Beautiful London

When professors ask me if I’m excited to return home, I never really want to answer the question. In my last class today, one of them made us reflect on what we enjoyed about the class, and one thing we wished we could have done overall. It was like I had a mini flashback in my mind, as I tried to figure out something different from what the other girls were saying. The great thing was, I couldn’t think of just one thing. My mind jumped from thing to thing, and I still amassed a list of things I need to do in the future.

He also asked for something we thought was meh about the class. I also couldn’t think of one at the time. I really enjoyed exploring London, and I can’t believe how much I love it here. One month isn’t enough, but when would I ever get this chance again? It was all my classes, my classmates, my side trips, the good and bad experiences that made my trip what it was. I am desperately sad that I leave in the morning, but I am so grateful for everything that has happened. Studying abroad is an experience like no other, and I hope that people get to experience it and fall in love with a new country, much like I have. I was born and bred in NYC, but there’s room for two big cities in my heart.

Returning to the USA

What to say about such an intense and positive experience….?!

After a month of near-constant activity, seeing so many things, museums, and meeting new people, it will be a change of pace in New Paltz, waiting for the semester to begin, casually catching up with friends and family. I am so glad I took this opportunity to study abroad. It helped me clarify my future goals and put things into perspective in unexpected ways. I now have a clearer picture of where I want to be in a year, my itch for travel having been temporarily scratched. Ready to relax and reflect. Two final papers on there way. On my way to NYC tomorrow. See you soon!

Magical London

What I like about London is that there are always small gems to find. Through one of my classes, Exploring Cultural London, I was able to find many of these things thanks to my teacher. From the covered markets, to the expensive arcades in Piccadilly Circus, to rooftop bars and boat rides, London has it all.

In the “up and coming” area of Peckham, our teacher gave us an optional thing to visit after class. It turned out to be one of the interesting things I’ve found on this trip. The way up was inside the stairs of a car park, and it was painted bright bubblegum pink. It actually hurt the eyes to look at. At the top, it opened to a view of London with a rooftop bar and an extremely casual restaurant. It was a great end to a class day, just looking at the view and talking.

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The boat ride on the Thames was actually another optional thing at the end of our class. We finished off in Greenwich and the Prime Meridian, then he gave us the option to go back by boat. All of us ended up saying yes, and it was one of the highlights of my trip. Being able to go back to Waterloo Station on the Thames was amazing. I saw so many things I wanted to see, and we passed under the Tower Bridge. It was great to see what we had been talking about in class and being able to identify large buildings in the financial districts made me happy.

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One thing I found with this class is that somehow we were always able to orient ourselves as to where we were because of the first day. The first day we went up on the Shard, the tallest view in London. Seeing the buildings from high up made it easy to spot certain distinctive landmarks from so many areas in London. Even from the plane back coming back from Ireland I could still see them.

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We travelled to Leavesden for my second class yesterday to take in the Warner Bros. Studio Tour for the Making of Harry Potter. Now if you’re a huge Harry Potter fan, this is absolutely a must to see. All the sets, all the props, all the costumes were the originals used in the film at some point in time. It’s really a surreal feeling to walk into the Great Hall and see how the set is and to see how it made all of us feel.

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In just three weeks, I have seen so much of London. I know how to get around on the Underground (the “Tube”) and the South West Trains. The highlight of my trips to the many museums has been the works of art, which until now, I’ve only seen in textbooks. There is nothing like seeing a beautiful painting in person. The Turner Collection, in Tate Britain, alone, is worth the trip here. Nearly every weekday, we travel into central London. During the walks that result from these excursions, I’ve seen many of the notable London landmarks: the London Eye, Westminster Abbey, Westminster Cathedral, Trafalgar Square, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Borough Market, and the many bridges crossing the Thames. I even got to see the last remaining coaching tavern, The George Inn. Fun all around.  The photo above is a shot of the Underground.

Academic Adjustment

I am taking two classes at Kingston University. They are very similar to classes at SUNY New Paltz, with two important differences: 1) We’re only here for a month, so everything is condensed. For each class I have two papers, and for one, I also had a 10-minute presentation. We have plenty of time to do the assignments at the end of the day. Most afternoons, we go out into central London for class trips. 2) The class content is applied to UK and London-related topics, so its great to be here and experience the things we’re learning about firsthand. Here are some details:

  1. London and its Literature – In this course we’re covering The Beggar’s Opera, Oliver Twist, several Sherlock Holmes stories, Mrs. Dalloway, and several poems about London and the UK. We’ve visited Dr. Samuel Johnson’s House, the Sir John Soane Museum, the Sherlock Holmes Museum, and the Museum of London. My first paper was a 1000-word essay on Mrs. Dalloway.
  2. Museums and Galleries. In this course, we’re studying many aspects of museum work, to include collecting, curating, displaying, and interpreting. We’ve visited the Tate Modern, Tate Britain, the National Gallery of Art, the Albert & Victoria Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, the Serpentine Galleries, the British Museum, and the Kingston Museum. My first paper was a 1000-word essay on the Mark Rothko room at the Tate Modern.

The photo above is of Sherlock Holmes’s study.

Cultural Adjustmant

Since my study abroad session began, I have greatly enjoyed London, the food, and my accommodations. I have done some “cooking” in our shared kitchen. Food from the local Sainsbury’s grocery is plentiful, and very much like the US. The ready-made Indian meals there are outstanding. I’ve also eaten out at several restaurants. My favorites are the Maya Indian restaurant and the local place for Shawarma.

My accommodations are in a residence hall in Surbiton, UK, which is located at the site of an old water purification station. The photograph above is the old main building of that station. The residence hall, called Seething Wells, is about a 20-minute walk from where the classes are held. There is also a bus that takes about five minutes.

Septimus Warren Smith and Rezia in Regent’s Park, London

“…The whole world was clamouring: Kill yourself, kill yourself, for our sakes. But why should he [Septimus] kill himself for their sakes? …Besides, now that he was quite alone, condemned, deserted, as those who are about to die are alone, there was a luxury in it, an isolation full of sublimity; a freedom which the attached can never know.” 

-Virginia, Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

Early on in Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness narrative flows over to Septimus Warren Smith and his wife, Rezia, whiling away the afternoon in Regent’s Park, London. They are together, but they’re undeniably separate and alone with their thoughts and impressions. In the way they relate to the sights and sounds of the park, and in the way they think about them, Woolf shows us who these two characters are in this moment, so different, on this beautiful mid-June day in the city.

Rezia is very much battling with the troubles of the real world. Her primary concern happens to be Septimus, and everything she experiences in the park relates to his troubles. In this time, she recalls memories, relates to London’s history and literature, and observes the actions of the other people in the park. Rezia tries to get Septimus to look around him and engage in this real world. She recalls the safety and comfort of her home in Italy, and she questions her decision to come to England with Septimus. At one point, she speculates she’d be better off if Septimus was dead. She relates the loneliness and darkness she feels to the Thames valley when the Romans arrived to conquer it. (This is also a reference to the excerpt from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness we read in class.) Rezia even sees the other people in the park, sees children playing and responds to Maisie Johnson’s request for directions to the Tube. But in these observations and interactions, she is most concerned that others will notice the queer state her husband is in. Hers is a London of Septimus’s breakdown and the disintegration of their relationship.

Septimus is lost in his own world, in “an isolation of sublimity.” Everything he sees and hears relates back to himself, his inner fantasies. He recognizes the beauty in the sky, the air-writing airplane, but he believes the message is only for him. He hears the nursemaid spelling out the letters, but he believes her voice is quickening the trees. The trees are connected to his body by fibres. Septimus has lost touch with Rezia’s real world, and he feels alone and abandoned. He nearly ignores the people in the park, only focusing on the natural beauty and the way it provokes his imagination. Septimus’s dead war-buddy, Evans, lurks at the edge of his vision, the edge of his mind. He is a man contemplating the end of life, considering suicide. The epigraph above is taken from later in the book, but it sufficiently summarizes Septimus’s state of mind. He feels he is at the end of his life, but he hasn’t yet decided how his actual death will come, by his own hand or not. Septimus’s London serves solely as a catalyst for his own inner fantasies, a city filled with too many people and not enough peace.

Septimus’s dislocation in Regent’s Park is the cumulative result of trauma caused by World War I and the emotional paralysis that followed. Virginia Woolf makes an explicit connection between herself and Septimus when she writes that the war veteran hears sparrows singing “freshly and piercingly in Greek words.” After her first suicide attempt in 1904, Woolf claims to have imagined hearing birds sing in Greek. One academic study even claims the very “modernist narrative of Woolf’s novel brilliantly mirrors the mind of a trauma survivor like Septimus.” According to one introduction of the novel, in 1923, a total of 16,771 soldiers were still hospitalized with “shattered nerves and around 50,000 neurasthenic and other types of war pensioner [were] at large in Britain.” Septimus was very much a man of the times in London.

Septimus’s flights of fancy are expertly written by Woolf, and they allow the author an opportunity to play loose and fast with the traditional rules of description and narrative. She writes that, in Septimus’s mind, Rezia’s command for him to “Look!” turns into a flight of associations that leads from life to death, from the Lord to a snow blanket. Elsewhere, a child’s cry and a horn sounding together mean “the birth of a new religion.” These passages sometimes strain the sense of the scene almost to the point of incoherence. But, Woolf seems always able to hold the thing together at the last moment. Also, Woolf’s use of repetition is masterful, nearly inciting a religious response to some of the lines. Rezia’s commands to “Look!” are hypnotic and heart-breaking, nearly an elegy.

Woolf uses London to signify the differing perceptions of her characters, marks the change of place by means of the changing scenes of London, and signals the movement of time with the chiming of Big Ben. This particular scene, with Septimus and Rezia, depicts London as a bustling, vibrant city, with all the glamor of a royal sighting and a skywriting airplane. The openness of the park lends itself to Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness style, allowing the narrative eye to float across the sky and into the minds of the different characters enjoying the open space. Different classes and different backgrounds collide in the democratic park. There, a nursemaid talks to a hat-maker who shouts directions at a visitor from Edinborough. Later, a relatively main character turns into Septimus’s dead war comrade in Septimus’s mind. Woolf uses the environment of the park as something to which Septimus and Rezia can respond, an oasis in the modern city with the capability to both alienate and inspire awe, a very vividly-particular backdrop for the moves and doings of her actors.

What is class?

So for class yesterday we went to Palace of Westminster (y’know the building with Big Ben in it? The clock? That’s the one.) to Westminster Hall, which is the oldest building on that estate.  Westminster Palace itself has the Houses of Parliament.  We were not there for that however, we were there to see an installation called the “Ethics of Dust.”  It consisted of sheets of special latex that had been painted on the wall and pulled off to show the dust that had accumulated there over the many years that the building had been standing. Our professor thought it would be a good exhibit to see since it meshed the history with the present. 

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We next walked past Westminster Abbey, and onwards to near Buckingham Palace where we got to see part of the changing of the guard.

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The last part of our day was spent at Kensington Palace (where the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge live! No, we did not see them :() I got to see Princess Diana’s, Queen Elizabeth’s and Princess Margaret’s dresses and my god they were so pretty.

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Today in class we had a short lecture on Harry Potter, and we let out early due to the fact that we had a full day excursion last week to Cardiff in Wales for a day trip. It honestly makes me so happy that we went to another country for a day. And it was for the Doctor Who Exhibition, and honestly who can really say that they went to that for class purposes?

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Also we have a walking tour for Harry Potter this week, and next week we should be going on the studio tour. One of my biggest regrets for the trip, though, is not being able to see the new Harry Potter play since it is impossible to get tickets. It’s just really sad.

The classes I’m taking here are different from the ones over at New Paltz because of the topics really. There’s also the fact that this place is literally jam-packed with exhibits and things to visit within relatively close proximity with each other. It’s amazing being able to learn British culture right here! And even in the changing political/historical climate as well.

Plus, on the weekends I get to pack in more touristy things not covered by class. I get the inside look at London through my teacher’s eyes since he finds exhibits like this:

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AND I got to go on the London Eye and walk across the Millennium Bridge (might recognize it if you’ve seen Harry Potter!)

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See the Rosetta Stone:

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And look down on the River Thames from the Tower Bridge:

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Ok I looked up because there was a mirror above the glass floor ok?

And listen to a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London!

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The classes are different mainly because the location is different, but I am so happy I chose the classes I did. Other classes travel farther, but I get to explore London and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

Tate’s Rothko Room

On February 25, 1970, Mark Rothko’s dead body was found in his studio amidst an eight-foot-by-six-foot pool of his own blood. He’d slit his own arms at the elbows, and he’d bled out fast. That same day, nine of his greatest works arrived at the Tate Gallery in London, and they’re still on display today.

The brain’s a mad machine. For the addict, the right combination of alcohol and nicotine inspires feats of linguistic manipulation and artistic brilliance. Too much of a good thing will set him down for the night, for a lifetime. Robert Smithson was right in comparing the mind to the natural chaos of the natural world, memory constantly eroding, and disasters destroying the landscape. The right mind discovers the keys to the cosmos, the wrong one keeps too close a track of the odds of football matches.

All his life, Mark Rothko’s mind was focused on transcendence. Once he moved to New York City and committed himself, his imagination, and his driven direction was focused on creating artworks that transcend the day-to-day and transport the viewer to new realms of emotion and insight. His mind, driven by frailties of the body and alcohol and nicotine, concluded that suicide was the answer. He was 67 years old.

We, the goers to art museums, are left to contemplate the results of such genius. We sit in rooms like the Rothko room at the Tate Modern and we find the better pieces and parts of our own natures, glimmers of the infinite recesses of us.

We, the goers to art museums, are fortunate to have the Tate Modern, an honest and faithful steward of Rothko’s murals. And despite the calculation and planning of countless curators and museum directors and their 21st Century demographic studies of us, we are ultimately individuals (attentive, if we’re in the right frame of mind, inattentive, if we’re on our iPhones), responding (or not) to the works of inspired genius.

The Rothko room at the Tate Modern is a dimly-lit sanctuary of paint as religion. The paintings in that room were originally commissioned to adorn the walls of a room in the swanky Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram building in New York City. Rothko was offered a handsome fee to create the works. The Seagram murals were to be Rothko’s crowning achievement. The commission was offered to him upon the recommendation of Alfred Barr, Director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. Some believe that Rothko originally accepted the commission because he believed his paintings would adorn the walls of a humble-man workers’ cafeteria. At some point, he learned the truth.

The murals were ultimately inspired by an old claustrophobic space, Michelangelo’s vestibule of the Laurentian Library in Florence, Italy. Rothko told a man in 1959 on a Trans-Atlantic voyage that he wanted to “ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room.” He wanted the rich bastards to “feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall.”

Then, Rothko abruptly declined the commission after he and his wife actually went to the Four Seasons to have dinner and see the space. The expense and opulence of the place were too much. He told his studio assistant, “Anybody who will eat that kind of food for those kind of prices will never look at a painting of mine.”

Then, the Tate, in the person of Director Norman Reid, courted Rothko for four years, cajoling and complementing the indecisive artist, trying to acquire a sampling of Rothko’s works that would set his museum apart from the rest. Rothko, a notorious (self-proclaimed) museum-hater, hampered by illness and addiction, delayed and complained, demanding that his works be set aside in a room of his own, hung in accordance with his own exacting standards. The Tate ultimately acquiesced. While in America, Reid worked with Rothko, using a scale model of the planned space, to design the ultimate layout.

Rothko’s paintings had been to the UK before. In 1961, a travelling exhibition of Rothko’s works, organized by MoMA, New York, was shown in the Whitechapel Gallery. For that exhibition, Rothko described in exacting language how his paintings were to be displayed. This exhibition had lasting influence. The Tate Modern has stayed faithful to these instructions.

Rothko’s room, as it sits today, has survived several iterations of changes in the layout and design of the Tate. It’s even survived the vandalism of one of the paintings in 2012. Yet, through it all, the Tate Modern has stayed faithful to Rothko’s wishes. Rothko’s space in the Tate Modern, because of the lighting, the spacing, and its place among the other galleries, sits as a site of abstract contemplation.

Rothko strongly believed that his paintings were best viewed by themselves, away from the distraction of other painters’ paintings, hung tightly together, viewed close-up. There are three permanent rooms like this in the world that have achieved this peculiar artist-demanded articulated resonance: the Tate Modern’s room, the Rothko Room at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, and the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas.

I’ve been to these three rooms now, and I’m Rothko’s ideal viewer. I intend to be. He said, “A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefore a risky and unfeeling act to send it out into the world. How often it must be permanently impaired by the eyes of the vulgar and the cruelty of the impotent who would extend their affliction universally.” I’m that man, the sensitive observer, I turn off my iPhone, and I see the Tate Modern as a holy keeper of a transcendent experience. The museum has allowed for this, it stays steady, and its stewardship of Rothko’s work is commendable.

Weekend Travels!

So this weekend a bunch of us went to Ireland! It was really beautiful, and I can’t say enough about the scenery. We started off in Dublin, in the heart of the Temple Bar area, which was really quite busy. It was a Friday night, so there were large groups of people going out and heading out on the plane for a weekend in a different country. The culture here is different in that regard, since a lot of stag (bachelor) parties apparently do this. I saw a few hen (bachelorette) parties as well, but nothing on the extreme scale of the bachelor ones. The bar district was super busy all the time, at practically all hours of the day!

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After we took in the sights in Dublin, we headed out on a coach to the west coast of Ireland. Our journey ended in Galway, but along the way we stopped at the Cliffs of Moher. I can try to tell you how remarkable and breathtaking they were (even though it was super rainy), but honestly nothing would do it justice. You feel so small watching the vastness of the cliffs, and seeing people like ants on top of it. We also visited Clonmacnoise, which is a monastic site of religious importance.

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Overall though, it was nice coming back to London and to my dorm. Ireland was beautiful, and we did so much that it felt like we were there for an eternity. In Ireland we stayed in hostels, and here in London we live in a flat with 4 other people (so 5 total), and my flat is all girls. We each have our own bathrooms, but we all share a kitchen that has the usual amenities. It’s an interesting experience, and the location of the dorm is relatively close to everything (except the 30+ minute walk to campus), and as my friend put it, feels vaguely Harry Potter-like. Maybe it’s just because we’re in England, but I think I agree with her.

The food in Ireland was heavy and hearty and great, and in London there are always so many types of food to try, restaurants to visit, and different types of food from the groceries to cook. And don’t get me started on the chocolate. It’s life changing. There’s always the usual fast food options if that’s your thing (think KFC or Mc Donald’s to name a few) and they actually kind of taste better here (less grease!) but trying new things is so much fun.