God Bless America/God Save the Queen

The Guards

Ironclad plans for a trip are fine until they fail. One of the most positive aspects of traveling independently is the ability to make last minute corrections. Such was our decision one morning at breakfast when we realized that if we hurried over to the Russell Square underground station and headed for Buckingham Palace we might be just in time to see the changing of the guard that was to be held that morning. After all the rest of our day was dedicated to places where there was no need of tickets, so we had all of the flexibility that we needed. We took a deep breath, entered the fray of early morning crowds headed to work and girded our loins for whatever we might find ahead.

The train was so packed that we felt like sardines and it only became worse as we drew closer to our destination. Our foray inside a crowded train would be good practice for the swarm of humanity that we would find waiting at the gates to Buckingham Palace. We realized immediately that we would not get a prime view of the proceedings, but at least we were there and we’d have to just do our best to catch a glimpse of the proceedings here and there.

Unfortunately most of the best spots right along the fence line were taken by very tall men who further blocked the view by raising their arms to hold their cameras high in the air. Husband Mike and my brothers had no trouble looking over the shoulders of the lucky ones who had arrived early enough to stake out a claim to prime property, but my sisters-in-law and I were unable to see much even when we stood on tippy toe. Sister-in-law Becky decided to choose a different point of view and went to the very back of the crowd so that she might see the troops as they marched into the palace grounds. Allison and I found ways of glancing down low and in between the bodies of those who blocked our normal sight of vision. All in all it was a frustrating situation but one that we learned how to eventually make work.

By the time the proceedings began the area was a mass of humanity all craning their necks to see the red coated military men marching proudly across the grounds. They played traditional pieces that most of us had expected to hear, so a sense of great satisfaction swelled over the crowd. I saw enough of the upper half of their bodies to feel a sense of exhilaration, and I had perfected my method of finding tiny holes in the wall of people to make me feel as though I was part of something quite grand.

Standing on my toes and bending down became my official “modus operandi” so I hardly noticed that people from behind were pushing forward to get a view of their own. A woman who had a birds eye view in the front row suddenly became overcome by claustrophobia and decided to leave. Before doing so she offered her spot to me. I could not believe my good fortune as I suddenly stood right behind the fence along with the row of tall men. I was mesmerized by the sheer beauty of what I saw.

The soldiers with their red jackets and polished brass buttons stood tall and stately with their heads proudly bearing the black bearskin helmets that are the trademark of their station and their duties. I saw that they were not just showmen because the guns that they carried were real and quite powerful. They were indeed trained and equipped to be guards. I later learned that many of them had served in dangerous places like Afghanistan. Their precision bespoke of discipline and pride in their work. I was almost giddy at the wondrous sight that I was watching unfold. It was as though I was part of a living fairytale not unlike the ones that my father had so often read to me. I felt like Cinderella.

We were entertained by military songs and modern music, marching, and even a mounted cavalry wearing riding boots and a different sort of cap featuring horse hair. The pageantry was even more glorious than I had imagined it would be and my companions and I were quite delighted.

As is my way I found myself thinking of the rag tag revolutionaries of the colonies of north America who had the audacity to rebel against such a well trained and disciplined army of red coats back in the eighteenth century. It must have required an enormous amount of frustration over the political situation to risk fighting such a group. Little wonder that the prevailing belief was that the so called patriots would soon be put down by the seemingly superior forces and normalcy would return. I’m not so sure that I would have had the courage to side against such a powerful army, and yet I know from the study of my family tree that there were indeed ancestors who chose to join the revolution to free themselves from what felt like tyranny.

I suppose that we Yanks are the wild children of Great Britain. We came from the same stock but the new world changed us. We were far enough away from the old ways that we began to question the authority of a king who was making our lives more and more difficult. We had risk taking in our DNA. Our thinking diverged from the land of our origin and in the end we eschewed royalty and opted for freedom, even though our first form of it was far from perfect. It would take some time before we freed our slaves and allowed women to move to the front so that they too might participate in the grand experiment of the republic.

My spot along the fence of Buckingham Palace standing as an equal to the big tall men who had at first blocked my view felt like yet another metaphor for how far I have come from the time of my ancestors. I have roots in Great Britain that make me proud, but in the end I am a foreigner in that land. Neither I nor anyone not born of the Windsor family will ever be royal, but in my country anyone might aspire to be President. That is the grand difference that came from the revolution of long ago.

I possess all of the traits of an American including great pride in my country and a kind of brash sense of equality with every other human, but I still cherish the traditions of my history. I felt a kinship and a sense of friendship as I watched the ceremony unfolding before me, knowing also that I would not have been standing there were it not for the opportunities that the United States has given me. God bless America and God save the Queen!

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A Walking Timeline Through History

Trafalgar Square

When the best laid plans go awry, pathways to new adventures often show themselves. We were to have spent our morning watching the changing of the guards and our afternoon at Westminster Abbey. The cancellation of the tradition of pomp and circumstance at the palace had sent us scurrying to the Gothic church far earlier than intended, so once we were finished with our tour we became untethered and aimless wanderers around London.

The roads almost inevitably lead us past the halls of Parliament where protests centering on the Brexit issue were a constant feature during our time in the capitol city. We glanced disappointedly at Big Ben which was shrouded by the apparatus of reconstruction save for the face which never changed because it was not working. We wondered as we longed to hear the famous chimes if somehow all of our planning was doomed to go up in flames, but we soldiered on, walking past a highly secured area that housed the home of the outgoing Prime Minister.

There was much stirring behind the gates. We saw official looking men wearing formal  jackets filled with medals leaving the premises with grim expressions. It told us that Theresa May was no closer to creating a plan for transitioning Britain from the European Union to a  more nationalist entity. There was a noticeable tension in the air that hovered over the halls of government and the silence of Big Ben added a metaphorical touch to the chaos.

After walking for what had seemed like many miles Trafalgar Square was in view and husband Mike became quite animated by the thought of seeing the iconic tribute to those who had fought so valiantly in World War I. First, however we would pause for lunch in a nearby pub where I admittedly struggled to find something that appealed to me on the menu. I generally eat a very light midday meal and there was very little of that sort to be found among the traditional English food being offered, so I essentially skipped eating and instead enjoyed a lemonade and a much needed rest for my feet. I used the time to find and purchase the tickets that we would use later that night to see the choral concert at Westminster Abbey.

Once everyone was refueled we headed to Trafalgar Square which was quite joyfully bursting with life, mostly from tourists and street artists. The atmosphere reminded me of the area around St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, Louisiana. There were accomplished musicians and singers entertaining the crowd with performances worthy of Albert Hall. Using only chalk and their imaginations many individuals drew masterpieces on the grand sidewalks of the square. A gigantic fountain surrounded by enormous lion sculptures served as a photo opportunity for everyone who passed by, and of course there was the famous obleisk honoring the courage of those who defended the nation in World War I.

This was indeed a happy area where the tension surrounding the government buildings was replaced with a kind of serendipitous celebration of art and humanity. It felt good to be there and somehow made up for the botched intentions of our morning. We all realized that while we had not achieved what we had planned, we had stumbled upon something that was nonetheless glorious.

Just beyond all of the revelry lay the National Gallery which like so many sights in London was open to the public at no cost, so we decided to partake of its vast collection of paintings and sculpture in the time remaining before our evening engagement. This would prove to be a wonderful decision because some the the most famous artists the world has ever known were featured in the multi-story galleries.

I enjoyed so many of my favorite painters and was filled with appreciation for some about whom I had known nothing. Without a doubt, however, the experience of wandering without warning into a room containing the work of Leonardo da Vinci was the highlight of the visit for me. The funny thing is that I had spied his drawings from out of the corner of my eye and had noted that I felt drawn to to them before I realized that the great master had created them. There was a kind of lively charisma to even the preliminary sketches that elevated the pieces to a level unmatched by any of the other artists.

I might have stood transfixed in that room for hours were it not for the fact that we had agreed upon a meeting time in the coffee shop, and that hour was drawing near. It was with great reluctance that I took one final glance at the glorious paintings and headed down to meet with the rest of our party.

We enjoyed a bit of respite and a great deal of animated conversation over steaming cups of Earl Grey tea as we spoke of our favorite works of art. We all agreed that we had somehow been led to a most enjoyable afternoon by the “gods of travel” and we promised that if we had some additional time later in our trip we would gladly return to this wondrous place to be certain that we had not missed anything.

When we emerged into the late afternoon air we saw that the festivities taking place in Trafalgar Square had not abated. It seemed to be an oasis of cheer and goodwill which was perhaps the intent when it had been designated as a memorial to all that is good about Britain. After the horrors of World War I the citizens needed to remember, appreciate, and celebrate the many sacrifices made. I thought it fitting that the joy of peace time was still very much in the air.

We walked away with an even greater sense of the spirit of London and its people. In a single day we had looked far back into their history and gazed at the gravity of their present. It had been like walking a human timeline during which we witnessed the resilience of the people. We realized that they had made mistakes before, and perhaps were enduring them even now, but always they seemed capable of adjusting their course and moving on the right side of history.

The Voices of History

Westminster Abbey

At least half of my roots go far back into the history of the United States of America. I have ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War. My kinfolk were hard scrabble people who emphasized the dignity of work done well and often spoke of their pride in being Americans. While my mother greatly admired Queen Elizabeth she admitted that America had allowed her to feel equal in every way to royalty. She once spoke of wanting to meet the queen but insisted that she would not be inclined to bow and curtsy to her. She enjoyed the freedoms of being American that her father had taught her to embrace. He had told his children that being citizens of the United States meant that they might openly celebrate the fact that they were as good and worthy as any other person on the earth. Mama certainly passed on such thinking to me and my brothers as well, so it was with a slight bit of haughtiness that I set out on a sunny Tuesday morning to view Buckingham Palace and the changing of the guard.

The early hour ride on the Tube was quick and easy. There were only a few stops and no line changes so the members of my group and I chattered with excitement over the prospect of seeing a bit of British tradition come alive. A short walk through Green Part lead us directly to our destination and even from afar we saw the Queen’s flag flying to indicate that she was indeed at home on that day. We joked about hoping to catch a glance of her moving through the rooms knowing that it was unlikely to happen.

As we approached the London headquarters of her Majesty we marveled that we were going to get a ringside view of the proceedings because there were few people who had come three hours before the event. Our bubble of excitement was quickly burst when we observed that the red coated palace guards were not there, but instead had been replaced by an unfamiliar regiment wearing simple helmets and all black uniforms. Furthermore a small white notice posted on the fence announced that there would be no ceremonies on that day, so we just took a few photos and tried to hide our disappointment in seeing our carefully planned schedule changed so suddenly. We joked that we were at the very least able to get great images of the building itself and we waved back and forth at my sister-in-law Allison who was wearing a shirt emblazoned with the title “Queen.”

In the spirit of keeping calm and carrying on we headed over to Westminster Abbey, a fairly easy walk from the palace. There was already quite a queue when we arrived but we had purchased tickets for the day in advance so we at least were in a shorter line than those who were buying admission on the fly. It was not long before we were inside that historic church and gazing at history.

The tour was self guided which turned out to be perfect for me. It allowed me to move at my own pace and experience unfettered emotions. The sheer scale of historical events and people associated with the place was overwhelming. I literally felt the spirit of the giants who had been there and were buried there, as well as the voices of the unnamed people who had worshiped in that sprawling area. It seemed that every inch of the place was filled with stories of humanity. I had studied the history of the kings and queens, read the works of the poets and writers, marveled at the contributions of the scientists and mathematicians. I walked humbly in their footsteps, honoring their memories as I read the plaques and actually saw images about which I had only before read.

I literally found myself feeling moved to tears more than once, so I was glad that I was alone. I was able to embrace my thoughts and my sense of connection with the sweeping history and importance of Westminster. I saw not just the glory of the very influential people who were buried there, but also the magnificence of the tradesmen who had built a structure that would live and breathe with life long after they were gone. I thought of my own grandfather Little and the pride that he had felt in being a builder of buildings. The mark of so many souls was present in every stone and every corner.

We had planned to attend Evensong at Westminster that evening but that too had been cancelled to allow for a concert instead. It was a great disappointment to husband Mike who had so looked forward to hearing the traditional evening service in honor of his grandmother who had kept the faith that she had learning in England when she came to Texas. He had hoped to get an idea of what his grandmother knew and loved, but even that plan was not to be.

I learned long ago that life is full of twists and turns that surprise us. I’ve had to be flexible for most of my life. I don’t always get what I want when I want it, but I know how to make the best of things. When we stopped for lunch after spending many hours exploring Westminster I took advantage of my smartphone and found that there were exactly six tickets remaining for the concert of that evening. After taking a quick poll of who wanted to attend the event I purchased them and suddenly we were set for a most remarkable and unexpected treat.

When we returned to Westminster later that day we were entertained with a choral extravaganza that included music from Handel that had been written for the coronation of George II in that very church. With the first strains of the music I found my eyes filling with tears of emotion. I heard the voices of the all male choir soaring to the top of the high ceiling just as it might have once done on a very important occasion of long ago. I gazed at the stained glass windows and the gigantic pillars with a more understanding set of eyes. I knew that the serendipity of our changed plans was better than a simple Evensong might have been and I was quite happy for Mike because I saw in his face that he was feeling the same as I was.

During a brief intermission I had time to speak to a lovely woman who was sitting beside me. By happenstance she had worked for a financial company whose headquarters are in Houston. She inquired about the floods that we experienced from hurricane Harvey and spoke of a fundraising drive that Londoners had held for my city. We talked as if we were old friends and in some ways perhaps we were. The sense of human connection that I felt in Westminster became even stronger and somehow I knew as strains of Bach’s Magnificat rounded out the concert that life always has a way of turning out just as it was meant to be. I heard not just the voices of the choir but also those of all who come before me, and it filled me with great joy.

Wonders of the World

British MuseumThe Bloomsbury area of London is the home of the university of London, Kings Cross Station, and the British Museum. A short stroll in almost any direction leads to lovely sights. In May the gardens and window boxes are filled with lovely flowers of every hue. Tiny markets offer fresh fruit and sweet bouquets. It’s a pedestrian world in which the sidewalks are filled with walkers strolling more leisurely than in the heart of the city. It is a place where lingering just a bit longer is in fashion.

On the first full day of our trip we chose to eschew hurry, and instead enjoyed a scrumptious English breakfast buffet in our hotel. We feasted on fried, scrambled and poached eggs with little English sausages, baked tomatoes and sautéed mushrooms. We enjoyed steaming pots of Earl Gray tea or tasted the brew from the latte machine. Crusty loaves of bread beckoned us and a bounty of pastries were ours for the taking. We had our choice of cereal and fresh fruit, cheese and pancakes. It was a good way to start our adventures for we would walk ten of thousands of steps, many miles in a single day.

Our quest was to visit the British Museum about which we had long heard. The building in which great treasures are housed is an imposing structure which would be worth a look even without ever going inside. Once we had entered we were in awe of the great halls and sensed that we were about to see magical things that we had only before read about in books. After gathering and studying a map we decided to go first to the Egyptian section where we were immediately taken aback by the presence of the Rosetta Stone, an imposing treasure that would have been worth the trip all by itself. 

From that first moment we were in awe of the treasures that were displayed for what seemed like miles. It was difficult to know where to first look or what direction to follow. The trove of artifacts was so expansive that it gave me the feeling of being an adventurous archeologist who had suddenly stumbled upon a great find. I felt humbled as I gazed at items so exquisite and so old that I had difficulty processing an image of the creative and skilled people who had made such things in a time when tools were simple and scarce. I found my mind going far back into the history of mankind, and I marveled at the human connections that I felt with the people who had left such incredible marks on the world. I also thought of those who were simply nameless persons attempting to deal with the challenges of living, often under great duress.

I was brought back to present day reality only when I saw a group of young school boys careful taking notes about what they were seeing. They were so cute in their jackets with crests on the breast pockets and their earnestness in deciphering the mysteries of the many artifacts that they passed. I suppose that I will always love children and feel proud of the tiny contribution that I have made in the long range history of a generation. I think that we humans create because we have always desired to find some kind of purpose to our existence,

I was so caught up in seeing Roman statues, Greek urns, and Chinese porcelain that I hardly noticed that six hours had passed and it was time to enjoy a traditional afternoon tea gathering. Our group ate little sandwiches filled with chicken, salmon and eggs. There were scones and cakes and tiny cookies. We relaxed and chatted about what we had seen and how we felt. We worried just a bit about how so many things had been brought to Britain from the places where they were found. We wondered if they had simply been confiscated or if there had been permission, agreements, and payments for taking such things. I suppose that there are many different points of view as to the ethics of having such museums, particularly when the items include actual mummies. Is it wrong to raid a sacred tomb, or should we honor the purpose of such rituals by leaving them intact?

After refueling ourselves and debating the pros and cons of how and whether or not we were somehow complicit in the rightness or wrongness of such a museum we continued our study of the many different rooms. We saw Mayan carvings, and intricate woodworking from Abysinnia. We walked past glorious creations from India and Japan. Our heads were swirling from trying to read the descriptions of what we saw and achieve some kind of understanding of the magnitude of the glories of each culture represented in space after space.

Soon it was nearing five in the afternoon, and we realized that we had literally spent an entire day mesmerized by what we had viewed. Nonetheless there was still more to see, but that would have to be for another day, perhaps on another trip. The doors were closing and we were explorers forced to reluctantly set our adventures aside.

Russell Square near the museum was by that time filled with tourists and locals enjoying the coolness of the afternoon under enormous trees. They lolled in the grass and sat smiling on benches. There was an unspoken collegiality between all of us as we exchanged smiles and greetings. We felt as though we welcome in this place and it felt so good.

We finished our day in Callahan’s pub in our hotel. We feasted on a variety of food. I chose bangers and mash which were as tasty as I had hoped they would be. I enjoyed a nice glass of wine while my travel companions chose ciders and beers. We played a game on a large table and watched soccer on the television above our heads. We got to know some of the locals who came to the pub of an evening just to have a swig and a bit of conversation. It was a fun closing of a perfect day in Bloomsbury in London town.

The Yanks Come Home

The Yanks Come Home

Each of us is unique and yet through a combination of nature and nurture we also share common traits and histories from our ancestors and our relationships. Our characteristics and our personalities come together to make us who we are and how we react in the world around us. I am a mixture of European DNA and a lifetime of experiences in the United States of America. I have always been curious about the long strand of genes and stories that brought me to my personal place and time. I have been surrounded by books and tales and inherited traits for all of my life, and I have sought answers to questions that swirl in my mind.

In a sense I have been slowly moving in search of the source of so much of who I am from the time that I listened to my father reading fairytales to me and the days when my English teacher, Father Shane, enthralled me with literature and poetry from the greatest authors of Britain. I am a “Yank” who desperately needed to see the place from whence I came, and so I embarked on a journey meant to enlighten me and answer the questions for which I longed to find answers.

Thus I planned a trip to England with my husband, and my siblings and their wives that was to commence in the middle of May and end on the anniversary of my father’s death which seemed a fitting tribute to him and the people who had made him. It would prove to be more than a casual adventure, and instead provide me with the a kind of spiritual appreciation of the intricate dreams and journeys of the people who came before me. I have witnessed my own humanity in the eyes of strangers in a foreign land who nonetheless seemed so much like me.

Our trip began with the irritations and vagaries of rainy weather that left my brother and his wife stranded in Houston and threatened to prevent the rest of our party from making a connection in Dallas. Luckily we had a determined pilot who got us where we needed to be just in the nick of time. Our economy seats were hopelessly uncomfortable and so we spent the night fully awake and thinking that perhaps we might never again want to board a plane to fly home unless we upgraded our accommodations.

I had to admit that one night of torture in cramped conditions was nothing to fuss about when compared with the dangers and discomfort that our long ago ancestors must have endured as they traveled on ships to a world of unknowns. I wondered what hardships had driven them to leave kith and kin behind, and thought of how awed they would be to see me watching movies while a bird like machine flew me across the Atlantic in only a few hours. Somehow my complaints seemed overblown when viewed through the lens of their realities.

It was around noon London time when we arrived. Thanks to the help of Gerald Warren, a friend and work colleague who travels frequently to that glorious city, we knew exactly how to navigate from the airport to our hotel in Bloomsbury. We took the Heathrow Express to Paddington Station and then secured a taxi for a ride to the Holiday Inn where we would stay for the next fifteen days.

Since it was a Sunday we quickly left our rooms in search of the traditional English Sunday roast, and found a nice pub just across the street that was serving the food we sought in a warm environment filled with locals who chattered happily with one another. My husband Mike had grown up eating his grandmother’s roast and Yorkshire pudding. She had immigrated to Texas from Newcastle just before World War I when she was only eight years old. While she grew to love her new country she often recalled hearing the strains of “Auld Lang Syne” when her ship departed and she could never again enjoy that tune without feeling a bit of wistfulness. All that she had known seemed to have been left at that dock, but she never forgot the traditions of her native land which included having afternoon tea and preparing Yorkshire pudding with roast beef on Sundays.

The roast, potatoes and carrots at the pub were quite good, but the Yorkshire pudding was rather disappointing. Mike had eaten the muffin like delicacy that his grandmother made and he was searching for some that might come close to hers. Ours was not even close to his granny’s. Nonetheless we felt quite satisfied and ended our first day in London with a leisurely walk around the neighborhood. We were tired from staying awake all night and eager to begin our tour in earnest on the following day, so we went to the Russel Square underground station that was just around the corner from our hotel and purchased Oyster cards to cover the cost of rides on the Tube in the coming days.

I was already enchanted by what little I had already seen of London and I felt somewhat like a young and eager child as I tried to quell my anticipation of the wonders that lay ahead. Thanks to the common language, the friendliness of the people,  and the advice from Gerald and others who had already visited England I felt certain that we were in for a glorious time. My brother Pat and his wife Allison were finally on their way to meet up with us, and I had rain gear at the ready for London’s notoriously wet weather. I was ready and so I fell soundly asleep feeling as though in some spiritual way I was back home visiting relatives. I felt that we Yanks had finally come home.