A carpet of apple(?) blossoms has covered our back patio, courtesy of the profusion of flowers on a tree over the fence, petals released by the wind on this gorgeous Easter day and floating into backyards all over the block. It is a cliche to speak of rebirth on Easter, and yet there’s no escaping it, wherever you fall on the spectrum of religious belief. This year more than ever all of us crave the possibility of renewal, of something new and perhaps better emerging from the tragedy of the past several months as COVID-19 has spread around the world. We tried to embrace this possibility as blossoms perfumed the air, even as sirens provided a grim soundtrack to this 75 degree spring day.

Once, in the Great Before, we had imagined celebrating Easter with my brother Seth and his family, who would have arrived for their visit yesterday. Instead, it was just the four of us–a treasure hunt with riddles leading to the baskets the Easter bunny had stowed on the roof, followed by a breakfast of homemade scones, biscuits, eggs, sliced pears, and plant-based sausages. We “attended” the Easter service at First Congregational of Ithaca back home via YouTube–a fantastic service and sermon. But as with so much else in life right now, it was simultaneously affirming to celebrate and connect and profoundly sad to think about the ever mounting losses. Regardless of one’s faith, the story of Easter is a powerful one of renewal after a calamity. May the world embrace the possibilities of renewal through cooperation and mutualism in the months and years to come.

The past few years we have enjoyed singing the Handel’s Allelujah Chorus at our Easter Service at FCCI. The annual tradition of the congregation all huddling in the choir area to share music in the impromptu sing is unthinkable this year. But we did find an inspiring version of it sung by the Royal Choral Society of London who normally sing it at the Royal Albert Hall. It has been sung there every year since 1876 with the exception of one year during the blitz of London. This year the public performance was cancelled but members got together to sing it “in isolation.” I put “in isolation” in quotes because music sung together always brings us together. You can see the performance here.

Number Games

What’s in a number? That’s a question we’ve been asking ourselves a lot lately as we try to make sense of the barrage of numbers that have come to define life in London (and much of the rest of the world too). Some are trivial: we’re supposed to stay 2 meters apart–but why not 6 feet? The English have somewhat endearingly held on to English measurements, especially for distances–yet the public health admonitions always use meters. How many people have corona? How many will never show symptoms? How many have died? How many are going to die? How many people have lost their jobs? How many days until we get to go home?

Obsessing with numbers as we do is a product of our faith in an idea of Progress forged in the crucible of the Enlightenment and annealed in the belief that if we can measure something we can ultimately control it. The numbers in the headlines now are only so much noise, producing a mental static we strain, mostly in vain, to hear a signal through. Someday, numbers will help us make sense of this pandemic, and perhaps even help us be proactive in advance of the next one (when, not if).

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Don’t just do something, sit there.

Our covidArt project. A neighbor in Ithaca proposed the idea that neighbors could create a spontaneous local art gallery on their porches during the period of confinement (a la the musical Porchfest in September). It inspired Samuel and I to create our own little way of sharing a smile with strangers in the front of our house in Colliers Wood. To date we’ve made 15 and given away 11 origami balls.

At the end of our first week of imposed lock-down, the second week of more or less following these guidelines, we’re all feeling a bit unsettled. Not unhappy. But not happy either. It’s hard to put a finger on it. Why does life seem so qualitatively different? I had an ah-ha moment when a neighbor from the Fall Creek Listserv sent around a link to this article in, of all places that I would never had read, the Harvard Business Review. It is entitled “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief,” by Scott Berinato. Berinato quotes grief experts David Kessler and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross who say that there are many different types of grief and what many of us are feeling is in these days of uncertainty is called “anticipatory grief.” Kessler says, “Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. Usually it centers on death. We feel it when someone gets a dire diagnosis or when we have the normal thought that we’ll lose a parent someday. Anticipatory grief is also more broadly imagined futures. There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety. I don’t think we’ve collectively lost our sense of general safety like this. Individually or as smaller groups, people have felt this. But all together, this is new. We are grieving on a micro and a macro level.

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The Pandemic and Panarchy

We still hear the occasional plane–they have been taking off to the east due to a persistent weather pattern that has brought strong winds off the North Sea and brilliantly clear skies, marred by only the occasional contrail. The UK has now moved closer to a full lock down, something that was necessary to overcome the cavalier attitude too many people have toward COVID-19. Life is still not as restricted as it is in many other European countries, but still more so than in much of the U.S. The ambit of our London adventure keeps shrinking. So, just as Thoreau “traveled a good deal in Concord” we will be more studiously exploring our nearby–for now including the various parks and Wandle River path, but which could shrink to our little backyard, now sporting some kale, lettuce, and radishes and some perennial flowering plants (cowslip and primrose), all an emphatic vote for the future! Our neighbors (left) made a badminton net of their fence this morning.

A single contrail
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Living the Pandemic in London

April 30th 1665–Great fears of the Sickenesses here in the City, it being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve us all. –Samuel Pepys diary.

The face of London was—now indeed strangely altered: I mean the whole mass of buildings, city, liberties, suburbs, Westminster, Southwark, and altogether; for as to the particular part called the city, or within the walls, that was not yet much infected. But in the whole the face of things, I say, was much altered; sorrow and sadness sat upon every face; and though some parts were not yet overwhelmed, yet all looked deeply concerned; and, as we saw it apparently coming on, so every one looked on himself and his family as in the utmost danger.” –Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)

The past few days have been as surreal here in London as in the rest of the world. The skies to the south of our house, normally featuring a plane every 90 seconds in the landing pattern for Heathrow, are mostly quiet for minutes at a time now. Trafalgar Square (from this Reuters picture below) is empty, Admiral Nelson left to wonder where all the people went. I went to get some milk this morning and turned right around when I got to the main supermarket–it was zombie apocalypse panic in there (the media hasn’t helped, with front pages like the one yesterday at left, though the photo is clever). The small market nearer our house had what we needed. We can only hope that people’s irrationality doesn’t break a food supply chain that for now is working. We hear sirens nearly non-stop; are there really more or are we noticing them more now?

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Continental Adventures Pt. III: Nantes

Oh, what a difference ten days can make. Last weekend we were having a fun visit with our old friend Yann, his wife Clare and their two children, Victore (age 6) and Honore (age 2 1/2). And now they are trying to figure out life in corona lock-down. A huge thank you to them for spending so much time with us, showing us their wonderful city and little corner of France! In the rapidly shifting sands of the new coronavirus reality, it already seems a lifetime ago. Other friends in Spain are now in total lockdown, being chased home by the police when they went for a walk in the park, thinking that the isolation started 24 hours later than it actually did. Our thoughts go out to everyone who is worried and inconvenienced for now, and to those for whom the economic impact of the pandemic is going to have lasting consequences for months and years to come.

The final stage of our spring break trip unfolded in a part of France we’d never visited before.  In 2002-3, Michael and I became friends with Yann Guillo, a French law student studying for a master’s in international law for a year at Cornell.  He joined the choir at Sage Chapel we were singing in, and over the course of that year we found we had much in common.  Yann needed housing during the summer of 2003 and stayed with us (providing a lovely soundtrack with his impressive guitar playing).  We have stayed in touch ever since, but hadn’t seen each other since the summer of 2005, when we stayed with his family on the magical resort island off the coast of Brittany, the Île de Groix.  This sojourn in London offered the best opportunity in years to reconnect in person and so we embarked on a 10-hour train journey from Barcelona to Nantes—almost all of it on TGVs.

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Mandatory coronavirus notice – we feel a bit odd posting all of these travel blogs as the world descends into virus mayhem. We also feel fortunate that by chance we scheduled this trip in the weeks before two of the countries we visited basically closed up. Looking at maps of cases, everywhere we were happen to have a very low incidence of the disease so far. So we hope not to have brought anything back here to London with us and feel hale and hearty ourselves.

Many years ago—25 to be exact—Michael and I passed through Barcelona during a several month stint in Europe WWOOFing (then Willing Workers on Organic Farms, now Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms to avoid running afoul of labor laws).  Neither of us can remember much about the few hours we spent in the city between trains (or between a bus and a train—like I said, a long time and many retired brain cells ago!) except that we walked to see Sagrada Familia.  Barcelona is, in many ways, defined by the aesthetics of Antonio Gaudí and the Modernist movement of the late nineteenth century, but the city has much more to it.  We stayed in hostels that were old apartment buildings from that era with fancy tiled hallways, high airy ceilings and big windows opening onto the busy streets.

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Continental Adventures Part I: To Andorra!

We just returned from 11 fabulous days exploring parts of Spain, France, and Andorra (where we’d never been).  The full accounting would make for a very long blog post, so we’ll break it up into three over the next few days.

We began in Andorra (after a cool rail journey, about which more below).  Why Andorra?  Many years ago when Kristen was teaching a geography class for Northern Light, the homeschooling cooperative we belong to in Ithaca, Isaiah developed a deep and abiding fascination with Andorra, the tiny co-principality (the world’s only) in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain. 

When we learned we would be in London this semester, he expressed a hope that we might be able to visit there.  Both boys developed a keen interest in snowboarding last winter and once we determined that access to ski slopes in the Pyrenees is much, much cheaper even than Greek Peak, the small resort near Ithaca, we decided to make a ski weekend in Andorra during my spring break the boys’ main Christmas present.  So the anticipation for this trip had been building for two months.

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More London Adventures

Ah, the flushing toilet and the water closet–both English inventions that should make us feel grateful (mostly–more on this qualifier presently). The former is not, alas, the invention of Thomas Crapper as is commonly believed, though he did patent several improvements; neither can he take credit for the etymology of the word crap, a reasonable, though unfounded assumption many people make.

The company he founded, however, did produce several arresting ads that will long endure as decorations in modern bathrooms.

What, you might well ask, does any of this have to do with our adventures in London? Well, the invention of the water closet and flush toilet is a key part of a story about, um, crap in London, a story that demonstrates how inexorably the law of unintended consequences functions in environmental history. It is easy in a place like London in 2020 (or any place with a modern sewer system), to rarely give a second thought to what happens to our business when we flush the toilet. In mid-19th century London, however, flushing your toilet (if you were fortunate enough to have one–most Londoners were not), meant out of sight but not out of mind because you could not escape the smell of the collective effluvia. The flushing toilet became more popular in the middle third of the 19th century and succeeded in removing human waste from the immediate proximity of middle and upper class dwellings, but all of that waste was merely displaced to . . . the Thames. By the 1850s the odor of the Thames had become so foul it was know as the Great Stink. The eminent scientist Michael Faraday famously wrote a letter to the Times in 1855 lamenting the horrific smell and the general treatment of the river (provoking the Punch cartoon at left). In Little Dorrit Charles Dickens wrote that the Thames had become “a deadly sewer … in the place of a fine, fresh river.” The stench of sewage was so awful during a heat wave in the summer of 1858 that Parliament hung giant curtains soaked in lime chloride to try to fend off the smell. And then they finally acted, authorizing the Metropolitan Board of Works to borrow £3 million (about £400 million in 2020 money) to build a comprehensive intercepting sewer system that would, in essence, push the problem further downstream but rid the city of the most pressing problem.

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Hidden treasures

London is not just vast horizontally but vast across time. History has left it sumptuously jumbled. -Bill Bryson from The Road to Little Dribbling

Before and during our trip we have been reading Bill Bryson’s books about England aloud as a family. Notes from a Small Island and now The Road to Little Dribbling are side-splittingly funny accounts of life by an American who has lived and worked in England most of his adult life. Most of the books recount his travels to small towns and the remoter regions of the island, his two weeks in London summarized into just one chapter of The Road to Little Dribbling. Like all big cities, there are neighborhoods with their own unique flavor, Soho, Mayfair, Brixton, etc. London is a city of little neighborhoods seamlessly blending into each other. But because of its long history, there is a continuity of overall flavor that I’ve never experienced in any other big urban space. One of the things I enjoy most about walking around London is finding the hidden treasures, either from centuries past or from the modern inhabitants, that you stumble upon nestled in the otherwise fairly uniform chaos of a big city. Below are a few examples of early timber framed buildings that survived the Great Fire of 1666 and the even greater threat of developers in the three and half centuries since.

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The Nature of London

Welcome to . . . Miami?

As is always the case when traveling to a new place, I try to note the interplay of the human and ecological systems. Like any great metropolis, the urban metabolism of London is complex, in may ways a marvel of highly engineered pathways for food, water, energy, transportation, and waste, much of it below ground and out of sight.

The river is the reason London exists, of course, and the Thames remains the centerpiece of London’s landscape. So badly polluted by the 1850s (the cartoon on the left is from Punch in the wake of a famous letter the physicist Michael Faraday wrote to the The Times deploring the condition (and smell!) of the river), the Thames was a public health menace and bereft of almost all life but the microbes that flourished in the human waste that poured into it. But efforts to restore the river’s health since the mid-20th century have resulted in it being one of the cleanest urban rivers in Europe. Once so foul it was called “The Great Stink” and provoked Parliament into draping curtains doused in chloride of lime over its windows (belief in the miasma theory of disease then still prevailed), the Thames now draws millions of people to its banks and across its surface on boats.

Although we knew that the Thames is a tidal river, we had no idea how much the river here in London (some 40 miles upstream from the estuary) rises and falls each day (several meters, depending on location). The entire Thames Basin is expected to experience ever greater flooding in the decades to come, as both rising sea levels and high volume precipitation events push water levels higher–indeed, both the London met area and, especially, the UK more generally have suffered from terrible flooding the past two weeks–the descriptors “unprecendented” and “record levels” now so often used with precipitation events the world over have been used to describe the flooding.

We live very close to the River Wandle here in Colliers Wood, a body of water that would qualify as a large stream in the U.S. Nonetheless, the Wandle figured prominently in the industrial history of greater London. There’s a little museum devoted to that history we hope to visit at some point.

But while the Thames has been considerably cleaned up, the Wandle remains pretty nasty. Garbage abounds on its banks and I suspect the water is quite foul, though we have seen plenty of birds in and around it: herons, kingfishers, the Eurasian jays that are everywhere here, and . . . parakeets.

Yes, parakeets. During our first few days here we kept hearing the cry of a bird that sounded like a parakeet (which we had seen and heard in abundance in Central America). Finally, I saw one–a green rose-ringed parakeet (I have not been able to capture one on photo myself, so the image to the right is from wikimedia commons). Apparently they were introduced sometime in the 1960s and have flourished ever since (this fun little documentary from the BBC explores this history, including the various theories about how they were introduced). They and the magpies, crows, and ravens practically drown out other birdsong. But there’s something joyous and charming about these green flashes in the dark England winter.

Other animal life of note: several cats prowl our block, slinking along the sheds and fences of the back gardens. Dogs, like their owners, seem generally very polite. Even when they are off leash they don’t bother me when I’m running. And then there are the foxes. As Lyanda Lynn Haupt demonstrates in her fascinating book The Urban Bestiary, wildlife of all sorts flourishes in big cities. In the category of mammalian wildlife (at least bigger than rats, which abound and there are bait traps everywhere, hopefully checked regularly) the red fox seems most prevalent here. We almost always see one while walking along the Wandle. When I rode home from the Earlsfield train station at 10:30 after seeing a play the week before last, I saw FOUR, 3 along the Wandle path and one trotting down our street! On Tuesday night Kristen and I were awakened by a screaming sound that made us wonder if someone was being murdered on the street outside. So what does the fox say? Not this. But go to about 2 minute mark in this video and you can get a good idea of the otherworldly sound. Foxes are everywhere, once you start paying attention. Zadie Smith writes evocatively of the fox cries on Hampstead Heath in her novel NW. And, of course, there was the fox that visited Parliament a couple of weeks ago.

And of the plant life? Well, it is very green everywhere you go since the grass flourishes even in winter here. Trees are beginning to come back to life, with ornamental fruit trees already setting blossoms. I am always intrigued by the coppicing and pollarding that has so long been a practice of European arborists but seems to be practically non-existent in North America.

And then there are the palm trees (like the one in Wimbledon at the beginning of this post), found pretty much everywhere we’ve been in London, and even in SW Scotland. Evidently, they have really caught on in the past 20 years as ornamental plants. With the climate generally warming in the UK, perhaps they will become even more ubiquitous.

Finally, I love the Tiny Parks that appear in certain London underground stations in repurposed ticket windows. Should be enough to make any commuter smile.

Crossing Oceanus Britannicus

Isaiah gazes at the train shed over the Eurostar tracks at London St. Pancras

We had only 2 1/2 days back in London before another adventure away. Last Thursday we packed up again, and this time headed across the English Channel (Oceanus Brittanicus to Julius Caesar) to France via the Eurostar high speed train. If you’ve never traveled on a train at 200 MPH, it is hard to describe what that feels like. Anything closer to the track than 500 feet is a complete blur. And so smooth. Given the hundreds of thousands of Amtrak miles we’ve traveled over the years (and bless Amtrak for existing; it’s not their fault that the U.S. refuses to invest in rail transportation the way Europe, China, South Korea, Japan, India . . . well, so much of the world does) riding on a train like this seemed a reward from locomotive heaven. We arrived at Paris Gare du Nord at dusk with a light rain falling, stepping into the City of Light as it glistened as in a Gustave Caillebotte painting. We made our way on foot to the Air BnB our friend Andy, who would meet us the following day, had booked. We could write so much about the sensations of being in Paris. Suffice it to say, the distinctly French ordering of space (which in Paris, it should not be forgotten, was partly to open up clear firing lines to suppress insurrections), the cleanliness (save for the omnipresent cigarette smoking), and the exuberant outdoor character of life (even on rainy evenings, the cafe’s are full), and stood out as an immediate contrast to London.

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Old friends in new places

We had our first extended outing from London last weekend, when we took the train to Scotland to see Michael’s friend Daphne from their undergraduate days. Daphne and her family settled in a remote corner of southwest Scotland (called The Machars) some 15 years ago, closer as the crow flies to Belfast than Glasgow (isolated enough that it served as the setting for the creepy 1970s British cult classic film The Wicker Man). It was the boys’ first experience on a quasi-high speed train (a bit faster than the Acela, but nothing like the TGV), the Avanti West Coast service from London Euston to Carlisle. From Carlisle on a local train (two cars long!) to Dumfries (home to Robert Burns at the end of his life), and then by bus for almost two hours to Newton Stewart–and then another 25 minutes by car!

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Tides and pools

Friday, January 31st. The Thames Tidal Barrier.

Since the time of London’s founding by the Romans, flooding has been a key element in the environmental history of the city. There is an account of London flooding as early as 1099 in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, and in 1236 people were paddling boats through Westminster. In the 18th and 19th centuries London began building up the embankments that channel the river through the city (one underground station is even called Embankment), which mitigated flood risk but did not eliminate floods. Even as the city grew into its current size and stature in the 20th century, periodic flooding remained a fact of life for the first two-thirds of the 1900s. The worst flood of the century in London was in 1928, though the devastating 1953 North Sea storm flood that killed more than 1,000 people in the Netherlands also hit the areas around the Thames estuary hard. One outcome of the 1953 flood was a determination on the part of the British government that London needed to be protected from extreme tidal surges that, when combined with unusually high precipitation or snow melt upriver, could overwhelm the embankments in central London and flood large sections of the city.

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A Front Row Seat for Brexit

Yesterday after my class visited the Royal Observatory in Greenwich (including the museum inside this time, which is a fascinating exploration of the invention of modern time) and the Thames Tidal Barrier (more on this soon), we went to Westminster, hoping to see the march to and rally at the E.U. Commission London HQ by a contingent of pro-EU folks. There was no sign of them, alas, or of many Remainers at all, save for a guy in a Mini Cooper bedecked Scottish and EU flags who circled Parliament Square a few times with bagpipe music blaring, smiling as he absorbed a few “f*&$ off, you wanker!” comments/shouts.

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