24 August: Today we took our group tour of the Houses of Parliament. We entered through the ancient Westminster Hall, where among others Charles I was tried and ordered exicuted by the Oliver Cromwell and his supporters. Ironically when his son Charles II was restored to the thrown, royal supporters dug up Cromwell’s corpse, hanged it by the neck until…still dead I suppose, decapitated the body and placed the Cromwell’s thrice executed skull in the rafters, until it came crashing down some years later! The English have the most excellently and morbidly funny stories I’ve ever heard.
The tour itself moves from Westminster Hall and follows the Queen’s route when she comes to open Parliament. The opening takes place in the House of Lords, which is actually a rather small room, that is dominated on one end by an elaborately carved gilded throne and dais. Once the Queen takes her seat, the House of Commons is summoned from their chamber in an elaborate ceremony that underscores the historical tensions and power struggles between the Commons and the Aristocracy. The Queen gives her speech, which announces her government’s agenda and then everyone goes back to work.
Moving out of the House of Lords, we then went down to much plainer House of Commons, which is again very small. In fact it’s physically impossible for all the members of either of the Houses to sit in their chamber at the same time.
Interesting Fact:The monarch is forbidden from ever even setting foot inside the House of Commons.
Probably the most interesting thing on the tour is the chipped and battered archway leading into the House of Commons. During the Blitz that whole side of Westminster was bombed. One of the few parts that remained more or less intact was this arch. Churchill demanded that when the building was rebuilt that they retain the original arch as a memorial to all those who gave their lives defending Britain.
25 August: Today was my birthday and what a birthday it was. After class everyone got together and trekked over to China Town to celebrate. I was really touched that so many people came out, especially since it was a particularly cold and rainy day and the restaurant wasn’t exactly close.
The one downside to this trip is that you’re away from your normal support base. The upside of that is that you build a new support base among the other student’s on the trip, that will laugh and celebrate with you during the good times and be there for you through the hard times.
29 August: Today I went to the Nottinghill Carnevale. It’s basically a caribbean Mardi Gras on the west end of London. There are floats, dancers, calypso and reggae musicians, food vendors with all types of food from Trinidad to Miami and of course LOTS of Red Stripe! With all the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes it really reminded me of home.
The other reminder of home is the boarded up windows. They’ve had problems with rioting once it gets dark in the past so the shop and home owners in the area border up their windows to prevent looting. As a consequence, it looks a lot like Florida during hurricane season.
Tip VIII: Go to the Carnevale. It’s great fun and the city spends a lot of money to make sure it’s safe. However, it does get rowdy. Sunday is calmer than Monday and the later it gets, the crazier it gets. Have fun, but stay safe.