Saturday, July 11, 2015

England: Stonehenge Part Two

Anyway, I thought that I was going to learn some new things about Stonehenge, but I didn’t. I tried and failed to switch the device back to English. In the end I ditched the audio guide and let it hang from my neck like a nineties-era mobile phone on a string. Super cute. 
My Polish audioguide and I were swept along in the herd by the demarcated path around the stone configuration and I tried not to feel stupid, but I just felt like a sheep. We were part of  the Stonehenge herd (which is a fitting analogy because all the surrounding area of Stonehenge is farmlands and smells like it). I felt a small kernel of comfort from my Polish audioguide. Even though we couldn’t communicate very well, we were both foreigners and our friendship made me different from all the losers with boring old English audioguides. I was like Paul-Hugh taking pleasure in sounds only I could understand—wanting to be different and better. But I was failing. 

I tried to tell myself that I should just embrace the experience—there’s no shame in being a tourist. But the farther I crept along the packed path the more I realised that my problem wasn’t in being an uncool tourist amongst all the other uncool tourists. I was thrilled as punch to be one of a large flock of tourists at Anne Hathaway’s house in Stratford Upon Avon. I was totally cool with trailing along in a herd when we visited Coventry Cathedral. Why was Stonehenge different? I think that the reason was that I didn’t have to try. The site was so carefully managed that I barely had to exert any brainpower in order to explore. Even if I had tried to explore the Stonehenge site I probably would have been aggressively discouraged. My only option was to stay on the path which gently curved at a good twenty foot distance from the actual rocks. That and attempt to interpret Polish. 

I finally found a patch of grass to sit on. I had The Henge and a constant stream of tourists before me. I could let my Polish audioguide rest beside me on the grass for a few moments and I sketched some of the tourists. That was where Sophia and Nate found me. We all sat in the grass commenting on tourists until we realised that we had one hour before our bus left. I suggested that we walk back instead of the the three minute bus ride. Nate opted out because he had an interest in the museum, but Sophia was game. 

We marched away from Stonehenge past the wimpy bus riding tourists, the parking lot and lone man selling strawberries and toward the large mounds in the distance. My feet felt lighter and glad to free to walk wherever they chose instead of along the narrow path. Sophie kindly allowed me to put my audioguide in her purse along with her own English one, which she had never even turned on. The only trouble with forging a new path back to the museum was the amount of cow poop. While we were free to walk wherever we please, there was still lots of places we didn’t want to step. 

We felt like our ramble through the pastures called for a “The hills are alive” moment like in the musical The Sound of Music when Julie Andrews sings and dances on the hills of Austria. Sophia pulled up some Indian electronica on her on her phone and played it over the mediocre speakers. It was the closest thing she had to epic, hill sweeping music. It got swallowed in the huge space of field and sky, but we pranced as Julie-like as we could manage while still dodging cow pies.
The beginning of The Roof Climber’s Guide to Cambridge begins with a quote by Horace which translates from Latin to mean, “That place and the hilltops summon you with me”. 
The quote is taken from an ode that Horace wrote to a friend trying to persuade him not to go to war, but instead to come away and reside on the hills. The idea of the hills summoning a person makes me think of, well, Julie Andrews singing to the hills, but also of The Hugh. For him it was buildings at night, rather than hills, which summoned him. The leader of the Cambridge Climbers, Geoffrey Winthrop Young, once gave a list of the reasons why he climbed buildings at night: “The sheer enjoyment of climbing roofs and spires, spiced by the extra thrill of unlawful adventure; the happy companionship of my fellow conspirators; the satisfaction from reaching the lofty goals that we had set; and the sublime beauty of the college buildings from the rooftops by midnight.” 

Although Sophie and I did not have the added thrill of trespassing, we felt those things too—the “sheer enjoyment” of galloping like large, giddy school girls , happy companionship of being together, the satisfaction of blazing a trail through the field and leaving our bus-bound colleagues to wander a museum without us and the sublime beauty of the fields and sky. 

Both Paul-Hugh and I both started out on our excursions to climb buildings and to wander the fields instead of a museum with the intent to stand out from the rest of the sheep. We craved to rise above the teeming crowd of suckers, like the man in the painting called Wanderer Above the Sea Cloud by Kaspar David Friedrich. In it a man in a suit with a walking stick stands upon a mountain top and looks down at the swirling clouds below. He is alone and master of the universe below. It is a painting well suited to many narratives, but especially those which deal with people trying to be exceptional. I know this because it was on the cover of both my copy of Frankenstein and our family’s copy of The Birth of the Modern

It works for me too as it symbolises my desire to get out of the crowd and stand on a rock, rather than twenty feet away from one on a tiny path with a hundred other toruists. By walking across the huge field instead of taking the bus Sophie and I did end up getting away from the other tourists, but the farther we trudged away form Stonehenge, the less I cared about rising above anyone. It was more about enjoying my friend’s company being on the hills and impersonating Julie Andrews.

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