First off, I want to say hello – my name’s Conor, one of the Fulbright participants here at King’s College London this year, and I hope that through this blog the four of us can paint a picture of the program we are on here, how truly amazing this experience is, and what day-to-day life at the Summer Institute is like. And I got lucky enough to write my first post on perhaps my favorite day I’ve had here yet (and, indeed, one of the best days of my whole life), so I hope you can get from this a bit of what London and the Fulbright Institute here are all about!
The day began in unlikely fashion, for anyone besides me that it – a four forty wakeup, followed by a quick, scalding hot shower and a rush to throw on clothes and be out the door by five. The reason – an antiques market, Bermondsey, which was, the Internet told me, the place to go for authenticity, a place to get the local color and see another side of the city. And despite being the only one of the four of us to go, it felt very much like a window into the city’s less visible majority – not to mention a great opportunity to meet some local residents and look at the remnants of historical Britain.
From there, it was back to our hotel to meet up with the others and then to a greasy spoon, the Coral Bay Café, just next to Waterloo Station. The goal was a cheap English breakfast, which we found for four pounds, tea included. With white toast, baked beans, bacon, and sausage, it was on the tame side as English breakfasts go, but it was delicious – a great prelude for coming attractions. We then had the opportunity, in a special Fulbright class, to meet with a U.S. diplomat who worked in cultural affairs at the Embassy in London, where we were able to learn first-hand how the American government promotes the country’s image abroad, how cultural affairs works, and what challenges are posed for outreach in a European country. It was an amazing opportunity to have an intimate conversation with someone with a unique eye into the city of London, one that resonated deeply with my still-limited experience as an American abroad.
After an hour or so to relax, we met Anna, one of our mentors, to head to another market about fifteen minutes away from our flats. This time, however, it was not antiques for sale – in fact, it was almost the polar opposite. We were headed to the fabulous Borough Market in London’s Southwark district, a food market that claims to have been in existence, in ever-evolving form, since 1014. The place was, for me, a revelation – it was as if someone had designed a farmer’s market to my specifications alone.The smells, even at the entrance to the market (grilled Gruyere cheese sandwiches, cooking sausage, coconut quail eggs), were beguiling. And it was immediately obvious that people there cared about their product, that it was for them a labor of love motivated by a need to offer something genuine. Everywhere, people wanted to share their work. A free pistachio pastry, because I mentioned to the shopkeeper that everything he had looked delicious. A chat with the Italian cheese monger at the back of the market – she thought I was Italian, we got to talking, then learned we shared common Sicilian roots. She gave me a slice of drunken cheese – cheese cured in the grape husks left after making wine – that was mind-blowing.
From Borough Market we went to Southwark Cathedral, the oldest Gothic church in London and a place of continual worship for more than a thousand years. Organ music rebounded softly off of the carved pavestones and vaunted arches, and the walls were decorated by saints and patrons of the church. Borough Market and Southwark form a quintessentially London juxtaposition between the new and the old, which coexist everywhere in this city.
Then we had a brief walk to our hoped-for destination for the night – the Globe Theatre, to queue for standing room tickets for the seven-thirty performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And after an hour and a half wait, we got them. Five pounds a piece and we were in, into the inner yard, the paved stone floor and great circle formed by the theatre. The rest of the crowd streamed in, encircling the stage five feet in front of us, and I was struck by just how lucky we were to have the opportunity to be in London, to experience the city, and to see such a varied cross-section of it even within one day.
Of course, the performance was amazing; it quite literally took our breaths away. It is staggering testament to the power of the written word that a play written nearly five hundred years ago remains vibrant and relevant today, and that Shakespeare continues to inspire people to support the Globe Theatre or to study English around the world. And for me, it is even more unbelievable that I have the opportunity to be in London to experience this magic with three other amazing people in an amazing city, a city that moves from antiques to farmers’ markets to Shakespeare seamlessly, with more to offer. Until tomorrow, and another author, best,