To London, With Love – Part One

Photo Credit: CK '10
Rude Britannia Exhibit – Tate Modern (London, July 2010)

Anyone who knows me, and I do mean anyone who knows me, understands that I am a confirmed Anglophile. An ‘anglophile’ meaning: one who loves everything to do with British culture and life. My blood runs red, white and blue for two countries – the United States and of course for Great Britain. Over the course of many years (and many semesters in college,) I have read and studied everything from British fashion, British music, British history to British literature and British Pop Culture. In my mind, I’m a bit of a quasi duel citizen. I’ve often wondered the wherefore of people becoming philes. What is the spark, the flint, that lights the fire of that “intitial element” (according to dictionary.com) which roars to life into almost obsessive love and enthusiasm? For some it may be an experience – like perhaps watching a movie, or visiting a country.

For me though the love started with two toys. My grandparents are globe trotters, there isn’t a place they haven’t been or a continent they’ve not visited. For their 40th Wedding anniversary in August, 1997, they announced that they would take a trip to London, England. As a child, I was always fascinated with their stories and pictures of far off places, and my fascination was goaded by the occasional gift of a t-shirt, trinket, or toy. My grandparents always announced their trips to the family, it was a big deal when I was a kid! Today it’s something of a tradition, so that the children, grandkids and pets can live vicariously, albeit jealously, with them on the trip, via postcards and of course – gifts. I cannot tell you the postcards I have kept over the years, I even have a coconut that my grandparents shipped from Hawaii when I was five years old, talk about a special delivery, not to mention a conversation piece.

When the family would visit with my grandparents for any occasion or holiday, my grandfather would delight us all with his customary homemade videos of their vacation. Shots of great buildings, spectacular vistas, and of course about two minutes of his feet (when he forgot to stop camera.) Seeing these videos and hearing his knowledge of various cities and their history filled with me awe and wonder. So when they announced  that they were celebrating their anniversary in England, I was excited for them – and I wasn’t even going on the trip.

Well as luck would have it, they did go to London. My grandfather made his vacation video and I got three gifts that year. A sweatshirt from Paris and two toys I still hold very dear to my heart: a double-decker red bus that has a sticker emblazoned with the union jack flag and “London”  in white letters on the both sides, and a Bobbie whistle. I was hooked. I blew my whistle and with some education from the adults, learned that the whistle was used by British policemen. What a joyously annoying sound that whistle makes all these years later.

Britain was  on the minds of millions around the world in August 1997 when Princess Diana was killed in Paris. (My grandparents returned home from London just days prior to her death.) I remember watching the funeral service on the television, not really knowing anything about Princess Diana or her impact on the world stage. Photographs of the late Princess were everywhere. Her visage was on the television, her name was on the radio, in books, in magazines, in the paper. Britain was front and center, and sadly not in a good way. I remember hearing the music from the funeral service and being swept away. “I vow to thee my country” was wonderful as was “The Prayer of St. Francis.” It goes without saying that Sir Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” was perhaps the most moving moment in the whole service.  From that moment forward, I wanted to see Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Big Ben – I wanted to be in London.

Piccadilly Circus at Night
Piccadilly Circus (July, 2010)

As I got older, I realized that a lot of the cultural stuff I loved was from Britain, even some of the people I loved (i.e. Julie Andrews) were British. A prime example of an introduction of British culture was through Broadway show tunes. I grew up listening to show tunes (well before I knew I was a homosexual,) my grandfather is major musical theater buff – almost guru like, and his adoration of Broadway and theatre in general has been passed down from generation to generation. Over the course of time I learned the musicals: CATS and The Phantom of the Opera were British and written by a Briton. It would be another 13 years before I would say hello to Great Britain, but my imagination and fascination with all things Britain didn’t just stop with Princess Diana’s death. No. I became fascinated with The Royal Family and British television. Thanks to PBS, I was introduced to the zany 1970s and 80’s British sitcom Are You Being Served? when I was thirteen. Perfect timing too, as my teenage years were not a cup of tea at all.  Funny, over the years bits and pieces of Britain (culture and otherwise) have been infiltrating my life without me  being really aware of it.

2005 was a landmark year in many ways for me. For starters I was a junior in high school, finally coming to terms with my own self-identity and the summer of my junior year also afforded me a chance to go abroad. I had been abroad before with my parents, but this time I would be going with the People-to-People Student Ambassador Program. I’m still not exactly sure what I was supposed to be an Ambassador of at the time. George II (H.W.) was President, and the U.S. was few years into the war in Afghanistan.  For two and a half weeks, I toured Western europe. Taking in the sites, the sounds and the glories of the old world. Europe was so beautiful, everything was a postcard. I didn’t want to leave, but sadly I had to. An interesting aspect of the journey was my visit to Paris. There were all sorts of posters and banners across the city of love proclaiming Paris as a “Candidate City” for the 2012 Olympic bid. The parisians pulled out all the stops to impress tourists – the city of love had a chance at hosting the games! I might have been in Paris, but a little touch of British cultural history wasn’t too far off. After a memorable visit to the Eiffel Tower, it came time for the group to retire (by bus) to our hotel, and to get there we had to go through the Pont de l’Alma road tunnel (the same one Princess Diana went through upon her death,) our tour guide announced we were approaching the tunnel and a hush filled the tour bus. For the briefest of moments, there was silence as the bus gilded past white columns, surrounded by rush hour traffic. No one said a word until after we exited the tunnel. “There are no marks, no plaques designating where she died,” a student said. “No,” our guide replied, “People have put up their tributes outside the tunnel.”

I returned home on June 30th exhausted, but filled with all sorts of great stories and pictures from my trip. A few days later Britain was in the news again. This time, the headlines were upbeat. London had won the olympic bid. The city that had welcomed Romans, Jutes, Saxons, Angles, William of Normandy and the same city that defeated Hitler would host the 2012 summer games. I remember watching news reports, seeing thousands of people cheering in Trafalger Square, thinking “Something bad is going to happen. Someone will want to ruin all that happiness.” Indeed someone or rather, people did – the bombings of July 7, 2005 rocked the world. Yet the Blitz Spirit that saved Britain during World War II came to the fore and a nation banded together to stare down terrorism. If Hitler couldn’t defeat England, terrorists didn’t have a chance.

One thought on “To London, With Love – Part One”

  1. This is great Chris. I love England, and London in particular, also. I loved reading about you Grandparents being world travelers….that is so amazing. I can’t wait to read part 2.

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