By Elizabeth Zerger, junior, for Bethel College News Service
NORTH NEWTON, KAN. In his lengthy poem "The Waste Land," Anglo-American poet T.S. Eliot calls London the "unreal city." During January interterm, along with 19 other Bethel College students, I took off for three weeks to have my own Anglo-American experience. Through the Bethel College course entitled Literary London, led by English professor Brad Born, we explored Eliot’s unreal city first hand, and found it far from the eponymous wasteland he described. Based at the Columbia Hotel across from Hyde Park in London’s fashionable West End, we were given a pass to the Underground (London’s subway system, commonly called the "tube") and the freedom to experience the sights, smells, sounds and tastes of the great city.
The backbone of the course, running from Jan. 5 to 26, was a set of eight theater productions. They included performances at famous theaters like the Royal National and the Royal Haymarket, covering famous playwrights from Eugene O’Neil to Oscar Wilde to Tom Stoppard.
The first play we saw was O’Neil’s "Mourning Becomes Electra." Set in the post-Civil War South, the plot of the "defiantly long" play, as one critic remarked about its four-hour running time, was much more impressive than the British actors’ attempts at Southern accents. The last play we attended, appropriately titled "Play Without Words," successfully ran two hours without a single word of dialogue spoken.
Aside from nights filled with the theater, our days were often scheduled with tours of the city, its sights and surrounding area. While in London, we visited all the requisite sites, including the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, the British Museum and the Southbank reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.
We also stood at the crossing of Wren’s chef d’oeuvre, St. Paul’s Cathedral, feeling quite insignificant while gazing up into the enormous dome. Unfortunately, the monolithic church’s stunning façade was shrouded by scaffolding. We were left with only our imaginations and a cheesy, complimentary postcard from the gift shop to construct what the building would look like when it emerged, freshly cleaned, from its cover.
Group tours outside the city provided a nice contrast to the hectic pace of London. On a four-day tour, we visited Shakespeare’s house in Stratford-upon-Avon, Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey in Wales and Jane Austen’s city of Bath. On another day trip, we saw the mysterious post-and-lintel blocks of Stonehenge, the famed white cliffs of Dover and the magnificent cathedral at Canterbury immortalized by Chaucer in the 14th century.
When we students weren’t busy with scheduled events, we took to the tube and bus system to get around. London is full of unique opportunities, and we took full advantage of them.
A Sunday morning’s walk in Hyde Park ended at Speakers’ Corner. Once the sight of the gallows, the square has become a place where speechmakers of all backgrounds and skill levels stand on their soapboxes and spout their views in the grand tradition of those headed for the hangman’s noose. A short tube ride and perhaps one or two transfers later, we found ourselves at the entrance to Harrod’s, one of the world’s most famous department stores, or facing van Gogh’s "Sunflowers" hanging in the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square.
If we weren’t too exhausted to go out in the evenings, London provided no shortage of entertainment, from premier-league soccer matches to the Royal Ballet’s performance of "Gisele," a personal favorite and one of the highlights of my trip. As skillfully as Degas rendered his ballerinas on canvas, the real thing is so much better. The artistry and grace of the dancers’ movements was easily one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, paintings included.
Along with being a self-contained masterpiece, London acts as a launching pad for many other destinations. International travel is both inexpensive and easy in the United Kingdom. In keeping with the British love affair with the "mini-break," or short getaway, Bethel senior Rachel Walker, Osawatomie, and I rode the high-speed Eurostar train to Paris for the day. Shooting through the Chunnel at 176 mph, we found the beautiful boulevards and employment of my shaky French a mere two hours and 45 minutes away from central London.
Though our group spent the majority of our time sightseeing, London is much more than a city of pristine neoclassical façades and palaces lurking around every corner. It is a city with history, political and racial issues, poverty and rich cultural diversity. It is a city where for a few pounds one can take the Docklands train out to Greenwich, eat "bangers and mash" (sausage links atop mashed potatoes drowned in onion gravy) at the neighborhood pub or find a bargain at the Portobello Road market on Saturdays. And it is a city, however poverty-inducing at $1.85 to the pound, that is forever part of this and 19 other students’ histories.
Other Bethel College students participating in the Literary London course were seniors Kristeen Goering, Moundridge; Jana Petersheim, Morgantown, Pa.; and David Unruh, Wichita; juniors Lacey Graber, Freeman, S.D.; Jared Hawkley, Homewood, Ill.; Jesse Overright, Normal, Ill.; and Megan Weaver, Newton; sophomores Katrina Brodhagen, North Newton; Anna Bucklin, Mt. Lake, Minn.; Ben Gundy, Bluffton, Ohio; Robyn Penner, Hillsboro; Kara M. Schmidt, Newton; Joseph Schrag, Wichita; and Janelle Steiner, Albany, Ore.; and freshmen Heather Linscheid, Fresno, Calif.; Allison Pafume, Wichita; Allison Simon, Derby; and Mariah Thompson, Newton.