I had big plans to write blog posts throughout our three-week research trip to London, but my limited work days really cut into my blogging time. Rather than sharing several reflections from my time in London, I’m going to rattle off a few observations and share a some of the big feelings I had over there…
Roaming the streets of London with Ethan over the past three weeks has felt good and familiar. There have been many other aspects of this trip that have been incredibly hard, especially my wife’s long workdays in the archives and Ethan’s difficulty settling down at our flat. However, the walking about part brought it’s own pleasant surprises.
Having grown up on the edges of Philadelphia, there’s a familiarity to the city of London: as if Philadelphia is a small, rougher version of it. At one point in the history of the British Empire, Philadelphia was only second to London in size, so that makes sense. The architecture in particular reminds me of home, even if the accents I hear and the absence of decent drip coffee drive home just how far away I am.
Wandering London for three weeks has also been a study in prosperity and affluence. I’m surrounded by go-getters and game changers: people who are on their way up or at least fighting for a place at the big tables of global finance, government, and business.
The current is strong. At times I felt pulled out to sea with them into their ocean full of big fish. As a work from home dad who makes as much in a month as some of them make in a day or a week, it was easy to feel insecure and aimless in life.
What do I have to show for my labor?
What kind of position and influence do I have?
It’s been a rubber meets the road moment for my theology. Do I truly believe that the writing I’m doing is worth anything in the grand scheme of things? By developing the gift of writing that I believe God has given me, am I seeking first his Kingdom or longing for the same stuff everybody else has?
It’s been a heavy three weeks at times. But then I have my beautiful little boy who often reminds me that I’m using the wrong markers for my success.
My time in London wasn’t always full of existential angst and anxiety over my work…
For instance, it was pretty hard to find my way around at first because of the location of street signs. The street signs languish on the sides of buildings so that you have to wander a bit until you find them. Seriously Brits, how hard is it to stick a pole in the ground near the corner?
It goes without saying that my instincts were complete rubbish at crosswalks or “zebra crossings” as they call them here. I knew which way to look for cars—the opposite of what I expected. But once my feet hit the street, my instincts kicked in and I was inevitably the only person crossing to the other side looking to his right.
The bus system has been glorious. I mean, really. You can’t get better than this bus system. We can get anywhere across town and treat the ride as a site seeing tour—which in Ethan’s case is merely spotting more buses and traffic lights or “Eeeee-yo’s” as he calls them. When I bought him a toy bus, he said the word “bus” continuously for fifteen minutes while pointing at it.
The coffee situation was quite rough. Most English cafes serve up a more Italian style of coffee, meaning that you’ll be hard pressed (pun intended) to find drip, filter, or, as I like to say, “REAL” coffee. The best source for real coffee was Pret a Manger, where I could buy a cup of “filter” coffee for a pound. Every other source of coffee was disappointing.
Americano’s were too watered down and weak. I would have asked for a second shot, but we were already in the two pound neighborhood for a drink that I didn’t particularly enjoy, so I ended up planning my day and then locating a Pret a Manger where I could pick up real coffee after getting off the bus.
At one point I stopped by Starbucks for an overpriced cup of their horrible Pike’s Place roast, and I asked for “filtered” coffee. The guy looked at me confused. I was hungry, tired, and, as one may imagine, in need of caffeine. I wasn’t in the mood to say the password for “coffee.” I snapped a little: “I don’t know! Drip, filtered, whatever you people call American coffee.”
Ethan didn’t have to worry about coffee, and he found the streets of London endlessly fascinating. Between the buses, trucks, and traffic lights, he found something to amuse himself wherever we went.
We spent a good bit of our time at St. James Park, which had a sand pit, fearless ducks, and close proximity to the soldiers. He loved pushing his stroller along the paths, and I enjoyed the amazing gardens and crowds of tourists who gathered around squirrels to take pictures.
I’m not sure which countries don’t have squirrels. As an avid gardener, I have a white, hot hatred of those long tailed rats. They’re always digging up our plants and flowers just for the pure joy of destruction.
You know who else enjoys destroying stuff? Satan. Think about it.
On a recommendation from Preston Yancey, we also spent several days at Coram’s Field, which had a variety of age-appropriate playgrounds, sand pits, and animals. The chickens, rabbits, and goats were a huge hit. Ethan would still be there if I hadn’t dragged him away.
When wandering around Bloomsbury, we also stopped at a lovely little playground in Bloomsbury. I got to people watch as tourists strolled by on their way to the British Museum, while Ethan went up and down a slide for a solid hour.
As much as I loved wandering the streets of London, especially the Bloomsbury neighborhood, I got the same eerie feeling that I get in Philadelphia or any other city in the northeast U.S. with ties to shipping and trade during the colonial period, let alone southern cities with ornate exteriors. Much like the colonial cities in America, a great deal of the wealth that has poured into London over recent centuries arrived because of the systemic exploitation of colonies and slaves.
That isn’t to ignore that some people have worked and are working to right these wrongs. It’s just an uneasy feeling I get around anything majestic and beautiful around here. There were plenty of monuments to people who were moral monsters—some being moral monsters who also called themselves Christians. There were a few cringing moments
Perhaps the funding for certain buildings was all gained through ethical industry and hard work. However, if history is any teacher in this, it’s most likely that many of the fine homes I passed each day had one kind of connection or another to the exploitation of colonies.
And while we’re talking about things that make me uneasy, let’s talk about all of the soldiers in downtown London. Ethan couldn’t get enough of the marching bands serenading us during the changing of the guards. He heard the pounding drums and started pointing in their direction saying, “Solders! Solders!”
We would walk alongside them as they marched ahead of about four companies of guards.
This was a wonderful event and spectacle for kids. The soldiers marched in a tight formation keeping crisp time. The bands played peppy songs that have been stuck in my head ever since.
However, there’s something very uneasy about the pageantry of war. Sure the bands help everyone march in time, but then a drill sergeant plays the same role. The dress uniforms, the coordinated marches, and the festive bands all add an appeal to something that is otherwise horrible: war.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that these soldiers, who were on leave from deployment, have been exposed to some of the worst conditions we could imagine. What we see of war is the marching, parades, and festivities. It’s brilliant propaganda.
As a follower of Jesus I can’t say I’m a 100% pacifist, even if his command to love our enemies hounds me. That being said, the pageantry of the guards left me as unsettled as it left Ethan delighted.
Perhaps the fancy uniforms and bands don’t have the same appeal as in times past. However, the reminder of their past roles haunted my mind.
My misgivings aside, it was hard to leave London. Our neighborhood felt very familiar to our own. It was filled with people our age and delightful, family-friendly pubs where friends gathered to talk and the beer held secondary importance.
I made a point of sampling as many local dishes as I could, such as meat pies, fish and chips, bangers and mash, a full English breakfast, and buttered bread pudding. It wasn’t the diet that leads to a long life, but meat, fried food, and bread worked for me.
Almost to a person, the English were friendly people, but they were more like New England friendly than the bouncing, in your face friendly you may find in the American south or west coast. When the airlines lost our bags on the way over, the man behind the counter quickly took our information and said, “Not to worry. We’ll sort it out. Should have it to you tomorrow at the latest.”
His calm and simple assurance helped me calm down as I feared the worst for our bags. True to his word, our bags arrived by noon on the following day.
I also need to make a confession of sorts. It’s not that I had preconceptions about English men, but when we arrived at the airport, I kept noticing that many of the English men I saw were tall and “solid.”
I took an inventory of the English men I knew of: John Cleese, Mr. Bean, and Wallace (as in Wallace and Grommet). Not exactly mountains of manhood. I didn’t expect all English men to be small or thin, but they just tended to surprise me on the average with their size. However, I’m 5’5” and weigh about 160 pounds, so my opinion on anyone’s size is a bit skewed. Come to think of it, my size pretty much explains all you need to know.
Even with the large men, the parading soldiers, and the spoils of colonialism surrounding me, I look forward to returning to London. It was like being at home while in a foreign country. I didn’t have to think too hard in order to communicate with folks, and the weak dollar against pounds meant that everything in stores appeared to be really cheap—whoops.
Having said that, traveling with a toddler is a tremendous amount of work. I don’t think I’ve ever been so consistently drenched in sweat. Maybe when Ethan is a little older we’ll venture back for another research trip.
He’ll learn about the dangers of militarism as a national policy, the virtues of pork sausage, and the delight of proper English chips. I’ll just work on not being an idiot who assumes that every man in England looks like John Cleese.