May 29, 2008

Back in the U.S.A.

Amy and I got home earlier this week from England, and aside from a crying baby with full-on, superhuman endurance on our return leg - no exaggeration: six-plus hours of top-volume infant meltdown during an 8-hour flight - we had an amazing time.

We really enjoyed all three cities we visited - Nottingham, York and London - and York in particular was fascinating. Still encircled by medieval defensive walls and chock full of centuries-old buildings, it is thick with atmosphere and history. Add to that a strong Viking influence - the name York is an Anglicization of the Danish "Jorvik" - and it's a unique experience. The highlight of the city is the York Minster - a mammoth Gothic cathedral that rivals Westminster Abbey in size if not showiness - and under which lie the foundations of not only an older, Norman cathedral, but beneath that, a Roman fortress dating from the second or third century. It's possible to tour the undercroft of the minster and to walk on parts of the Roman paving from the original structure, but unfortunately pictures aren't allowed.

London is, of course, one of the world's great cities, and we made sure to hit as many of the major sites and attractions as we could: Big Ben, Parliament, St. James' Park, Buckingham Palace, the Tate Modern, the Millenium Bridge, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul's Cathedral, Picadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Soho, Camden Market, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, and more. We were veteran tube riders by the end of our stay, and had some fantastic meals including wonderfully authentic Szechuan cuisine at Bar Shu in Soho, and outstanding Indian food at the Maharaja of India near Leicester Square.

Nottingham was an unexpected treat, largely because we had a tour guide in Simon Oliver who made sure we took in some of the must-sees. The Galleries of Justice, for instance - from which many of the prisoners punished with "transport" to Australia (and America) were sentenced was excellent, but the really fascinating part for me was the city of caves. It turns out that Nottingham is built on a pair of sandstone bluffs, and in medieval times, cheap housing was frequently had by digging one's self several room's worth of shelter in the hillsides. It's possible to visit a tannery dating from between 1500 and 1640, and cave homes were still in fairly wide use all the way into the 1800's.

Nottingham is also home to what is purported to be the oldest pub in all of England, if not Europe: Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, built in 1189 and the last refreshment stop for knights on their way to the Crusades. It's reputed to be haunted, and Amy and I agreed it was our overall favorite part of the trip, largely, I think, because we spent our time there drinking pints and chatting with Simon. (Training with Sensei Oliver was too brief, but outstanding; he gave me a lot to think about in my approach to karate.)

As I described in a quick note to my friend Barry, the Brits could not have been nicer, and not a one of them offered any "Bush blowback." It was easy to get caught up beforehand in the idea that Iraq is all our mess - which, in the main, it is - but the English view it as their war, too, and if anything, I think they feel as cuckolded by the whole thing as we do.

All in all, it was a great trip, and a welcome opportunity to get out of the U.S. and gain - or regain, as the case may be - perspective. I think foreign, and particularly overseas, travel - even if it is only to a country reasonably similar to our own - is invaluable in not only learning about the rest of the world and getting a sense of other people, but in finding some solace in the fact that, in the end, we're not nearly as different from one another as we might think.

It's easy to get caught up in the hysteria and the media stereotypes that pervade so much of our lives, and while I certainly won't claim that there is a vast cultural divide between the U.S. and Britain, reminding one's self firsthand that pretty much everybody has the same concerns - putting food on the table, keeping a roof overhead, making sure families are safe, ensuring kids grow up strong and healthy and with opportunities - is an important exercise in understanding the implications of our collective actions as a country.

Plus, it's a lot of fun - I can hardly wait to do it again!


Musings from the Midwest said...

Sounds like a lovely trip!!


PBI said...

Hi Jen!

We had a great time. Hopefully Simon will be at Elite in Kansas City this year, and you'll get a chance to do some training with him, too!