I’m a shy person. I know there are tons of you out there who won’t believe me because I fake outgoing so well, or because I have a pretty congenial personality, but the truth is.. I’m tremendously shy, and not really brave to boot. If I’m travelling alone, this combination of shy and cowardly usually gets the better of me. I usually stick to the hotel rooms, nervous about venturing out, walking and eating alone. I worry about getting lost (turns out that fear is accurate and appropriate) and truth be told, things aren’t as much fun alone as they are with other people. I’m forever seeing things and wanting to share them, and when it’s just me, it’s like things lack resonance or permanence. It’s like they aren’t really happening. Yesterday, this feeling was cemented by the profound exhaustion, but I was determined to see London (and to stay up until at least 8pm) and I have so little time to do it that I had all sorts of plans not to let my instinct to stay safe and alone come between me and and adventure.
Yesterday after I posted, I set myself a mission. I would buy buttons, that would take me into London (and keep me moving so I didn’t fall asleep) and I would write about it so that it didn’t seem so lonely.
I bought a map, a notebook and a great pen, googled the button store closest to me, wrote the address on the top of the first page of the notebook in firm block letters and left the safety of the hotel. (I put £20 in my pocket before I went, just in case I had to bail out and take a cab back.) I walked along the street (keeping left. I can be taught) passing Greycoat Hospital school as I went, past Georgian row houses, very narrow and tall with wrought iron all over them, window boxes spilling bright petunias over old brick. (I bet it costs a million pounds to live in a row house at Greycoat Place. Maybe two.) I walked along Victoria street, past a pub that looked nice – but getting a pint ran counter to my goal. (Plus, drinking a pint alone in a pub is too far a stretch for someone just practising being Captain Adventure.) I passed Westminster Abbey with tourists swarming the place.
I wish now I’d gone in for evensong, there has been music in the Abbey every day for more than a thousand years.
At Parliament Square I stopped and admired Big Ben… or what I believe is Big Ben, if it’s not, don’t shatter the moment for me. It was grand.
I walked more, coming up on Trafalgar Square again, and now it was busy, not the empty place it had been at 8:00 that morning. There were people everywhere, climbing the lions, draped over fountains, all laughing, taking pictures – even the pigeons had turned up. I’d noted them conspicuously absent that morning – I think it’s part of why I didn’t recognize it right away. I passed through the square, stopping to take a picture for a German couple on their honeymoon, and I walked right up The Strand, looking for Bedford Street, and stopping every so often to peer in shop windows, people watch and breathe. I found Bedford and wandered up and down, looking for my button shop… and eventually it dawned on me.
The button shop at 43 Bedford is now an organic coffee shop. (It looks very good, fair trade and all that, but they didn’t have any buttons.) I heaved a sigh and did the only reasonable thing an Art History minor could do, were they in my place. I packed myself off the National Gallery and spend a glorious two hours knocking myself senseless with wonder. The things I saw. The things I stood near. In every room, something to tighten my chest with awe.
I saw Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières, seeing for myself how he painted, a few dots here and there foreshadowing pointilism…Renoirs – at least four of them. I adored Van Gogh’s Sunflowers…standing inches from the canvas and looking at the thick impasto treatment, texture and height I know I’d read about, but truly never understood. There are shades of yellow in that painting that I didn’t ever think, when I thought yellow. I am changed forever. I breathed molecules in the same room as Da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks, I saw chalk on paper works that make me understand that I’ve never really sketched anything.
Every room, something else to sit and wonder at. Every room, something I never thought would be as wonderful as it was. Dark Caravaggios, gauzy Turners that almost seem lit from within. Landscapes by Constable, Portraits by Van Eyck – although it turns out that the Arnolfini Portrait is much smaller than I thought. I wrote a whole essay on that, and I had no idea. It was wonderful. So wonderful that I actually asked a guard in the same room with Monet’s irises if they thought they had a wonderful job. (They did.) I left the place (after contributing to Yoko Ono’s new secret project #3) and walked through St. James Park on the way home… stopping to commune with some pigeons and ducks, to whom I spoke at some length about the heartbreak of my love for Albrecht Dürer.
It was wonderful, and a very great adventure, lack of buttons besides.
PS. I have to work all day, but should this uncharacteristic sense for adventure continue past 6pm, are there knitters to be found nearby?
PPS. I have now been to 4 places on the Monopoly Board. Strand, Trafalgar Square, Whitehall and Pall Mall. This pleases me in a ridiculous way that makes me feel about six years old.