I’m on an impromptu trip to England, which is my excuse for being late with my usual Thursday post. As someone with (undiagnosed, but probable) OCD, it pains me not to hand things in on time, even if these deadlines are self-imposed. But I have been experiencing sensory overload since arriving and this led to writers’ block. For a Toronto gal where Cabbagetown is a “historical” neighbourhood and already too much to absorb, England is like gorging on 50 all-dressed pizzas of ancient history in one sitting. I’m too bloated from rich material to write in any sort of focused manner.
Anyway, I’m really grateful to be tagging along with John, who was invited to Oxford as a global expert on something he modestly claims to know little about. Neither of us really knows England. I came here only once before with my parents when I was little. There are only two things I remember from that trip: a bomb scare on our plane to Heathrow causing a major diversion; and, my sister and I being admonished by a bobby for climbing the lion statues at Trafalgar Square. John has never been here. Luckily, he is genetically hardwired because of his deep Anglo roots to expertly traverse the complex web of London streets and the Underground. Without the CN Tower as my navigational city compass, I am completely disoriented so have not let him out of my sight.
Travelling together is always an exercise in compromise because we are drawn to different things. His must-dos are so serious and well-planned. Accompanying him on his top picks instantly raises my IQ by 15 points. I mean one doesn’t read the Magna Carta at the British Library, stare adoringly at Medieval art at the Courtauld Gallery, or listen spellbound to the resident choir at the spectacular Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields without some sort of cognitive benefit. I have to hand it to John though. He’s got a nose for sussing out hidden gems like the Foundling Museum, which was originally a hospital established in 1739 for children at risk of abandonment. Back then mothers left a piece of fabric (keeping an identical piece for themselves) and a small token to identify their child in case they were in a position to reclaim them later. There is a display of tokens – coins, bracelets, medallions – heartbreaking symbols of loss.
The old churches, museums, and galleries have been spectacular but it’s those spontaneous conversations with locals that I will remember more. There was the charming constable guarding 10 Downing Street who confided that he wasn’t a huge fan of his new boss (something to do with her stand on police pensions) and that it was her financier husband Philip who “rules the roost” (John pointed out afterwards he may have been “taking the piss” – another British expression I learned on this trip). Then there was a lovely journalist from the Daily Mail (good people can work for bad organizations – remember the phone hacking scandal) who was coveting our dessert (yoghurt cake with pistachios and pomegranate) at Moro which led to a fabulous conversation about our career aspirations – and a professional connection across the pond. The waiter at Lima (best Peruvian food I’ve ever eaten) was a Spaniard who shared his dreams of opening a small unpretentious place to nourish physically and spiritually. And the elderly prison activists at Fine Cell Work, a social enterprise store selling handicrafts made by inmates, briefly restored my faith in humanity (we spent a bloody fortune but we certainly don’t need any convincing about the benefits of progressive programs to society).
We have only scratched the surface of what England has to offer. Our country is of course a mere babe in comparison, for so long in its shadow. We stumbled upon a memorial to Sir John A. Macdonald in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral with the inscription: “A British subject I was born / A British subject I will die.” We’ve come a long way in forging a more distinct national identify in a relatively short time since our first PM uttered those words. And while we can’t compete on so many levels, John overheard one of the women at Fine Cell Work say to her colleague, “Canada is the only sensible place left on earth.”
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