Mondays are the days when my absence of a schedule stares me straight in the eye. Like a dare.
Fully awake, showered, dressed, fed and up-to-date on New York Times headlines by 7am, Mike tells me goodbye and he’s out the door to catch the tube heading south. I, on the other hand, barely gain consciousness for another half hour (minimum).
It’ll be a memory soon. Classes start next month, and as everyone reminds me, I have the rest of my life to work every day. I’m pretty sure I will never again know a time when I have so little day-to-day responsibility as this summer abroad. I don’t even have to walk my dog.
(Okay, that was actually just an excuse for me to post a picture of my dog. He is back in Seattle, being cared for very well this year by our generous neighbor and a loving army of helpers. That’s unquestionably in both his and our best interests, but we still miss him all the time.)
Does his cuteness not make you just want to EXPLODE?
Here’s the weird thing, though. Despite the delicious indulgence of sleeping eight hours on a regular basis, it’s uncomfortable to know that the rest of the city is up and moving toward a destination with a dress code, a familiar task list and a purpose … and here I am for the next few weeks, often still deciding what to have for breakfast at a quarter past nine. Luxurious, absolutely. But also somewhat awkward, and difficult to wear gracefully. Like a shoe on the wrong foot.
Apparently I crave structure. It seems I am Type A! Who knew?
(Just kidding. I am pretty sure everyone knew.)
So the way I can make peace with appearing in public, despite so conspicuous a lack of adult responsibility, is to make a goal of filling each day with something new. Sometimes, the plethora of choice on a wide-open solo day can itself be intimidating. The key is not to find the perfect thing to do, but to find something to do, and then get out the door.
Yesterday, the thing to do was visit the Museum of London. Descriptions of current exhibits featuring hand-drawn neighborhood maps and London street photography caught my attention … and, like at so many London museums, the price of admission is free.
Our flat (A) in relation to the Museum of London (B)
That plan got me to Moorgate, which until today I knew only as the Northern Line tube stop immediately south of our station at Old Street. Wikipedia describes Moorgate as the connecting link between the downtown City and East London. It’s a financial center, and its character is solidly high-rise and corporate, with a few standout buildings (among them at least one designed by London’s world-famous Foster + Partners). Moving east toward Old Street and further into Hackney, you can easily see the progression getting less and less corporate, though there are still plenty of bulky office towers near our flat. The architecture and street grid at Moorgate seemed overall much newer than what’s found in the old city center:
The museum occupies a street called London Wall, and as I approached its entrance, I saw the ruins of the ancient city fortification from which the street name comes:
Signs said this segment was built on top of the original Roman wall, which was constructed around the year 200.
The Museum of London devotes its two-story main gallery space to a permanent collection chronicling London’s history, from original settlements along the Thames to the present day. Highlights included the Black Death (1348-49), the Great Fire of London (1666) and the Broad Street Cholera Outbreak (1854). Mike and I covered that last one much more thoroughly last weekend in the Wellcome Collection’s “Dirt” exhibit, so I was practically an expert.
I also enjoyed some of the less gruesome vignettes. A collection of 17th and 18th century fashions worn at the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens (glittering bustles and towering sculptural hats!) was paraded eerily by mannequins posed amid life-size trees and gazebos, beneath a glow of synthetic starlight. And although I’m pretty sure it’s mostly for children, I really liked walking through the museum’s replica of early 19th century streetscapes, with model shop windows and daily business scenes:
In my opinion, however, the two standouts were the installations that I had gone to see in the first place. Hand Drawn London was a series of 11 maps, drawn by amateurs and professional designers of varying ages and backgrounds. The series was created by the popular culture website The Londonist, which invited readers to contribute their own hand-drawn interpretations of the city.
It was a great idea, with imaginative and charming results. One woman had researched locations of famous “firsts” in London, including the spot where the first long-distance telephone call was made, the address of the city’s first coffee shop, and the site of the first electric streetlamp, and populated her map with icons representing the events. A London mother had mapped and described places that suddenly became more important to her when she walked around the city with a toddler in tow: public toilets. An international student at one of Central London’s universities mapped her most memorable experiences around the city, including favorite places for “coffee and pretentious conversation,” destinations for cheap noodles, and a lonely-looking park bench where a mysterious “you” had broken up with her.
A local artist mapped Hoxton Square — our backyard! — with some snarky and, as far as we can tell, accurate summations of what you’ll find there. If you can’t read the photo below, you can see an earlier version of the map online at The Londonist website.
Hand drawn interpretive map of Hoxton Square by Martin Usborne
My favorite two maps were done by an artist who seems to just love looking at the character of the built environment. The watercolor below was his close-up examination of Broadway Market, a narrow street in central Hackney that’s always teeming with local color.
Broadway Market watercolor by Alexander Schmidt
The street photography gallery showcased candid photos by various photojournalists, photographers and amateurs, depicting street life in London from the mid-1800s through the present day. The glimpses of daily life were mesmerizing , and the gallery turned me on to a current project called iN-PUBLiC, an online collaboration by a group of street photographers. The pictures are well worth a look, and I like their mission statement:
The pictures remind us that, if we let it, over-familiarity can make us blind to what’s really going on in the world around us.
Leaving the Museum of London.
I took a bus further into Central London, toward the LSE campus and library. I had hoped to check out some of the books on a list of “suggested” summer reading (scintillating titles such as Debating Varieties of Capitalism: A Reader). I was informed that unfortunately — though not surprisingly — the temporary library pass I received with my admission info packet will not actually allow me to take any books out; that privilege needs to wait until I’ve registered (and, ahem, paid tuition).
But don’t say I didn’t at least try to do the suggested reading.
Here is a view of the extremely urban LSE campus:
I wandered up the street a bit and found myself in front of an archway with a large sign beckoning me through:
The Somerset House was my find of the day. I was (perhaps ignorantly) not at all familiar with the venue, which made stumbling into this gorgeous courtyard all the more of a surprise gift. On a sunny solo afternoon, this was exactly where I wanted to be. Stunning architecture, blue sky, people chattering everywhere and tons of kids splashing in a fountain. How much more idyllic can you get in the heart of the city?
Tween boys and girls are painfully awkward, even in London.
It was right about this time that I realized I was starving. I stepped into a deli overlooking the courtyard and emerged with a baguette stuffed with brie, arugula and cranberry chutney. There were no unoccupied tables to be found, but the smooth stone paving, baking in the sun, made a toasty and comfortable seat. I enjoyed my picnic-for-one while soaking up some sunlight for myself and watching London’s other non-nine-to-fivers celebrate their Monday afternoon.
At 3:30 I caught the bus back to Old Street, picked up some groceries and went home to make dinner and store it in the fridge before heading out on my bike to a volunteer meeting at FARM:shop and an hour of very sweaty circuit training at my new favorite local gym. By the time I biked back home, Monday was almost over.
I’m going to ask you to indulge me for a second. Every once in a while, out of the blue, it occurs to me how lucky I am to be spending this year in a new place, with a new routine, alongside my best friend and forever love. And I’m reminded of the biggest reason I love to travel — which is, now that I think about it, actually not too far from the reason that the street photographers do their work. Again, the quote from their website:
…over-familiarity can make us blind to what’s really going on in the world around us.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to notice every detail of the day. I also know it’s easy to do when I’m away from home, and for that reason, traveling is an ideal, invigorating “reset” button. But the real challenge, I think, is to keep that wonder alive on a daily basis even after the trip has ended, the workweek schedule is reinstated and the illusion settles that we’re living a normal life which no longer needs to be noticed. I can think of some people I know who maintain that wonder very well, but I’m not sure I’d rank myself as high as I’d like on that scale.
I think if I allow one priority goal for this year, it would be to make some sincere strides toward carrying this feeling of daily appreciation and gratitude back home.