Saturday, March 8, 2008

Living it up in London

Now that we've been in London for six months, we're starting to feel somewhat at home. Our jobs have gotten busy, and I've been going to ballet and Andrew to karate once a week. We've settled into routines with cooking and chores around the flat, made regular trips to the library, and learned where to buy everything we need. Since we've reached this level of everyday comfort, we've had the freedom to branch out and try to take advantage of living in London. Sometimes that just means meeting up for a pint of cider in an old-fashioned pub after work. Sometimes it means going out to a fancy bar with friends. And sometimes it means doing touristy stuff in a local way.

Several weeks ago, Andrew was doing a training session in the city, so after work we met at Piccadilly Circus with the plan of going out to dinner. We wanted to try a Spanish place near Borough Market, but instead of jumping on the Tube with all the rush hour crowds, we decided to walk. It was a very touristy walk past many of the major London sights, including Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, and St. Paul's Cathedral, and we enjoyed seeing all of those things, but because we had seen them before and knew exactly where we were going, we could afford to just enjoy each other's company in a glorious setting without having to pay all of our attention to what we were walking past. It took us about an hour to walk all the way across central London, and when we got to the market, the Spanish place was packed but we found a fantastic seafood restaurant instead.

More recently, I decided to plan ahead a little bit and book tickets to some of the special museum exhibits around town. We have tickets to a photography exhibit after hours, including dinner, for later this month. I'll report on that later. My major victory, though, was scoring evening tickets to see the First Emperor exhibit at the British Museum. It has been nearly sold out since before it opened, but we got two of the last tickets available.

We felt very special showing up to the museum on a Sunday evening, long after the crowds had left. We walked through the echoing entrance hall and into the stunning atrium that used to be an open courtyard but is now covered by a huge glass dome. In the very center of this round space is the old reading room of the British Library, which is reserved for special exhibitions like this one. As we entered, we caught a glimpse of the old bookcases covering the round walls, stacked at least four stories high. The exhibit was set inside the reading room with plenty of space around the edges for people to move among the shelves and still get to the books. When we got inside, I looked up, as I always do in big public spaces, and I wasn't disappointed by the spectacular roseate design on the ceiling high above.

The exhibit was amazing, from both an entertainment perspective and a curatorial one. We got a very good overview of early Chinese history, and I was able to fill in some of the gaps with what I remembered from my Chinese history class at UF. The historical background took up the first part of the exhibit, where we got to see 2500-year-old weapons, drinking vessels, jewelry, and sculpture.

Then we moved on to learn more about the emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, who
was the first to gather large swathes of what is now China into a single empire. He started the Qin dynasty (pronounced "chin," and supposedly where the name China came from) in 221 BC, when he was still a very young man. He built dozens of ornate palaces and instituted laws and systems that we still use today. He worked to standardize industrial production, the Chinese alphabet, and systems of currency and measurement. And, from the day he took power, he started building his physical legacy, a mountain-shaped underground tomb near Xi'an that has never been opened because of legends about its defenses, including rivers of mercury (modern scientists have confirmed that the soil around the funereal mound is indeed abnormally high in mercury content).

All around the tomb, he had legions of terra cotta sculptures of soldiers in battle formation buried to protect him after death. The first of the terra cotta soldiers was discovered by a farmer in 1979, and archaeologists have discovered thousands of the life-size sculptures since then. This exhibit is a really big deal because it's the first time so many of the soldiers have been sent overseas. But before we got to the soldiers, we learned about how the emperor's palaces were constructed and how the technology used to create terra cotta roof and floor tiles for the palaces was adapted to create these intricate, lifelike sculptures. Then we turned a corner, and there they were, about two dozen six-foot high soldiers, some with fragments of brightly colored paint still clinging to their surfaces. Each one looked different. You could tell what roles they were meant to play in the army and their rank. Generals had full armor and fancy hairstyles; archers had light armor; cavalry riders held their arms out to take the reins; terra cotta horses pulled chariots; acrobats, dancers, and clowns performed tricks to amuse the troops. Each face looked like that of a real person, with a life story. The faces even reflected the geographic and demographic diversity of the empire. And every face showed the determination of these soldiers to protect and glorify their emperor for all eternity.

After the weight of so much history, it felt a little weird to go back outside to the quiet streets, but we walked for a little while and traded impressions, then found a place to get some delicious Chinese treats for a late supper. Then it was back on the train home...just a normal day in London.

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