecture, modeled after the triumphal arches in that ancient city. Its construction was ordered by the Prussian King Frederick William II, to celebrate the defeat of the Batavian Revolution; and like any worthwhile piece of political propaganda, it commemorates a victory that never happened: the revolution was only momentarily delayed, and eventually succeeded.

Brandenburger Tor

The gate originally replaced an older, fortified gate in the city walls. (At this point in history, the walls had become obsolete anyway.) Much later, during the Cold War, the Brandenburg Gate came to serve a far more nefarious purpose: to keep the citizens of East Germany in rather than to keep invaders out.

The Brandenburger Tor stands on the erstwhile border of East and West Berlin; formerly, the Berlin Wall encircled the gate in a sinister embrace. During this time, the dual symbolism of a gate, as a barrier or a portal, as a something can divide or connect, gave the monument a special meaning. Reagan gave his famous plea to “tear down this wall” standing before the Brandenburger Tor; and now, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the gate is an enduring symbol of European unity.

Atop the Brandenburg Gate is a quadriga, a statue of Victory being drawn in a chariot by four horses. This statue has its own political history. After Napoleon defeated Prussia in the Battle of Jena (which Hegel famously overheard while completing his opus, The Phenomenology of Spirit), the French marched into the city through the gate, and then Napoleon took the quadriga back with him to Paris. (Rather petty, I think.) The quadriga was returned to Berlin after Napoleon’s eventual defeat. Then, during the Second World War, the gate was smashed up in the fighting, and the original quadriga was almost entirely destroyed; only one horse’s head survived, now on display somewhere in a museum.

Proceeding through the Brandenburg Gate, you reach the Tiergarten (literally “animal garden,” since the park originated as a private hunting grounds for the king), which is the central park of Berlin. The park is huge: at 210 hectares, it is one of the biggest parks in Germany. It is also absolutely enchanting. The paths wind lazily through the park, under overhanging trees, across green fields, past perfectly reflective lakes and the occasional statue or monument, with bikers riding by and friends playing catch (and older German men sunning their naked bodies)—it’s all lovely (except for the nudists). Somehow the Tiergarten combines the unplanned beauty of a nature reserve with the comfort and charm of English gardens; the park is at once wild and tamed. Without a doubt, it is the finest park I have visited in Europe.

Tiergarten

(I do admit, however, that the sight of people practicing sports and exercising often puts me in a foul mood. I have never liked sports or exercise; and the thought that people would defile a beautiful park like this with activity aimed only at physical fitness or pleasure, fills me with despair. Parks should be for quiet contemplation and for reading—for improving the mind and achieving tranquility—not for bulking up the body and for inducing meaningless excitement! I know I’m being silly here, but it’s hard to contemplate the meaning of existence with the constant sound of people kicking a soccer ball and yelling at each other. This is not a criticism of the Tiergarten, but of humanity.)

In the center of the Tiergarten is yet another notable Roman-inspired construction: the Berlin Victory Column. Like all victory columns, this one takes its inspiration from Trajan’s Column in Rome. The Berlin Victory Column was commissioned during the 1860s to commemorate Prussia’s victory over Denmark; and when Prussia went on to defeat Austria and France, the commissioners decided to top the column with a shining bronze statue of Victory for good measure. The Berlin Victory Column is truly a tower; the combined height of the statue and the pillar is 67 meters, or 220 feet. (For comparison, the Statue of Liberty, base included, is 93 meters.) It was moved to its current location by the Nazis, in anticipation of their plan to turn Germany into Welthauptstadt Germania (World Capital Germania—more on this in my next post). You can climb the more than 200 stairs to the top if you pay a fee. I wasn’t tempted.

Victory Tower

Although this qualifies as a monument to death rather than life, I should mention here the Soviet War Memorial that sits in the Tiergarten. It is a monument to the 80,000 Soviet soldiers who died during the Battle of Berlin, during the Second World War. As luck would have it, the monument was constructed in what later became West Germany; as a result, during the Cold War honor guards from East Germany came every day to stand watch; and civilians from East Germany were prevented by the Berlin Wall from visiting the monument that commemorates their “liberation.” History’s can be rather droll. The monument is yet another example of Roman-inspired architecture, taking the form of a gently curving Stoa. Two howitzer artillery pieces and two T-34 tanks flank the monument, and a striding statue of a soldier—unmistakably Soviet in his heroic pose—caps off the display. It is hard to know what to feel about all this. While I was there, a German man began yelling at a couple of teenagers and threatening to call the police; this only added to my confusion.

Soviet War Memorial

From this memorial it is a 25 minute walk to our next site: Museum Island. This is a complex of five state-owned museums on an island in the Spree river.

The most famous and most visited of these is the Pergamon Museum. This museum was opened in 1930 to display some of the large-scale archaeological discoveries recently made by German researchers. I have a habit of running into lengthy, ecstatic descriptions when I write about museums, as displayed in my post about the British Museum, so I will attempt to limit myself to a brief comment.

The Pergamon Museum is named after its most famous exhibit: the Pergamon Altar, a beautifully preserved temple from the Ancient Greek city of Pergamon. Unfortunately, the exhibit was closed in 2014 for remodeling, and won’t be open against until 2019 or 2020; so I did not get to see it.

Ishtar Lions
Ishtar Gate detail

I did, however, get to see the Ishtar Gate, which might be even more beautiful. This is a gate constructed in the walls of Babylon during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II, in the sixth century BCE. Its function is as decorative as defensive. Made of bricks glazed with lapis lazuli, the gate must have shone like cobalt in the sun; and its azul surface is covered in exquisite bas-reliefs of dragons and bulls. As it stands, the gate in the museum is not entirely original: some bricks were created using the original technique to complete the structure. In any case, I think the Ishtar Gate is easily among the most beautiful works of art from the ancient world: I was stunned when I saw pictures of it in Art History class, and stunned when I saw it in Berlin.

Ishtar Gate
Ishtar Gate

Beside the Pergamon Altar and the Ishtar Gate, the museum has two more monumental exhibitions: the Market Gate of Miletus and the Mshatta Facade.

Pergamum Market
Market Gate of Miletus

The Market Gate of Miletus was built by the Romans in the second century and destroyed by an earthquake a few hundred years later. In 1900 the insatiably curious German archaeologists found the destroyed gate, excavated it, and transported the pieces to Berlin. Its reconstruction involved the use of many new materials, which was controversial; then World War II inflicted further damage on the old ruin, requiring further reconstruction. For something with such a violent past, so often rebuilt, the gate is convincingly ancient and absolutely impressive. It is a two-store facade with rows of columns, rather like the backdrop of the amphitheater I saw in Mérida, Spain. 

Mshatta
Mshatta Façade

The Mshatta façade is perhaps even more impressive. It is a section from a wall of an Ummayad Palace, excavated in present-day Jordan, built in the eighth century. The wall is exquisitely decorated with fine animal and vegetable motifs carved into the surface. This monument, like seemingly everything in this city, was also damaged in World War II. The Mshatta façade is the largest, though perhaps not the most beautiful, exhibition in the museum’s section on Islamic art. There were decorated Korans, luxurious rugs, sections of columns, roofs, and walls covered in wonderful geometrical arabesques. No culture in history, I suspect, has developed the art of ornamentation to such a pitch of perfection as in Muslim culture: every surface, every nook and cranny, every piece of furniture and written word, is executed with care and taste.

It is possible to buy a combined pass for all the museums on Museum Island—the Pergamon Museum, the Bode Museum, the Old National Gallery, the New Museum, and the Old Museum—but I had neither the time nor the money for that. After the Pergamon Museum, I could realistically only visit one more, and I chose the Old National Gallery. But this was a hard choice to make. The Neues Museum has the iconic bust of Nefertiti, still gorgeous and regal after three millennia. The Altes Museum looked even better, with an impressive and extensive collection of Greco-Roman statues—not to mention the lovely neoclassical building itself. But after the Pergamon Museum—and after seeing the British Museum a few weeks earlier—I’d had enough of the ancient world.

National Gallery
Alte Nationalgalerie

The building of the Alte Nationalgalerie yet another stately neoclassical construction; and the visitor, upon ascending the front steps, is greeted by equally stately neoclassical sculptures and busts of famous Germans. The pure white marble and technical finish of these sculptures immediately struck me as cold and academic, as does most art that imitates a dead culture.

Hegel
Hegel

The paintings inside—which mostly consist of portraits, landscapes, and still lifes from the 18th to the 19th centuries—ranged from the forgettable to the truly excellent. Of particular interest, for me, were the portraits of Hegel (stern old metaphysician), the brothers Grimm (as skeletal as their stories), and Alexander von Humboldt (a dashing dandy).

The finest paintings on display were those by Caspar David Friedrich, whose portraits of humanity dwarfed and mocked by nature—silhouetted figures under glowing suns, buffeted by tides and rain, or lonely men solemnly contemplating a vast expanse or the desiccated ruins of some dead culture—capture and express the same sentiment as Shelley does in “Ozymandias”: the overwhelming awareness of human finitude. Other than these works, however, I mostly enjoyed the few impressionist and post-impressionist works on offer.

Caspar David Friedrich
The Abbey in the Oakwood, by Caspar David Friedrich

The courtyard outside the Nationalgalerie is one of the most peaceful and pleasant spots I found in Berlin. The river flows nearby, with barges carrying tourists drifting past, and on the far bank are still more tourists basking in the sun. From here it is a very quick walk to Berlin Cathedral. This stands at the end of an equally picturesque plaza, full of Germans and foreigners lounging in the grass and kids playing with the central fountain.

At a glance you can tell that Berlin Cathedral is not particularly old. The central dome and the four smaller domes which surround it are all made of copper, I believe, and have the same pale green color as the Statue of Liberty. The statues of saints and angels surrounding the front portal are tinted this same algae-green. This creates an odd effect when combined with the fine neo-Renaissance building, like parts of an old ship welded onto a resplendent bank; but for all that, the cathedral is an impressive sight.

Originally built in the early 1900s, as a kind of Protestant version of St. Peter’s, it was damaged and partially destroyed, like everything, during the Second World War. Situated in East Germany, it was unsure whether the government—officially hostile to religion—would reconstruct the cathedral. Eventually they did, but the cathedral’s most famous and beautiful wing, the Denkmalkirche was destroyed, as a symbol of the Hohenzollern dynasty. Political pettiness has always been with is.

Berlin Cathedral Exterior

It is worth the fee to visit the Berlin Cathedral. The interior is finely decorated and cheerfully bright. Of particular interest to me—since I had just finished reading a book about the Reformation—were the sculptures of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Melanchthon standing high up above the main altar. The visitor can, if she so wishes, climb all the way up to the dome of the cathedral to see Berlin. I enjoyed the climb; but I must say that the view—ugly apartment buildings and construction sites—did not make me feel inclined to wax poetic or to fall into raptures about the beauties of the city.

Berlin Cathedral View
Isn’t it glorious?

In any case, you can also visit the crypt in the basement, where several members of the Hohenzollern dynasty are buried. Compared with, say, the royal crypt in Spain’s El Escorial, this one struck me as simple and subdued. Some of the coffins are quite plain and unremarkable. A few are elaborately carved, gilded, and decorated. As in the El Escorial, there are quite a few coffins for young children and infants. Before the age of vaccines and modern medicine, even the most powerful of the world couldn’t keep their children safe. But this brings me to the second part of this post: death.

48 Hours in London

48 Hours in London

I’ve fallen far behind in my travel posts, and now I find myself in the embarrassing position of writing about a trip I took over a year ago. It also seems that, no matter how hard I try to be brief, I end up writing more and more. Well, enough prefatory remarks; on to business.


Introduction

For an American, there is something religious about visiting London for the first time. We have been hearing about the place all our lives. Dry humor, pints of beer, red phone booths, black taxis, fish and chips, bad teeth, good tea, bad weather, good tikka masala, the British Invasion, the British Parliament, the British Empire, Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria, Shakespeare, Dickens, the Beatles, Monty Python, Dr. Who, Harry Potter—London is the focal point of all our stereotypes, good and bad, of England and the English.

This is important for us Americans, since England is the only other country whose media we regularly consume. English media is so important for us because of our shared language. Unlike in Spain—where English-language songs often play on the radio (and people sing these songs without understanding the lyrics), and where American shows, overdubbed in Spanish, are extremely popular—in the United States we don’t listen to music in a foreign language if we can help it, and we only watch television that was originally made in English (overdubbing looks silly). This provincial preference for English media limits our options of foreign media mainly to England and Australia, and England has been the clear favorite.

A consequence of this popularity of English media is that Americans have internalized a highly partial picture of the English character. We associate the English with sophistication, elegance, wit, good manner, royalty, and the historical past.

This is almost the polar opposite of the English reputation in Spain. You see, Spain is an excellent travel destination for English holidaymakers—cheap, close, and sunny—and as a result, lots of English tourists come to Spain looking for a good time. A “good time” entails drinking, of course, and thus there are lots of drunken English people stumbling around city centers on any given night. As a result, Spaniards think of the English, not as genteel aristocrats, but as tipplers.

(Parenthetically, the English also have very different alcohol consumption habits than the Spanish. On a Friday or Saturday night, people in Spain begin drinking in earnest after dinner—which means 11 pm at the earliest. They often don’t even leave their apartment to go to bars and clubs until 2 in the morning, and don’t return home until dawn the next day. In London, on the other hand, drinking begins as soon as people leave work, at 5 pm. This is due, in part, to an old law in London that required pubs to close down at 11. So the English stop drinking when the Spanish barely start.

(This difference in schedule is supplemented by a difference in speed and volume. Spaniards are rarely visibly drunk. I have seen very few Spanish people stumbling from alcohol; instead, they focus on maintaining a level of comfortable tipsiness for a long period of time. Compared with Brits, Spaniards sip their drinks, and eat a lot while they drink. English people, by contrast, get properly drunk, and fast, much like many Americans do. As a consequence, Brits can be very loud drinkers—in my experience, at least. This is an especially interesting contrast, I think, since in every other circumstance Brits tend to be mucher more quiet than Spaniards.)

Of course, both the American and the Spanish stereotype is an over-generalization; they are based on very partial exposures to the English character. Partial and false as they may be, however, these stereotypes did succeed in endowing England with a certain contradictory mystique—a place full of witty drunkards, elegant and boisterous, cultured and slovenly? I needed to go see London for myself, to catch a glimpse of the reality behind the reputation.

My problem was that, at the time, I was particularly low on funds. And however distorted all the other stereotypes may be about London, this one is true: London is expensive. Well, it’s expensive if you enjoy eating, sleeping indoors, using transportation, and doing any activity besides walking and sitting outside. This was a few months before the Brexit referendum, and the pound was still strong.

As a result, my short trip to London—barely 48 hours—became a frantic exercise in traveling cheaply. I didn’t buy an oyster card, and I didn’t use the Tube or the buses. I ate “meal deals”—pre-packed sandwiches at Tesco supermarkets, not terribly delicious—instead of paying for dinner in a restaurant. And I focused on visiting museums, which are free in London, instead of other popular sites.


Arrival & First Impressions

As usual, I traveled with Ryanair. My plane arrived in Stansted, the smallest of London’s airports, where I had to fill out a form and wait in a long queue to enter the country. The English, it seems, are almost as paranoid about their borders as we are in the United States. From Stansted, I took the so-called Stansted Express to London’s central Liverpool Station. The ride took about an hour, and was not cheap. This is a typical Ryanair experience: the flight is inexpensive, but uncomfortable; and you land in an unpopular airport far outside the city. I am a loyal customer.

I sat in the train—dazed from lack of sleep, filled with nervous energy, physically miserable but mentally awake—and stared out the window in disbelief. Was I really here? Was this England, the land of dry humor and wet weather? I gazed out at fleeting patches of green countryside as the train sped by, and savored the delightful names of the train stations between Stansted and London. (Of course I can’t remember any of the names now; but as I look on Google maps, I find such gems as Matching Tye, Hartfield Heath, Hastingwood, Theydon Bois.)

English novels—from Austen, to Dickens, to Rowling—have powerfully shaped the American imagination of the past; and thus, by association, English place-names strike many Americans as irresistibly charming. Each name seems to be the title of another great novel, filled with irony and romance, and written with quaint wit. Likewise, the English countryside—a neatly trimmed park, whose rolling hills are covered in a grey mist—is featured in so many films that even the snatches of green I saw out the train window filled me with delight.

These feelings of romance and fantasy are, I suspect, nearly universal for Americans visiting England, and specifically London, for the first time. England is the only foreign country we regularly see in television and movies. This gives the experience of visiting England the effect of stepping into a movie set—everything is familiar, and yet unreal. The same thing happens, I believe, to many who visit New York for the first time. Many people have independently told me that it felt like they were in a movie, since so many landmarks and features were familiar to them from films.

The train arrived, and I got out to go find my Airbnb. I was on edge. The combination of sleep deprivation (the flight was terribly early) with the usual stress of navigating a foreign city (my phone didn’t have service), plus the feeling of unreality that comes from actually being in a place which I’d been hearing about all my life—all this combined to make me edgy and oversensitive. The double-decker red buses, the black taxis, the cars driving on the wrong side of the road, the eccentric road signs (including the delightfully existential “Change Priorities Ahead”), pubs with absurd names (“Ye Old Cheshire Cheese,” on Fleet Street), the red phone booths scattered seemingly at random (apparently, the city had once sold all these phone booths, only to regret the decision and then repurchase as many as they could)—my first impressions of London did contain many of ye quaint olde stereotypes that I expected.

Red Telephone Booths

But one thing that, as a New Yorker, always surprises me when I visit a new city is the lack of skyscrapers. Madrid has only four buildings which can reasonably be called skyscrapers, and they’re located in the north of the city, far outside the center. London has its own share of skyscrapers, to be sure. But walking around in London has nothing of that vertiginous feeling that New York produces, the feeling of being crushed by steel and glass, the feeling of constantly craning one’s neck. I had always thought of London as being a huge and imposing place, so this lack of skyscrapers did disconcert me somewhat.

In many other respects, however, London can be easily compared with New York: the bustling streets, the flashy billboards and ever-present advertisements, the endless shopping, the infinite variety of chain restaurants, the ethnic diversity, the smell and the grime. London even has the same phony Buddhist monks trying to scam tourists into giving them money. (You can find a great story about them here; and in case you’re wondering, if someone is aggressively asking you for money, you can safely assume that they’re not a Buddhist monk.)

As I discovered when I got to my Airbnb, one way that London is incompatibly different from both my country and Spain is the style of its outlets. I had to buy a power-adaptor there; and like everything in London, it wasn’t cheap. Be wise and buy one ahead of time.

These were my first impressions, hazy and distorted, as I walked from the station to my Airbnb. Already I was running short of time. It was midday Friday, and my flight home would leave early on Sunday. So I set out to the first place on my list, the National Gallery.


A Note on Cuisine and Language

I should preface my trip to the National Gallery with a mention of a small restaurant, the Breadline, which can be found nearby. I decided to eat there because it had fish and chips—I know it’s silly, but I couldn’t leave London without eating that iconic meal—and because its prices were eminently reasonable. The food was plain and basic, but nonetheless, for me, extremely satisfying. I even returned the next day to try an English breakfast, which I quite liked.

English food has a poor reputation, and I understand why; it is hardly a cuisine designed to have universal appeal. Nevertheless, if those two meals can be trusted to give a fair representation (an open question), I can say that I am a fan. There is something about greasy fried potatoes and fried fish, covered in white vinegar, that just feels right to me. And sausage and beans for breakfast is brilliant.

While I was eating, a young British man came in and said “A small white coffee to take away.” This is an excellent example of the differences between British and American English. This sentence, uttered in New York, would produce only bafflement. You would have to translate it to “A small coffee with milk to go,” if you wanted to be understood. I run into these differences constantly as I teach English. Before coming to Spain, I thought the differences between British and American English were minor and negligible, besides the accent; but I was wrong. Working with British textbooks and materials can be extremely frustrating, since often I don’t know what certain expressions or words mean—which is embarrassing when my students ask. Not only that, but there are a few subtle grammatical differences between the dialects, such as in the use of the perfect tense. But this is a digression of a digression; now to the museum.


The National Gallery

It is immensely satisfying to simply walk into a museum, without fees or lines, like it’s your own home. The experience is even better when the museum is one of the best in the world. The National Gallery is only behind the Louvre, the British Museum, and the Metropolitan in visitors per year; and this is especially impressive considering the museum’s collection is comparatively small, easily viewable in three hours or so. But for those with any sensitivity to art, these three hours will be among the most rewarding of your aesthetic life; for the National Gallery’s collection is remarkable both for its breadth and its excellence. The only museums I’ve visited that compare in the average quality of the paintings on display are the Prado in Madrid and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Every room in the gallery contains a masterpiece, often many.

Indeed, there are so many wonderful paintings—paintings I had seen and loved in art history books—that I cannot even hope to mention all of them in this post, much less describe the impression each one made on me. Nevertheless, I can’t resist the temptation to dwell on some of these exquisite works of the human imagination.

The first painting which attracted my attention was the portrait of Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger. This is an extraordinary demonstration of the portraitist’s art; instead of a photographic image, capturing the physical surface of the famous writer, we get a glimpse of the writer’s mind. As in any excellent portrait, the inner is made manifest in the outer without compromising the realism of the portrait. His sharply angular face bespeaks cleverness; his gaunt features reveals a life dedicated to the mind and not the body; his half-closed eyes and serene expression show calm intelligence and a wisdom that sees beyond earthly troubles. We also catch a hint of Erasmus’s self-complacent vanity: he looks a little too comfortable in his fine fur robe, and his hands rest a little too easily upon a volume of his own writings. Is there a more convincing portrait of the scholar?

Erasmus
Erasmus

Holbein has an even more famous work on display at the museum: The Ambassadors. This is a portrait of two aristocratic ambassadors (their identity was long debated), in a room which includes an exquisitely-rendered still-life of several objects—a lute, several globes, a psalm-book, and various instruments of navigation. But the most memorable, and bizarre, feature of this painting is the giant anamorphic skull in the center. Anamorphic means that it is purposefully distorted when viewed head-on, and must be seen from a specific perspective to be seen properly. When viewed from the front, the skull is just a strange grey diagonal shape; but when you walk to the painting’s left, the skull comes into focus. I can only imagine the technical virtuosity required of a painter to pull off this trick with such consummate perfection; when seen properly, the skull is finely detailed, beautifully shaded, and anatomically accurate. Holbein painted this tour de force in 1533.

The Ambassadors
The Ambassadors

The National Gallery also possesses what is probably the most famous papal portrait in history: Raphael’s portrait of Pope Julius II. Julius was the most important of the high renaissance popes; he is responsible for the beginning of the Vatican museum, Michelangelo’s commission to paint the Sistine Chapel, and Raphael’s commission to paint the Vatican Library. Not only that, Julius originated the idea of tearing down the original St. Peter’s and building a new one. Such a man must have had enormous energy and a deep sensitivity to art. And yet in Raphael’s portrait we see him weary, worn-out, and melancholic. He is gently gripping a handkerchief in one hand and his chair in the other; his eyes are hollow, and the wrinkled skin of his face droops loosely from his skull. He seems to be just feebly holding on to the last chords of life, staring at his own end with resignation. Such terrible realism was entirely new in papal portraiture.

Julius II
Julius II

Before going to the National Gallery, I didn’t look up any of the famous pictures that could be found there; so I was surprised and delighted when I found myself face to face with one of my favorite pictures, Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait. I remember first seeing this portrait in Ernst Gombrich’s Story of Art, and being stunned. In the context of its time, 1434, the portrait is startling for its realism and its domestic subject: a marriage contract taking place in a bedroom. To a modern eye, perhaps the portrait no longer seems terribly realistic; the husband, with his pale expressionless face and his oversized clothes, always looks like he belongs in a Tim Burton film to me; but this only adds to its charm. The little toy-sized dog in the foreground—as adorable as ever—and the mirror in the background—showing us the whole scene from reverse in a distorted perspective—add to the painting’s undeniable power.

Alfonsini Portrait
Arnolfini Portrait

There are dozens more paintings—of equal importance and beauty—that I could devote an unworthy paragraph to describing; but this would only swell this post to unartistic dimensions. Yet I cannot move on without mentioning the National Gallery’s collection of Italian Renaissance art. This includes Piero del Pollaiolo’s masterpiece, The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, a landmark in the realistic use of perspective, with the saint enricled by crossbowmen.

Preist with Arrows
The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian

Even more important is one of the two versions of Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks. The other one is in the Louvre, and is usually considered the original; but I think the Gallery’s version, with its deeper shades and more dramatic chiaroscuro, is lovelier. Apart from its beauty, this painting is notable for its setting. Leonardo, as is typical of him, creates a carefully naturalistic background for this traditional Biblical scene. In previous eras, the background of paintings was almost entirely neglected; monochrome gold foil set off the human figures. But in Leonardo’s masterpiece, the background—a cave, which was an unprecedented choice—swallows up its subject. Such careful attention to rendering nature was something new in history.

Virgin of the Rocks

I also cannot move on without mention of Rembrandt. The National Gallery has several of Rembrandt’s most highly regarded works, including two of his self-portraits. Looking into the eyes of a famous artist, as he stares back at you from a self-portrait, is an unnerving experience; suddenly the gap in space and time that separates your lives vanishes; the artist has transcended death, and even transcended life; his focused gaze, dry pigment on a canvas, will outlast even your own living flesh. On a less dramatic note, the Gallery also has one of Velazquez’s most famous works: The Rockeby Venus, famous for being one of the few female nudes in Spanish art (one other being Goya’s La Maja Desnuda).

I will muster my self-control and mention only two more works.

By common consent, the greatest painter in English history is Joseph Mallord William Turner; and several of his finest works can be seen at the Gallery. Of these, my favorite is Rain, Steam, and Speed—The Great Western Railway. A locomotive emerges from a tempest, a black tube bursting through grey fog. Every line and color is blurred as if seen from an out-of-focus camera. All we can see in the background are hints of blue sky, a bridge, and a lake where some people are rowing in a little boat.

Turner Steam and Rail

In this paintings, Turner seems to have both anticipated and surpassed the impressionists in rendering momentary flashes of life. The swirl of indistinct color is absolutely hypnotic; yet the painting is not merely pretty, as are many impressionistic paintings, but a convincing symbol of the relationship between human technology and natural power. The train punches through the mist, in a confident gesture of industrial might; and yet the stormy clouds that swirl all around menace the lonely black locomotive. Both the train and its surrounding are impressive, even sublime, but also inhumanly vast and cold; and the two slight figures in the rowboat below reveal our true vulnerability in the face of these forces.

The last painting I’ll mention before forcing myself away—even remembering the Gallery is a pleasure—is Bathers at Asnières, by Georges Seurat. This painting was completed in 1884; but it was not until many years after Seurat’s death that it was recognized as a masterpiece. It depicts several middle-class Parisians relaxing by the Seine on a hot summer day. The technique Seurat used is almost pointillistic in its precise use of strokes and colors, relying mainly on bright horizontal daubs. The combination of statuesque modeling and poses—the bathers’ heavy bodies and horizontal orientation remind me of an Egyptian frieze—with Seurat’s delicate treatment of brushstrokes, makes the painting look crystal-clear from a afar and blurred from up close. The treatment really captures the feeling of heat: how everything can seem perfectly clear in the summer sun, and yet distant objects are blurred.

Bathers

Complementing this tension between form and vagueness, is an emotional tension between fun and desolation. At first glance the bathers are having a wonderful day. They are at leisure, enjoying the sunshine, the smooth grass, and the cool water. But then you notice how isolated is each one of the figures. They are all in their own world; many seem lost in thought. Their expressions are emotionless; their hunching posture bespeaks weariness. The factory spewing smoke in the background adds another hint of gloom.

To me, the painting is a devastating portrait of the isolation and meaninglessness of contemporary life. We imagine the figures working 9 to 5 jobs in offices during the week, performing mechanical tasks that mean nothing to them. Then they go to their usual restaurant for a bite to eat and then to their apartment to sleep. When with their friends, they drink and talk of trivialities. On a holiday, they come here, and stare into space, unable to articulate to themselves or anyone else the strange sense of emptiness that engulfs them whenever they have a free moment. It is a comfortable world that conceives of nothing beyond wealth and luxury; and its members, when released from their usual routine, can think of nothing to do. Convention dictates that they come here to ‘relax’. The painting is the perfect complement and illustration of Albert Camus’s The Stranger: it is a painting of a world of strangers, to one another and to themselves.


The next day, I headed to one of the other great museums in London: the British Museum. Originally I planned to include my account of that great institution in this post; but I ended up writing so much that I decided that the British Museum deserved its own separate essay, which you can find here.


Brief Snatches of London Life

When I wasn’t visiting museums, I had a few spare hours to wander around the city. This allowed me to glimpse, all too briefly, most of the major sights in London—the places that must be given a mention and a respectful nod in any post about that old city.

The first landmark I insisted on seeing was Big Ben. A trip to London without seeing that venerable clocktower would be like a trip to Pisa without its leaning campanile. I was so ignorant when I visited London (and remain, despite strenuous efforts) that I didn’t even know that Big Ben was attached to the British parliament building, the Palace of Westminster. It was a delightful surprise to find these two landmarks joined together.

Westminster Palace

Although it looks gothic, the palace is of fairly recent construction. The old Westminster palace burned down in 1834 (Turner witnesses the fire, and painted several pictures of it). The new building was designed by Charles Barry, who used a Gothic revival style in his plan. I doubt there is any parliament buildings in the world so elegant, so imposing, and so charming. Few experiences in London, if any, can do a better job of creating that Hollywood sensation of being in a movie than standing on the Westminster bridge, seeing that palace and the clocktower, and hearing the ringing bells of Big Ben chime out the hour.

From there I walked away from the bridge, pausing to examine the statue of Winston Churchill (covered in pigeon droppings) in the nearby plaza, and went to Westminster Abbey. In my very limited experience, this is easily the most beautiful church building in London. I can’t say much about it, because I didn’t go inside—it was closed by the time I arrived, and in any case I didn’t want to pay the steep entry fee—but I can say that its façade is exquisite, especially the north entrance. Funnily enough, Westminster Abbey is not an abbey—at least, not anymore. Originally it was an abbey of the Benedictine monks, but after the Protestant Reformation, and after a brief stint as a cathedral, the abbey was designated a church. For the last 1,000 years it has been the site of coronations and royal weddings.

Westminster Abbey

The walk from Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace is about 15 minutes—slightly longer if, like me, you walk through St. James’s Park. I highly recommend this, since the park is absolutely lovely.

Architecturally, Buckingham Palace isn’t much to look at; it presents itself as a cheerless, square, grey block. The building was not originally designed as a royal residence; it only became the seat of the monarchy in 1837, during the reign of Queen Victoria. The palace takes its name from the Duke of Buckingham, who originally had it built. It sits at the end of the Mall—a major road often used for processions—in a roundabout in which stands the golden Victoria Memorial, which commemorates that famous queen.

Buckingham Palace

Even so, neither the monument nor the palace would attract a great deal of attention, I suspect, were it not for the Queen’s Guard. Equipping guards with antique weapons and dressing them in bright red outfits with fluffy tall hats seems to be one of those conspicuously impractical things that wealthy and powerful people do to showcase their wealth and power. Your average rich entrepreneur or politician could not afford to keep a corps of totally inefficient guards performing ceremonial movements all day (which are, naturally, supplemented by other guards using modern weapons, keeping careful watch, and wearing less conspicuous clothes). Here is an incident that demonstrates the guards’ mainly ceremonial role: in 1982 a man managed to evade the palace guard and make his way to the Queen’s bedroom, where he was apprehended by the city police.

I spent some time watching the guards march back and forth, their limbs as stiff as a wooden nutcracker. Purely as athletic performers, the soldiers are undeniably impressive: the timing, the coordination, the posture, the endurance—it must require excellent physical condition and serious training to keep up the routine, especially considering that they wear those clothes even in hot weather. The guards now mainly function as a tourist attraction and an amusing symbol of British culture; but to be fair, the Queen’s Guard aren’t the only soldiers to wear funny clothes (think of the Swiss Guard in the Vatican) or to engage in elaborate ceremony purely for show (think of the tomb of the unknown soldier in Washington D.C.).


By the time I left the British Museum the next day, I only had about 6 hours left before I’d have to go to sleep and say goodbye to London. The best way to get the most out of this time, I figured, was a free walking tour. The guide was excellent, and the tour just what I wanted. Unfortunately I don’t remember the name of the company or of our guide; he introduced himself as the only American tour guide in London—so he shouldn’t be too hard to find. (But apparently this isn’t true; a Google search reveals an American woman named Amber who also gives tours.)

The tour focused on the City of London. You may not know—I certainly didn’t—that the “City of London” refers to the original part of the metropolis, founded by the Romans way back when. This original City of London is now only a tiny fraction of the greater metropolitan area; indeed, it is quite a small place, having an area of only one square mile. This city is far older than England; it has enjoyed special privileges (or, to use the phrase of the Magna Carta, “ancient liberties”) since the Norman Conquest;  and even now it retains the privilege to create many of its own regulations, independent of the greater metropolitan area or of England herself. The city has laxer building codes, which explains why so many of London’s skyscrapers are found there, and also looser financial regulations, which explains why it remains the center of London’s economic life. The City of London is home to the Bank of London, the London Stock Exchange, and Lloyd’s of London (the insurance market).

The tour began at Temple Station. Our guide took us along the river and then down Fleet Street, giving us bits of details about London’s past and present. We walked by Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, one of the oldest and best known pubs in London, famous both for its silly name and its dark, windowless interior; and this prompted our guide to embark on a long, impassioned explanation of London pub culture. Though an American, he was clearly a convert to the pub way of life; he had strong opinions about what made a pub good or bad; and he had pub recommendations for nearly any area of the city. (I was so inspired that, after the tour, I went into a pub to get a drink; but the beer was so expensive and so mediocre that my disappointment was even more bitter than the beer.)

Soon we reached St. Paul’s Cathedral. The tour didn’t pause for us to go inside; and, in any case, the entrance fee is formidable enough to discourage penurious travelers like me. Among other things, St. Paul’s is famous for having one of the tallest domes in the world. But the present St. Paul’s replaced an older, even taller cathedral (well, it was taller before its spire was destroyed by lightning), which was badly damaged in the Great Fire of London in 1666. The present building was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and completed in his lifetime. Wren was, if not the greatest, at least the most prolific architect in England’s history. He designed and oversaw the construction of no less than 52 churches after the Great Fire. The architect himself is buried in the crypt of the cathedral, in a modest grave that says “Reader, if you seek his monument—look around you.”

St. Paul's Buildings

From there we moved on to the Monument to the Great Fire, also designed by, you guessed it, Sir Christopher Wren. As our guide pointed out, the monument—a tall doric column that originally rose far above its surroundings—is now hemmed in by neighboring buildings and dwarfed by modern architecture. The guide used this as an example of the tendency of Londoners to be more interested in the future than the past.

To emphasize this point, he directed our attention to the skyscraper at 20 Fenchurch Street, a bizarre, top-heavy construction, completed in 2014, whose shape quickly earned it the nickname ‘The Walkie Talkie’. This building won—and earned—an award for ugliness. (It was also discovered that the building’s concave shape focused the sun’s rays strongly enough to damage cars, ignite doormats, and fry eggs; a screen has since been installed to prevent this from happening.) But the Walkie Talkie is only one of the many skyscrapers that have sprung up in the City of London in recent memory, despite concerns that these tall monstrosities will dwarf and obstruct historic buildings.

Walkie Talkie
Walkie Talkie

From the cathedral, we went down towards the river and ended up under London Bridge. Many people, including me, assume from the nursery rhyme that London Bridge is a tourist attraction; indeed, the justly famous Tower Bridge, which spans the Thames nearby (see below), is often mistakenly called the London Bridge. Sad to say, the current London Bridge is a brutalist piece of concrete and steel, a minimalistic slab of stone that stretches across the Thames, without charm, beauty, or really any distinguishing quality.

The nursery rhyme dates from a time when a different London Bridge spanned the Thames. The ‘Old’ London Bridge, built in 1209 and demolished in 1831, rested on stone arches and was covered in wooden buildings (which proved to be a fire hazard). It was famous for being the site where the severed heads of those executed for treason, dipped in tar and impaled on pikes, were displayed for passersby to take heed. William Wallace’s head was the first to play this role.

In 1831, the ‘New’ London Bridge was built to replace the crumbling medieval construction; this bridge also rested on arches, but it was taller and so allowed bigger ships to pass underneath. In the 1960s it was discovered that London Bridge was falling down (sinking into the riverbed) and had to be replaced. In true English entrepreneurial spirit, the bridge was sold; an American oil tycoon, Robert McCulloch, bought the bridge, disassembled it, shipped it to the United States, and then reassembled it in Lake Havasu City, Arizona—a little piece of English history in the American south. The current behemoth was finished in 1972.

The tour came to an end front of the Tower of London. Once again, I didn’t go inside that old castle—I am really exposing myself as a pathetic traveler, I know—but contented myself with walking around the perimeter. From the outside, the Tower of London doesn’t seem to merit the name “tower”; the White Tower, the central citadel which sits at the center of the castle complex, is less than 100 feet tall—almost invisible in the context of London. The castle is quite venerable; it was first constructed by the Normans in the 11th century, and was expanded in the preceding two centuries. At present the Tower of London is a large complex with two concentric layers of stone walls surrounding the central keep, and some additional buildings such as a chapel and a barracks. The outer wall is surrounded by a moat, now left dry. Besides the castle itself, visitors can see several historical objects on display, such as Henry VIII’s armor and—most notably—the Crown Jewels of England.

The Tower of London has played an important and often a nefarious role in English history. For a long time it served as the British version of the Bastille, as a prison for traitors and other political pests. Anne Boleyn, unfortunate wife of Henry VIII, is the most famous prisoner ever to be held and executed in the tower; legend has it that her ghost still travels through the old castle, her severed head under her arm. But as I stood there looking at that stone pile, I thought only of Thomas More, the British intellectual who dreamed of a utopia with freedom of religion, and who was imprisoned in the tower and then executed for being true to his Catholic faith (also by Henry VIII). More’s head was eventually covered in tar and displayed on a pike on the old London Bridge.

The tour guide ended with a short speech, which I will try to reproduce here:

“In this tour, we’ve seen many different types of power. We have the political and military power of the Tower of London, the religious power of St. Paul’s cathedral and the Church of England, and the economic power of the London Stock Exchange. And this, ultimately, is what the City of London has always been about: the use of power to control its own destiny. It’s a place oriented towards the future, constantly striving to master whatever is the next form of social power in order to maintain its dominance in the world’s affairs.”

And this strikes me as perfectly true.

From the Tower of London I made a quick walk to the nearby Tower Bridge. This is the iconic bridge often mistakenly called the London Bridge. It’s a pretty sight, with two neo-Gothic towers supporting two platforms, one higher and one lower. Built in the 1890s, its design, by Sir Joseph Bazalgette, was innovative: a combined suspension bridge and drawbridge. The idea (according to the tour guide) was to allow pedestrians to keep using the bridge even when the drawbridge was drawn up to allow ships to pass.

Pedestrians soon learned, however, that walking up the stairs in one of the towers, crossing the upper platform, and then walking down the stairs in the other platform, took even more time than just waiting for the drawbridge to close again. Accordingly, pedestrians hardly ever used the upper platform, which came to be frequented mainly by criminals and prostitutes; it was closed in 1910. Nowadays, you need to pay an entrance fee to go up to the upper walkway. This is just another example of a brilliant idea that doesn’t take into account basic human realities: an innovative plan for a bridge that ignores the time and effort needed to climb several flights of stairs. It is certainly pretty, though.

Tower Bridge

As my last stop I made my way to Shoreditch, a neighborhood which had been recommended to me by a Londoner in my Spanish class. Shoreditch is London’s Williamsburg: a previously working class neighborhood that has been gentrified, and is now home to trendy restaurants and technology companies. The area even looks like Williamsburg, with narrower streets and older, shorter buildings, full of colorful shops and cafes. The population, too, is almost indistinguishable from its New York counterpart: men with large mustaches, plaid shirts, and suspenders; women with half their heads shaven, nose rings, and small, tasteful tattoos—in a word, hipsters. I felt right at home. The gentrification is so extreme as to be beyond parody; there is, for example, a cafe, the Cereal Killer Cafe, that serves only breakfast cereal.

To illustrate my own complicity in the world of hipsterdom, I went to a cafe famous for its rainbow-colored bagels, the Brick Lane Beigel Bake. This little cafe is open 24 hours a day, it is cheap, and it is excellent. I didn’t order a rainbow bagel, but instead a ‘hot salt beef’ on a roll. The beef comes with pickles and strong, superb mustard. I had two (for a very reasonable price) and I was stuffed. Another positive mark for English cuisine.

My time was up. My flight was leaving at seven the following morning, which meant I had to wake up at four to give myself enough time to walk to the train station and take the train to the airport.

All told, I spent less than 48 hours in London. I was constantly tired, hungry, and physically exhausted. I ate little, I slept less, and I walked almost constantly—more than 10 hours each day. I spent as little money as I could, and still the trip was expensive. I learned as much as I could, but left the vast majority of the city unseen and unknown. The trip was a physical ordeal and a financial hardship. But in return for all this trouble, I encountered, however briefly, one of the great cities of the world.