Sunday, August 5, 2012

Politics, Castles, and American Pride

It's been another long stretch since I last updated this blog, and once again I apologize!  But so much has happened!  I hardly know where to start.

I guess I'll start with where I left off.  My last post was July 11th, right after my cousin Carlee had visited and we had gone to the Sherlock Holmes Museum.  Well, it was right about this time that conducting interviews for my Field Study Project really kicked off.  That's right, between the day Carlee left and today I have conducted thirteen more interviews--the planning, conducting, and recording of which has taken a great deal of time...yes, I do wish I had started earnestly doing them a bit earlier, but so it happened, and I can't go back and change it now.

The second week after Carlee left (July 15-21) I spent almost entirely reading the remaining 200 pages in my Politics UK textbook.  For anyone who has ever had to do that--read nearly an entire textbook in a week, that is--I would highly recommend it.  It really condenses the experience and makes it easier to put all the pieces of knowledge together (and notice how often the authors repeat themselves).  I enjoyed most of the book, and can say it helped me realize that despite how much I put off things like reading my textbooks, I actually really enjoy it once I get started.  I like learning about politics and how government works, and the UK system is fascinating, especially when it's all right here in London...

...Which is why my fourth week since Carlee left (which was this past week: July 29-Aug 4) has been so great, because this is the week I spent visiting about a dozen important places to government, politics, and history in the United Kingdom.  But I'm getting ahead of myself--during my third week since Carlee left I worked on finishing up interviews and doing a lot of transcribing work.  It took a long time...and I realized I needed a few more interviews, so I scheduled five more and finished them up earlier this week.  I feel like I have gotten a pretty good sample, overall.  The group is still decidedly religious, but less so than before.  One thing I haven't been able to help is the fact that so many of these people are single--all but one, actually, although one is divorced and another two are widowed.  Married people are actually pretty hard to find!  But perhaps I was looking in the wrong places.

However, what really made my week special for me was visiting sites in London that my UK Politics professor had recommended.  They include:

1. The Houses of Parliament (comprised of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, which are both in Westminster Palace)

2. The Imperial War Museum

3. Whitehall, and #10 and #11 Downing Street

4. The Royal Courts of Justice

5. The MI6 Building

6. The Bank of England

7. The Lloyd's of London

8. Scotland Yard

9. Old Bailey

10. Fleet Street

11. The US Embassy

So I won't go into detail about all these places...suffice it to say it was really cool to visit them all!  It's hard to pick favorites, but if I did I would say they were the Houses of Parliament, the Imperial War Museum, the Royal Courts of Justice, the US Embassy, and the MI6 Building.

I loved seeing where all the action of government happens as I visited the Houses of Parliament.  The center wooden table in the Commons still shows the marks left by Winston Churchill where he would pound his ring on the table during debates and speeches to the house during the war.

I could have stayed in the Imperial War Museum for another day--it is so full of brilliant war exhibitions and machinery, telling the story of British war history with so much detail I had to go fast or I felt like I would be crushed by the sheer weight of the conflicts, especially WWI and II.  The trench recreation is incredible, and I appreciated the section about the war in Afghanistan (pictured).

I loved wandering around the massive castle that is the Royal Courts of Justice--nearly empty of people on the day I visited, but full of empty courtrooms and a nearly innumerable amount of passages and rooms.  I loved exploring in it.

The MI6 building is simply imposing.  It is everything you would expect a building housing such an organization to look like--from the turret-like communication antennas to the castle-like architecture. I ran by the building during an early morning run, and I have never seen such an array of security before.

Lastly, the US Embassy, with the Roosevelt Memorial in Grosvenor Square just outside, was probably the most emotional place I visited, at least for me.  Seeing the flag blowing in the wind and shining in the sun above the imposing building, the machine-gun-carrying soldier pacing the corner of the enclosure, the flags of all fifty states lining the front of the was a powerful thing to see a piece of America right in the heart of London after having been away for three months.

So, those are the highlights...I wish I could tell you everything, but this is a long enough post as it is.  Thanks for listening!


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Scotland, Castles, Cousins...(oh my!)

Here's a wrap-up of the last week from my journal!

So it's been a week since I wrote a decent journal entry, so I'll try and make up for that here. With regards to my project, the week from June 23 to June 28 saw considerable progress. I was able to interview Matthew, Mark, and Peter, and I was able to spend several hours reading the collection of research found in “Mission-shaped Church”, which has given me a lot of insight into societal changes that may have contributed to the decline in religiosity in the United Kingdom and that is affecting most of the western world.

Last Tuesday, however, my group and I left our projects behind for the good part of a week when we boarded a train at King's Cross Station and traveled to Edinburgh (pronounced “Éh-din-bur-ah”) for our mid-semester retreat. It was a lot of fun, and a true vacation. That is to say, it was not a vacation in the sense that it involved sandy-beaches, five-star hotels, or big rides and roller-coasters. No, Edinburgh was a vacation because we were free for five days in a beautiful historic town and countryside where every element, alive or dead, had something interesting to say—from the street musicians on bagpipes and violins, the shops selling kilts and scottish wool blankets and the two-hundred-year-old pubs that adorned each street corner. As I said to my brother on the phone late Friday night, even the old brick walls of the High Street Hostel where we we stayed were constructed before than the United States (I checked the history, and it's over two hundred years older!). In the time we had my group and I managed to see three different castles, go on two different site tours (one of them an all-day bus tour), climb the 900-foot Arthur's Seat, visit the botanical gardens, stroll out barefoot on the cool windy beach, and eat at almost half a dozen local cafes. We even ate at the famous Elephant Palace, an eccentric and comfortable coffee-shop cafe where J. K. Rowling began writing Harry Potter on napkins. Stories, old and the new, seem to flow through the city's cobble-stone and brick like the rain—and there was plenty to be found of the latter. We were lucky to catch four days when the sun came out, and the grass and trees were just an impossible green.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the trip was the experience of living in a hostel. A hostel, of course, is a place where you rent a bed to sleep in for a few nights. The High Street Hostel calls itself the “cool” Edinburgh hostel, and I would say it mostly holds up to that description. The vintage front sitting room with the stand-up piano and leather couches was my favorite spot in the place, although I think it would have benefitted a lot to the addition of a big, lit fireplace. The room was a bit drafty. Otherwise, the experience of sharing bedrooms with a mixed group of traveling young students and (mostly) young adults from all around the globe was very unique, and I enjoyed the chance to meet some new people from places like Spain, New York, Ireland, and (of course) Brasil. There were actually seven different brazilians that passed through the place during the five days, and I have to say that seeing their surprised expressions when I—the tall, white American—started speaking Portuguese to them in my strong São Paulo accent. I even got up at 3:40 a.m. on one of the nights to watch Corinthians (my old São Paulo team before I wised up and chose Santos) win the Libertadores South American Tournament with Gilson, who is also from São Paulo. That being said, sharing bathrooms with everyone was a little weird, but everyone was very respectful and polite, so there was nothing to worry about.

The trip almost ended in disaster when I left my US passport in the locker safe next to my bed in the hostel, and only remembered when I was at the train station with twenty-five minutes to go before our train was leaving. Truly, I think that was the most panic I have felt in years. Sprinting up the close (which is sort of thin Scottish alleyway that are all around the city) to the hostel a few streets above the station, I felt deeply grateful for all those years running track and cross country. Four minutes passed and I got to the hostel, quickly explained to the girl at the desk, dashed up the stairs, burst into the room, and managed to stay calm while I awoke my old bed's new occupant (a large, bearded man) and explained that I had left something in the safe. Luckily, the man's size was made up by his good humor, and he had only been dozing anyway. Chuckling, he handed me the key and I was able to quickly retrieve my passport, leave my sincere thanks, and skid back down and out to the street. I narrowly avoided disaster galloping down the wet and slippery close, but when I reached the platform I still had six minutes left on the clock. Not bad, but still too close.

The four-hour train ride back down to London was quiet and uneventful, and I was content to spend it reading. I reread Stormbreaker, a teenage-spy favorite from my middle-school years, but this time I knew half the locations mentioned because most of the story takes place in London. Although he probably didn't know it, Alex Rider, who is the fourteen-year-old main character, actually crashed through the ceiling of the Science Museum ceiling in his parachute right across the street from the Hyde Park chapel. Reading about all those locations in London helped me realize how much I enjoy living here. I may have only been away for five days, but I am happy to be back. It's been just two months, but London really does feel like home.

                        So here are some more recent photos!! (click to see the full-size photo)

 St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh.

View from Arthur's Seat in 

The map of Sterling, Scotland

View of William Wallace tower from Sterling Castle.

My favorite castle - Linlithgow Palace

View from the top of the highest tower.

Hallway above the ancient great hall.

My scruffy face (I left my shaving cream at home) in front of Sterling Castle.

Check out the castle from Monty Python!!

Our Hairy Coo (cow) tour bus.

View of the cemetery and castle from the Elephant Palace

A rather furry Ben next to Greyfriar's Bobby!

That's me and Carlee outside Speedy's Cafe from Sherlock

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Another Day in the Life of "Benjamin"

Hello everyone!! Sorry, it's been a looooong time, but I thought I would post my journal entry from Friday (I wrote it today, but the events are yesterday's), as it marks a pretty good snapshot of how my life is and how my project is doing.  Hope you enjoy it :)

Today was interesting. Because my planner is out of pages I wasn't able to plan today on paper. Nevertheless, late Thursday night I was able to contact Father Matthews again and plan an interview with him for this morning (Friday). So 8:30 saw me attending their morning prayers service, and Father Matthews seemed happy to see me (“Is it Ben or Benjamin? I like the name Benjamin...”). He had me sit in the stall next to him and showed me when to speak the verses in Psalms and recite the prayers for the fifteen minute service, and the only other person in the chapel was another woman who also helps run the church. I had been to a similar meeting before, but I think this time it was better because Father Matthew treated me like a friend, not just another visitor. After it was over, we made our way back to Father Matthew's office and started what would end up being an hour-long conversation.

Father Matthews is a very thoughtful, careful, and yet simple man, and I think he relished the opportunity to share his life and feelings about the church and Christianity with someone else. Our conversation lasted a bit more than an hour, and although I really liked listening to him, I will have to do better about guiding the conversation next time toward the topics that are most important for my study. For most of the interview I think I was just a little too happy to be interviewing :-P Before we started the interview I wrote this about him while he was in the other room finishing off an email:

Father Matthew is the real thing. I feel that if he had lived half a century ago he would have been equally comfortable and suited for the calling as a priest in a traditional Christian church. His clear singing voice for the ancient hymns, his amiable way with people, his sense of humor that manages somehow manages to be both dry and warm at the same time, and his sincere concern toward his parish uniquely qualify this man for his position in the Church of England. At age 44 and standing at around 5’10”, his receding grey hair and penetrating eyes give him the undeniable look of a leader even while his manner retains a distinctly common touch.

Although I was surprised to hear him swear once or twice during our conversation (and perhaps I shouldn't have been), overall he seemed a very good and sincere man. He isn't terribly pleased with the status quo in his church, with numbers declining each year and society as a whole drifting away from regular church attendance. I will always remember the ways he spoke when he talked about his son (“the apple of my eye”, as he put it), nor the way that he described how lost he would feel if he didn't believe and trust in God.

As we walked out at the end of the interview he turned to me and said with a smile, “Now it's time for me to go and play the piano. Yes, I'm taking piano lessons – that's what happens when you reach your mid-life crisis and need something to do!” I laughed and returned that my mom had started taking Spanish classes recently, now that she had more time on her hands, and as he opened the front door he told me that I needed to come back and that he would find some other individuals for me to interview who were older members of the church. I was very happy to say yes!

The rest of the day can be summed up like this: three Avatar episodes with Richard, scripture study, a lesson with the missionaries and a wonderful black woman named Carol, dinner, choir practice, and latin dance party at Kennington

Oh, and here are some recent photos :)

 Squirrel at Hyde Park :)

It's the Brown cousins in London!!

 Trip to the Natural History Museum

Getting ready to watch Henry V at the Globe

Let's face it: the standing tickets are cheaper

Muslim Mosque I saw in the neighborhood by the Indian Market

Thursday, June 14, 2012

All the photos I've neglected to post here...

Westminster Abbey!

Carol (hostmom), Sister Hall, and myself

Paul and Ben and...shiny reflections in our eyes

Outside the British museum with Natalie (left) 
and Ariana (right).

This guy is more than 3000 years old...

Inside the British Museum.

View from below St. Paul's...

 Me on the Millennium Bridge.  So glad Voldomort didn't really destroy it...

Liz, Aspen and I after seeing Antigone!  That's St. Paul's behind.

A rare pic of my flatmate Richard Sheppard.

Admiral Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square

St. Martins in the Fields!

Just down the road from Westminster Palace...

View of Parliamnet from the bridge...

"Can I read your Captain's blog?"

It's Justin Bieber.  And Lany!

Lany giving Hitler a piece of her mind...
 "Does it hurt?"  "Every time."

Cami Shiel came to visit! 

Buckingham palace :D