We like to talk to people as we travel, asking questions, learning about where we are. Today, we talked with a man who was either a judge or a member of parliament, or possibly a duke, because he was – I swear I have only had one glass of wine – holding one of those preposterous pompous long curled (horsehair?) wigs and wearing a high starched collar and a formal tailcoat. It was 5:00 p.m. at the café in St. James Park, I was sketching, Griff was writing, and His Honor the Owner of the Wig was lounging against the rail, watching the black helicopter circle the Buckingham Palace area. Griff and I had been wondering what building we were seeing in the distance but couldn’t quite make out what flag was flying, thinking possibly Canada, so Griff got up and asked the gentleman if he knew. He did not, but his slightly Scottish accent was an absolute delight and he was very friendly. His lady companion, who appeared round the corner just that moment, didn’t know either. We began talking about the London Eye, which is ubiquitous on any skyline, and this very elegant and professional woman said, “Well, I have to admit I’ve never been. I mean, I LIVE in London, but one doesn’t actually do those things, does one?”
Evidently not, and we begin to see a pattern here. Most of the folks we encounter are usually working people – restaurant staff, museum guards, clerks, fellow bus or train passengers. (By the way, most Londoners do not seem to just chat with each other, they take things very seriously, they scowl a lot, and only Americans seem eccentric enough to actually strike up conversations.) So we always get unrehearsed, slightly amazed, honest reactions. It is notable how often we find that “natives” have never been to the places we find so fascinating, places that are famous the world over, places that we have traveled long to seek out, places that are hidden just around the corner for them.
Case in Point: We were slightly confused about which exit to take from the Tube when we went to the Victoria and Albert Museum the first time, and although we knew we were close, every building we could see looked like it might be a grand museum. There were two men in vivid orange vests cleaning the bus stop, so we asked them. The younger one said, “I’m not from ‘ere, sorry.” The middle-aged man said, “Sorry, no idear.” (there’s that silly added R again). Minutes later, we discovered the museum in question was down one block and across the street. It’s huge – takes up several blocks. And it’s not like it was just built… been there for decades. City workers, never heard of it.
Next Case in Point: The young woman in the Brixton T-Mobile store who sold us our cell phones asked us how we were enjoying our visit – I raved about what a fabulous time we’ve been having, how much we like London. Now mind you, we were in the part of town that had rioted in August, and this store was the ONLY cell phone store that actually had any phones in stock because the others had been looted and weren’t as fast at restocking. She looked at me like I was nuts (this happens fairly frequently, to be honest… ) “What have you been doing?” she asked incredulously. I explained that I’ve been taking drawing classes, told her about the Victoria and Albert Museum experiences. She said she’d never been there, never even heard of it. Or anywhere else we mentioned, all of which have free admission incidentally. BUT, she added excitedly, she is planning an 8 day trip for her friend’s 21st birthday, to Las Vegas. AND, then they are going to New York City for Black Friday – she was absolutely giddy. We tried to break it to her gently that Vegas can be fun even though weird, but Black Friday is not America at its friendly best, with little success.
Next Case in Point: I asked a docent at the British Museum if she could tell me where the Native American totem poles are so I could meet my drawing class there. “The North American section is on the third floor.” No, these are supposed to be near the entrance, which is where we were standing. “Sorry…,” she said, “perhaps my colleagues at the information desk can help?” So off I went to the info desk, where the third person I asked finally knew, “Just right round there to the back, by the cafeteria.” And she was right – just around the corner, not 500 yards from where I had asked the first person, there are two Humongous totems, several stories high. They’re pretty hard to miss. But the docent didn’t know they were there.
I can understand not being thrilled about just going to any old museum, or any old forest, or any old castle or palace. But these places are bursting with wonders, there for free. Name your passion – it’s there. The occult, the tame, the historic, pirates, farm tools, dinosaurs, badgers dens, dragons, the exotic, full frontal nudity, weaving, new art and old art and mummies, giant lily pads, the Rosetta Stone, food and drink from all over the world… I guess it takes a stranger, or a child, to really look at the world and see what is before us. So the moral of the story is: invite a stranger to your world, and then discover it with them. They will very likely bring a childish excitement to the equation that will make the experience more wonderful for all of you. And who knows? You may discover a hidden gem like the Brixton windmill, from 1800-ish, which we found just up the hill from where we’re staying, and learn how to grind wheat into flour!