12 June 2010

USA! USA! US- wait, what?

England plays the USA in World Cup soccer tonight. The World Cup is a big freaking deal over here - this is Europe, after all, at least sort of - but England hasn't won since 1966 and really isn't expected to win this year either. Slate has an article up arguing that for England fans, true World Cup suspense comes not from wondering if England will win, but from wondering in what depressing fashion England will exit this year.

Which got me thinking: Where is the suspense for average Americans in the World Cup?

- Believing that this, finally, is the year they will learn the rules
- Believing that this, finally, is the year they will learn the name of an American player who's not Landon Donovan. Or actually learning who Landon Donovan is.
- Hoping Brandi Chastain will take her shirt off again, only to realize this is the bad kind of World Cup - the kind with men, which we don't win.
- Discovering if World Cup football is real football or Communist plot kind
- Wondering why this is all going on when honestly, didn't we just have an Olympics?
- Trying to figure out what channel the game is on.
- Trying to understand the commentary before realizing that the game is in fact on ESPNDeportes, and it's not in English
- Getting pissed off when it becomes clear that a tie is an acceptable outcome in the world's highest-stakes tournament
- Waiting for that hipster in the bar to bust out with exasperated superiority about how soccer is superior because it's a game of skill, or how the US needs to like soccer for the sake of global citizenship, and refusing to refer to it as soccer even though that just confuses the bejeesus out of everybody. And then punching that guy in the face.

For Americans actually intending to take a stab at watching the World Cup, I suggest this excellent blog post comparing international teams to prominent US sports franchises. Sample helpful commentary: England has "won it all exactly one time, and that was way back in the '60s. Since then, they haven’t even finished second. Yet they talk and talk and deify the main man behind that '60s win." Clearly, England is the New York Jets.

London Museums, Part II: Greenwich

Greenwich has a special place in my heart because of the time during 12th grade astronomy when my friend Najja noticed our textbook had accidentally spelled it "Greewinch," which then became our running joke for the rest of the year. But whatever way you spell it, Greenwich is a treat.

The National Maritime Museum has the actual uniform Nelson was wearing when shot on the quarterdeck during the Battle of Trafalgar. The bloodstains still on the uniform are dramatic, but what I found most touching were the non-regulation stockings, which sailors often wore in place of uniform goods because they were warmer. I like the idea of Britains' greatest naval hero dealing with such a plebeian concern as cold toes.

We also offer a hearty salute to the Discover Greenwich Museum, where Justin accidentally left the camera among a set of foam blocks but fortunately recovered it in time for the rest of the tour. The museum has interesting and accessible information about the town as well as the pre-naval history of the site (including Anne Boleyn's palace).

Greenwich Naval Hospital wasn't really a hospital in the modern sense - that is, a place for treating patients. It was more of a nursing home for sailors too old or injured to serve at sea anymore. It housed sailors between 1694 and the 1860s, when it was closed down, and was funded both by charitable donations and mandatory deductions from the paychecks of active sailors.

Wearing replica pensioner's garb:

Relaxing in a replica Hospital room:

(For those of you who don't think Justin is in enough pictures, that's his shadow on the bunk. That's kind of like a picture of Justin. Maybe?)

But Greenwich, England, did not earn its UNESCO World Heritage status as "Maritime Greenwich" for its museums, even though they're quite nice and spectacularly free of charge. It received it because, among other reasons,
Criterion (ii): Maritime Greenwich bears witness to European architecture at an important stage of its evolution, exemplified by the work of great architects such as Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren who, inspired by developments on the continent of Europe, each shaped the architectural development of subsequent generations...
Criterion (vi): Greenwich is associated with outstanding architectural and artistic achievements as well as with scientific endeavour of the highest quality through the development of navigation and astronomy at the Royal Observatory, leading to the establishment of the Greenwich Meridian and Greenwich Mean Time as world standards.
Let's tackle Criterion (ii) first.

Christopher Wren, perhaps best known as the architect of St. Paul's Cathedral, planned the Old Royal Naval College with a dedication to symmetry and under the strict mandate not to interfere with the view of the Queen's House (by Inigo Jones) to the river. In fact, the foam blocks where Justin mistakenly left the camera were there so you could experiment with the way you would have responded, architecturally, to Wren's challenge. I'm fairly sure, however, that Wren had no foam blocks and had to do it the hard way.

Wren ultimately devised this remarkable panorama, seen more clearly in the Wikipedia article here:

The Queen's House is so tiny that Justin and my combined big domes (did you know there wasn't a ski helmet in all of Japan that fit Justin's head?) completely erase it from the picture. Here it is when I relocate to the right:

I always thought my college dining halls were fairly attractive. Compare them to the Painted Hall, they're downright dull.

Those clever things in the middle are mirror tables. Having schlepped all over the world getting neck cramps trying to look at all those ceilings people spent squillions of dollars on, I heartily say, forget the architecture. These tables constitute Greenwich's greatest service to mankind. Here's the ceiling, as photographed in the table.

The man who painted them, James Thornhill, was paid by the yard and eventually knighted for his work. Who wants to volunteer to tell Michelangelo?

The Chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul is a lovely English Baroque space for both worship and music. We were lucky enough to visit during a rehearsal by some students from the Trinity College of Music, also located in Greenwich. The acoustics were lovely, as was the chance to sit down for five minutes. Traveling ain't always as glamorous as it looks.

And now on to Criterion (iv), the one about the Royal Naval Observatory. Before coming here, I knew Greenwich more as the home of Greenwich Mean Time than the home of anything else. (It also is the home of Meantime Beer, which is outstanding).

Dava Sobel's (fun and readable) book Longitude outlines Britain's search for a practical way to determine, quite literally, where on earth you were. For a pretty long time, it's been easy to calculate your distance north or south by using the stars. Unfortunately, calculating your distance east and west was not so easy. A mistake might mean that rather than being safely at sea, you were in fact six inches from crashing into Tierra del Fuego.

The solution, devised by clockmaker John Harrison in the mid-1700s, was a clock that worked at sea. If you had three pieces of information - time at your home port (as shown by the clock), the longitude of your home port (previously calculated), and the time where you were (set by noon, the sun's peak in the sky), you could then calculate your longitude mathematically. This represented a colossal breakthrough in navigation, and also in the art of crafting timepieces, since Harrison couldn't use wood (warped by humidity) or weights (rolling at sea) in his oceangoing clocks. The series of clocks he made are on display at the observatory.

The Greenwich Time Ball on top of the observatory here is raised and dropped at 1 PM every day, a holdover from Ye Olden Times as a way to signal the time to ships in the harbor (harbour!), therefore allowing them to set their clocks for navigation. Edinburgh has its own equivalent - a ball on Calton Hill and Edinburgh Castle's One o'Clock Gun, presumably because Edinburgh weather does not always allow you to see the hilltop.

I was so excited at this prospect that I dragged Justin out of the museum in the rain to take a picture.

He was not impressed, hence the lack of climactic "after shot" of the dropped ball. Alas.

The Greenwich Meridian, also known as the Prime Meridian, is the officially designated line for 0 degrees longitude, which means it divides the Western and Eastern Hemispheres. It's like the Equator but going up and down instead of around the middle. Unlike the Equator, it's completely arbitrary. The Equator is astronomically and geologically defined: it marks the location on the earth's surface when the sun is directly overhead at noon on the solstices. It also marks the spot at which every day, regardless of the season, has the same amount of daylight (on Earth, roughly 12 hours. I, by contrast, live in Scotland, where last winter's December solstice featured a soul-destroying six hours and fifty-seven minutes of daylight and the upcoming June solstice will probably be around seventeen hours and thirty-five minutes long. As I write this post, it's 10:21 PM and light enough to read a book outside. It's a weird place, Scotland.)

Anyway, unlike the equator, which has to be where it is, the Prime Meridian could be located anywhere. Beijing. Hoboken. Your house. There was, in fact, a time when other Prime Meridians were in use, most particularly the Paris Meridian by the rival French. But in 1884, when it was put to a vote, Greenwich won by a vote of 22-1. (France abstained). This is primarily due to the fact that just as Britain's navy dominated the seas, Britain's mapmakers dominated cartography, and most people had just become used to calculating their longitude from a British map using a Greenwich meridian. America's choice of Greenwich as the starting point for its domestic time zones, and therefore also for its maps, probably didn't hurt, either. Oh, France - have we always been a thorn in your side? I hope the answer is yes.

So here you have them, folks, a large part of the reason I went to Greenwich and definitely all of the reason I schlepped up the huge hill to the observatory: Photos at the Prime Meridian!

Justin doesn't know which way to go:

Our marriage looks good from the outside, but really, we're not even in the same hemisphere these days:

My brother-in-law Ryan always mocks my family for being slow, but I bet he's never run across two hemispheres in two seconds!

(Ryan is probably saying, "How did that take you two whole seconds?" I blame our camera's busted autofocus, which means it takes us way too long to take pictures.)

So that's Greewinch. Hope you enjoyed!

11 June 2010

Back in Edinburgh! And, the shortest 3-hour layover ever . . .

After an arduous journey that involved two planes, a train, and a four-hour wait in King's Cross Station, Nana and I got back to Edinburgh safe and sound late last night. This, incidentally, is why posts have been thin on the ground lately--besides being busy during our trip home, we were under instructions from our landlord not to post anything publicly that would make it obvious we weren't home. But now we've got some great London stuff to catch up with!

In other news, our trip back to Edinburgh included the shortest 3-hour layover ever, as every freakin' television screen in Toronto's Pearson Airport was tuned to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. Alas, we had to board at the end of the 3rd period, so we missed the wacky OT finish . . . but hey, I had assumed I would miss the whole game!