Literature majors are always reading. We are assigned a book, a short story, or a play, and we dive in hoping to unlock the secrets to the universe … or at least get a decent grade. We develop a mental picture as we read, and we might even read a little background quip about the writer. But, when the opportunity avails itself to step into the world of the writer – to see where they lived, to walk the streets they walked, and to really learn their history – it unlocks a whole new dimension in our understanding of a given writer or piece.
While we were in London and were taking a walk through Dickens’s old neighborhood and we learned just how much of his surroundings he used in his various works, it honestly made his characters and his novels come to life that much more. Suddenly Dickens wasn’t just this famous author from long ago; instead, he was fleshed out and he became more real as a person, and as a writer. Being there enhanced my understanding of subjects and brought additional dimension to the literary picture.
On a personal level, as an online/distance learner, studying abroad allowed me to connect with the university more, as well as the other students in the program. I found it to be a very rewarding and enriching experience.
The other day while the class was on its way to see a play, we stumbled across a lovely little church near the Thames, and decided to stop in, as we had extra time. What we didn’t know as we entered was that this pretty little chapel also happened to be Shakespeare’s old parish. It had his image carved in stone under a stained glass window. The church had a service going on, and the parish minister was giving a reading.
The timing was perfect, as I’d found out the night prior that my father was in the hospital, and so while we were there, I was able to light a candle for him and say a few prayers.
Afterwards, I thought about London, and what kind of a city this is. You can walk around, accidentally stumble in somewhere, and it just happens to have tremendous literary significance. That is such a foreign concept to most Americans, I think. For me, it was such a happy accident. I knew that I was standing somewhere that Shakespeare had stood. Now, I not only share my birthday with the Bard – I have been to his old church, passed through the same doorways, and stood in the places stood. Where he put money into the collection plate, I shelled out a few pounds for commemorative keepsakes. But money for the church is money for the church.
Nearly every day on this trip we’ve gone somewhere serious and historic. We’ve been to an array of cathedrals, towers, museums and palaces. But yesterday, we decided to visit The Sherlock Holmes Museum. Tourist trap? Yes. Kitschy? Definitely. But I must admit, I was eager to go. I didn’t even care that we waited for nearly two hours, or that the place was maybe 1200 square feet of viewing pleasure after that long wait. I had ten minutes of pop culture pleasure. I took photos and bought souvenirs. I basically took the tourist bait, hook, line and sinker … and I have no regrets. I had my campy fun. And yes, it tied into our literary goals, as we read The Sign of Four, so no time was wasted on the academic front. But after a decade of watching Jeremy Brett as Sherlock, and now being totally hooked on the “Sherlock” series with Benedict Cumberbatch, I was frankly a little less concerned with the literary merits of visiting the “museum,” and turned into your garden-variety fan. So now I can say that I’ve been inside 221b Baker Street, and I can add that experience to all the other wonderful, proper, high-brow, literary destinations visited on this journey.
A few days ago, we went as a class to the Victoria and Albert Museum, and I have to say that it was one of my favorite places that we have visited. We had several class discussions about Victorian dress norms and the role of women, and then we viewed the artwork and sculptures in the museum. It was all interesting, and enjoyable, but when I stepped outside to head to the café, I saw a beautiful courtyard. It was truly picturesque, with a wading pond in the center, and little children splashing around. People were seated at small tables around it, with their tea and cake, and I had to stop and just drink it all in. I went and got a little spot of tea and cake myself, and joined them. The course up to that point had been very hectic, as we were going and doing so much. So as I sat there, it was as though time just stopped. I looked around at the gorgeous architecture and the children giggling as they splashed in the wading pool, and I just thought to myself that there aren’t many moments in life as picture-perfect as this, and I should really, consciously and deliberately, enjoy it. And so, I did.
For the better part of two weeks now, we’ve been walking and riding around London – stopping here, there and everywhere in an effort to learn all about London and its literary history. Tomorrow actually marks the halfway point in our trip, and it occurred to me as we were taking the ferry down the Thames this morning that when I looked at building after building, I did so with familiarity. With each building, cathedral or bridge that we passed that I recognized, I realized just how much I have learned already. The materials that we read prior to the course are all coming together now, and connecting with the places we’re visiting, and creating a literary picture. With every day and every field trip to some place of interest, that picture becomes increasingly clearer and more defined.
Today, for example, when we were at the Tower of London, getting the lesson in history from the Beefeater, I realized that I already knew some of what our expert lecturer was saying, and that tickled me. So, tonight, as we went out to dinner, and dined at “Rules,” the oldest restaurant in London – and one in which Dickens had visited – it felt as though our trip had been so productive. And, we’re only half-way done. There are still so many things left on the agenda – so much more of London to see, inside and out.
What do I want on my tombstone? While that may not be the happiest thought, it did occur to me as we walked around Highgate Cemetary today. Seeing all the various kinds of tombstones and inscriptions made me think about what I want my inscription to say. As I walked along the heavily-treed pathways, and saw sculptures of Celtic crosses, Christian crosses, angels, and even dogs and horses, I realized that these were all representations of people’s lives. They, or their loved ones, picked these sculptures, these symbols, and these words to sum up what they believed in life. I then tried to imagine what would sum up my life. How does one begin to choose the words or symbols to represent a life?
When I saw George Eliot’s tombtone, it had her nom de plume in quotes, and her legal name beneath it, which made me wonder – what is it that defines you? Is it your life’s work? Is it your family role? Is it what you do for others? Or, in the end, are you a composite that is summed up in a minuscule inscription in stone? These are questions for which I have no answer, but I have always like the Beatles’ “The End” lyric: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”
Today I did at least pick up some good ideas on tombstone decor. And, perhaps I’ll take a cue from one of the tombstones we saw today– that of a popular British boxer– and have a stone sculpture of my dog placed at the foot of my grave for eternal protection and companionship.
Sometimes, you know something is going to happen, and yet you’re still not prepared when it happens. That pretty much sums up how this week has been. Each day, I know what’s on the agenda, and yet when we’re there, in the moment, I’m still in awe. It happened yesterday at Buckingham Palace, and again today when we were at the British Museum. I stood in front of the Rosetta Stone in disbelief. You grow up learning about something of vital historical importance, and it seems so very distant from your own personal reality. But this week, my own personal reality has taken a holiday, and instead of my norm, I’m touring historic churches, museums and palaces, and am standing six inches away from the Rosetta Stone.
Every day has been an adventure like this. Every day I’ve taken unbelievable photos of places or things I never dreamed I’d ever see in person.
In the past, I was always a person who would spend money on things rather than experiences, but this week has taught me that money spent on educational travel is every bit as much of an investment as money spent on things tangible, if not more so.
Unlike the rest of the group, I have been in London for two days now, and am having the time of my life. I’ve been to places I’ve always wanted to go, and find it hard to believe that I’m actually here. On the first day, I walked around London near Trafalgar Square, and took a ride on The London Eye. As my pod was at the top of the Eye, I just thought to myself, I’m really here. Yesterday, I took a long trip up to Lyme Park to visit the house where the Colin Firth version of “Pride and Prejudice” was filmed. In the film, the house is known as “Pemberly,” or Mr. Darcy’s house. I took a tour of the vast mansion, which was quite maze-like, and strolled the grounds, which were stunningly beautiful, with fabulous views in all directions. By the time I got back to my hotel (after getting lost not once, but twice) I was exhausted but feeling blissful.
Today I spent the morning leaving the hotel, traveling to my host family’s house, and getting settled in. The host family is warm and gracious, and I couldn’t be any happier with my roommate, Mei, who is a doll. Oh, and on top of that, I’m still in London with three weeks of adventures ahead of me! Somebody pinch me.
With only days remaining before flying to London, I’m looking at the trip itinerary, and am full of excitement over all of the famous places we’ll be visiting. I’m beyond thrilled by the opportunity. Not only am I excited over experiencing London, I’m also excited by the fact that I’ll be doing something so completely different from my personal norm. I’ve lived in Texas for the last twenty years, and I tend to be a bit of a hermit. I even take UML correspondence classes from home. It’s so very convenient and comfortable, and generally speaking, I have a hard time venturing out of that comfort zone. Now, international travel is literally days away. Unfortunately, it took something jarring to cause me to take this opportunity.
Last year, my mother died. Along with sadness and mourning came the realization that my mother did not have a passport, and she had only ever been to Hawaii and Mexico. It then occurred to me that I did not have a passport, and had only ever been to Hawaii and Mexico. I was reminded of a line from “The Shawshank Redemption” – “get busy living, or get busy dying.” I had planned on going to London twice before, but both times my plans had fallen through. Then, this opportunity popped up in my inbox in the form of an UML email, and I couldn’t sign up fast enough. Now I have a passport, and soon it will have a stamp in it. And, in just a few days, I’ll be standing in front of Big Ben as part of my effort to “get busy living.”