Sunday, September 22, 2013

Funny History and Politically Charged Public Art

Our last full day in London was my favorite, and also Chad's birthday. I brought one of his presents with me, but made him open his other, heavier presents back at home. Chad likes history, justice and peanut butter+chocolate combinations. Tower of London definitely has history, but the justice part is arguable. We foraged some peanut butter+chocolate mid-day at the coffee shop. The public art was more my thing, but Chad enjoyed it too.

We were thoroughly entertained by our visit to the Tower of London. Yes, there were tales of blood, gore, wrongful imprisonment and wrongful beheadings, but the Beefeater who led our tour made the whole sordid history really interesting and wickedly funny. Free tours start every half hour near the main entry gate, and I highly recommend them. We lucked out and avoided big crowds and long lines on the day we went. It was chilly and a bit drippy, so maybe that kept the hordes at bay. We saw the royal jewels. The size of the stones in the scepters and crowns is astonishing. I'm not a fan of jewel-encrustation, but even I had to marvel at the crazy riches. We also visited the white tower which housed the armory museum. It's a cool exhibit even if you're not a card-carrying member of the NRA. I especially like the dragon sculpture fashioned out of faux-treasure, battle armor and weapons. His name is Keeper and his wings are rifles, his belly holds replica crown jewels and he breathes out flame-shaped trails of gold coins.

We spent about three hours at the Tower of London, then walked back to our temporary-neighborhood for lunch at Bermondsey Street Coffee in the form of an egg salad sandwich, salads and the aforementioned peanut butter+chocolate bar. We rested a bit before our reserved evening walking tour. 

A slow, traffic-snarled bus ride took us to East End London with just a few minutes to spare before a walking tour covering history, culture, politics and street art. Alternative London runs the pay-what-you-wish tours. Josh, pictured above, fearless leader and street artist, gave a tour rich in all sorts of information from history to real estate to political insight into some of the more meaning-laden art. Chad and I agree that this was our favorite part of our London trip. We initially booked the East End pub tour for Chad's birthday evening, but it was a blessing in disguise that the pub tour was canceled. (We took the walking tour instead.) We feel like we got to see how non-Royal people in London live, and how tolerance for different cultural backgrounds and religions happens in modern London. One building featured on the tour has been a Jewish synagogue, a Protestant church, a Catholic church and currently a mosque during its life-span. We saw buildings ravaged by World War II still boarded up, then rounded the corner to a brand-spanking-new (totally not) affordable condo project with one-bedrooms going for a million pounds. Josh stressed that street art and public art are constantly changing, as is the real estate situation in East End. If we go to London again, we'll definitely take the tour again. It will be very different by that time, for better or for worse.

We walked around East End on our own for a bit after the tour, finding a few food trailers, passing long lines to get into thumping-bass vapid nightclubs, and passing amazing-smelling Indian and Pakistani restaurants on Brick Lane. Chad wanted dinner on Brick Lane, but I had to be a buzzkill and remind him of the ten hour plane ride ahead of us the next day and my delicate constitution. Sorry. I offered to watch him eat, but he also thought better of exotic spices before a long plane trip. If we return to London, we'll make our way to Brick Lane on day one for exotic, spicy food.

The rest of our trip encompassed the tedium of travel: packing for the return home, getting a cab to the airport, ten hours on one plane, sweating our time limit as we cleared customs in Houston and made it just in time to board the 26 minute flight back to Austin. 

Promptly upon arriving in Austin, before we even went home, we hit up Chango's for Tex-Mex dinner. Yum, black beans and pico de gallo, how we missed you!