From Londonhua WIKI

Benjamin Secino

Benjamin Secino
Benjamin Secino
Benjamin Secino (center) with Troels Bager (left) and Ina Jeliazkova (right) at the 2017 World Ballroom Dancing Congress
Photo Credit: Benjamin Secino


This project explored London through the literary and physical arts. England and London are known the world over as major contributors to both ballroom dance and literature. In order to better understand these contributions, this project will consist of in-depth, experience-based research into George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Standard and Latin styles of Ballroom dance. Prior to embarking on this project, Benjamin Secino spent one year taking lessons in the English "International" styles of ballroom dance, as well as the "American" styles. He has also taken extensive Humanities and Arts courses in English Literature.

Milestone 1

English Ballroom Dance
Objective: This milestone explored the history and present-day reality of English Ballroom Dance styles and techniques, focusing on the Waltz.

This milestone showed that social dancing in England, and especially Ballroom dance, has been a constantly changing cultural force for many hundreds of years. In the early 1800s, the Waltz first rose to prominence, bucking social norms and the age-old traditional dances. Waltz remained popular for many years, only surpassed in the 1910s by Foxtrot. Since this time, Waltz has remained a major part of the Ballroom repertoire, featuring regularly in Ballroom competitions and social events. A major trend in Ballroom dancing since the 1960s has been toward the competitive arena, transforming Ballroom dancing into DanceSport. Competitions remain a major part of Ballroom dancing to this day.

In order to gather more first-hand experience of the modern state of Ballroom dancing in England, I attended group and private Ballroom dance lessons. My experience confirmed the trend for Ballroom dancing to move more and more toward competitions. Most of the lessons were geared toward competitions, and the lessons that leaned more toward social dancing were attended largely by an older group of students. My private lessons focused on competition-style International Waltz.

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Milestone 2

The Influences of George Orwell's 1984
Objective: This milestone details the historical themes and life events that inspired George Orwell to write his landmark novel 1984. The themes of this novel are then used as inspiration for the composure of an original piece of creative writing.

This milestone found that many of the major events in George Orwell's life ended up influencing his writing and political beliefs in major ways, as shown in his landmark novel, 1984. Orwell derived his hatred of hierarchical class systems from his experiences as a child at school and as a young adult in the Burmese police force. His distrust for political and useless wars can be seen as a direct consequence of his time fighting in the Spanish Civil War, and his revulsion to propaganda and governmental efforts to control thought were almost certainly heightened by his experience as a radio propagandist for the BBC during the Second World War. All of these themes show prominently in 1984.

In a further effort to understand the meaning of these themes, a piece of creative writing was composed that explores the workings of a class-based society with tight governmental control over the media and its engagement in a politically-induced war.

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Milestone 3

The Modern Impacts of George Orwell's 1984
Objective: This milestone builds off of milestone two, laying out the impressions that George Orwell and 1984 have made on modern writers, artists, and popular culture.

Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four has entered into been accepted into modern culture in two major ways. In political discourse, Orwell is constantly being claimed as a ally by both the political Right and Left. All politicians, it seems, wish to have Orwell's support behind their actions, and his disapproval directed squarely at their opponents. However, when all sides of a debate cite the same source as justification for their position, it is not possible that they can all be portraying the source in a fair and balanced light. In this way, "Orwell" has become a political symbol meaning nothing more than "an undesirable thing of which my opponent is guilty and against which I protect."

In a similar way, Orwell's Newspeak has taken on a political edge from which it was originally free. "Newspeak" initially described a language invented to serve the purposes of Big Brother and the Party, characterized by words with severely limited meaning and a greatly reduced vocabulary, all meant to limit thought and eliminate the concepts of rebellion and freedom. Now, the term "Newspeak" is most often used to refer to political rhetoric that is disagreeable to the speaker, and almost never used to properly describe the kind of political speech for which it was intended.

Both of these instances of Orwell in modern times show one underlying trend: The most common and enduring impact of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four has been to produce a powerful weapon to politicians and pundits on both sides of the political spectrum. I think it's fair to say that Orwell would have been horrified, if not entirely surprised, by this cynical result of his masterpiece.

This milestone represents a Humanities and Arts Capstone Project.

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Activity Journal

The activity journal represents an ongoing log of reflections gained through each and every project activity on the calendar.


Today's activities: Westminster Abbey, Tower of London, The British Library.

Today, we started the morning with a guided tour of Westminster Abbey. The most striking feature of this cathedral for me was the sheer volume of history stored here. Unfortunately, personal photography was restricted to the Cloisters and the Chapter House, so I'm unable to illustrate here the density of the memorials on view. However, if you imagine how a cathedral would look if memorials and tombs had been continuously added to its walls and corridors for over 900 years, you may arrive at a reasonable mental image. The vast number of memorials impressed me more than any of the other striking features of the cathedral, including the towering vaults, the intricate ornamentation, or the exquisite glasswork. As an American, I come from a country that is relatively young, and has not yet developed a labyrinthine history stretching back millennia. Seeing such a history on display was a mind-opening experience.

From Westminster Abbey, I headed with a smaller group to the Tower of London, which I explored with a handful of other students. Because this tour was self-guided, I had the opportunity to pause frequently, enjoying the smaller details and less obvious spaces. In particular, I appreciated spending some time around the less prestigious Crown Jewels. Photography was not allowed in this area, but the collection of Crown Jewels ranged from the Coronation Crowns of historic monarchs to golden spoons for banquets. It was the smaller items, the spoons and the plates, that made me appreciate the wealth and power of the historic British monarchy. A few jewel-encrusted crowns, while unimaginably finely crated and valuable, are no harder to procure than a banquet hall-full of golden plates, bowls, chalices, and cutlery. The purpose of these pieces was to show in the most visible way possible the strength of the British Crown. Judging only by the impression they've made on me, the artists behind their construction hit their mark precisely.

As a final stop, I went with a few other students to The British Library. Here, I learned that library in Europe operate differently than those in the United States. There are not books available for public browsing, any requested books need to be for a specific research purpose, and there are far fewer public seating areas than in any libraries found in America. On my walk through the library, the only books I saw were part of The King's Library. As the name might suggest, The King's Library is not public-access. Even though I couldn't read them, they made the most beautiful book display I've ever seen!


Today's Activity: St. Paul's Cathedral

While visiting St. Paul's Cathedral, I was struck primarily by how breathtakingly big it was. Not just in terms of physical size, but also in terms of the emotional impact the Cathedral makes on anyone entering it for the first time. In this way, St. Paul's is symbolic of my time in London so far. London is large, historic, and breathtaking. Previously, whenever I attended monuments or so-called "historic" locations in the U.S., I was never awed in the same way that I have been here. In the U.S., all the history is "new," and lacks the magical allure of thousand-year-old spaces.

I feel as though a large part of English culture must be fueled by a societal awareness of history. After all, native Londoners need only to walk a few blocks to pass by monumental records of their city's past. This temporal awareness must play into how the English view themselves, their place in history, and the present state of the world. In America, it sometimes feels as though the world is, was, and will always be the same. This leads to a dangerous mindset that ignores current changes and avoids preservation (after all, if things will always stay the same no matter what, why would we bother with sustainability?). Because one of my milestones deals with how living in London affected the work of English authors, a better understanding of St. Paul's Cathedral and the symbolism around it gives me valuable insight into how the English might perceive the world.


Today's Activity: Natural History Museum

I have always adored science museums. Call me a nerd, but I find the endless variations and twists on science and discovery to be fascinating. I love walking through an exhibit, seeing all the minute detail and deep knowledge, and realizing that this same level of exacting study exists also in the next exhibit, the one after that, and all that follow. This reassuring sense of depth and completion is especially vibrant in a museum dedicated to natural history. Nowhere else on Earth will there ever be so many finely noted details as in a museum focused on studying the Earth itself. It seems fitting that one of the leading natural history museums in the world would be located in London. As I've noted previously, London seems to nearly drip in its own history and culture. A museum dedicated to the study and appreciation of the natural world is completely at home here. As I was walking through the Museum's exhibits, I was fascinated by the sense of a complete story I was developing. Each exhibit was separate and isolated, removed from the other exhibits just as its specimens were separated from their native homes. But when the entire museum is viewed in a single morning, it gives a sense of elaborate storytelling, in which the main character, visible in every scene, is the beauty and diversity of Earth. Any writer would be proud to write a story even a one hundredth as complex as the one on display here. As one of my milestones focuses on how the settings of London influenced Shakespeare's writing and another looks at the process of writing in historic London spaces, seeing firsthand how rich and complex the real world is gives me insight into how great writers might try to build their own worlds into spaces just as fascinating.


Today's Activity: The National Gallery

Back home in Massachusetts, I enjoyed going with my family to the Museum of Fine Arts to see special exhibits. We'd go the the Turner exhibit, the Hokusai exhibit, anything fascinating that came through. My favorites were always Impressionists like Turner and landscape painters like Constable. The special exhibits were always breathtaking, and I always jumped at the chance to go back to the MFA. But when visiting The National Gallery, I realized that all the special exhibits I had attended lacked something vital: Context. The National Gallery is home to many of the masterpieces I'd been admiring in Boston, and displays them together with other works. Viewing a Monet followed by a Seurat, or a Turner followed by a Stubbs, makes me better realize what makes each artist unique, what makes each style shine. The three dimensionality of Monet and the radiance of Turner contrast sharply with the extreme realism of Stubbs and the misty, highlighted edges of Seurat. These distinctions aren't something I would notice if I were viewing an exhibit of a single artist, and seeing them so clearly on display helped me to better appreciate the talents of the great Masters.


Today's Activity: The British Museum

While walking through the British Museum, I overheard someone mention that one reason the Museum was so fascinating and rich was because England, once a great world power, had spent years gathering the most amazing items from around the globe and bringing them back to London. I mention this comment because it strikes me as humorously ironic that a society known for poise and reserve would, at the heart of one of its greatest artistic collections, be critiqued for baldfaced thievery. From previous research and a general awareness of current events, I know that in many foreign countries the British Museum is thought of as a thief hoarding stolen artifacts. The irony here is that by collecting the world's wonders to admire and study the achievements of great and diverse societies, the British Museum created enemies out of the descendants of the very artists it so appreciates.

Personally, I support the Museum's quest to collect as much beauty as it can. I believe that when treasures are spread out across the globe, it is effectively impossible for any one person to see and appreciate all of them. And without the context of their combined presence, their individual values are greatly decreased. Granted, I'm not in the position of coming from a society whose most prized gems are sitting in a glass case on a distant island. But I like to believe that, even if I were, my opion would be unchanged.

I feel confident in this belief because of how deeply I appreciate the context that arises from having an entire planet's worth of treasures packed into a single building. Exhibit leads to exhibit, steadily building an appreciation for global human accomplishment. And by showcasing all cultures together, no single culture is put on a pedestal. To completely change the context of an apocryphal quote attributed to Louis Pasteur, "C'est le terrain qui est tout."


Today's Activity: Museum of London

As its name would suggest, the Museum of London tells the long, twisting, and fascinating evolutionary history of London. The Museum's exhibition halls are shaped in a spiral, wrapping around the exterior of the building and smoothly leading visitors from one time period to the next. The exhibitions start in the Stone Age, and work their way all the way to the 2012 London Olympic Games.

I have lived my entire life in Shrewsbury, MA. Shrewsbury was incorporated in 1727, and since then, approximately zero events of interest have occurred. (This isn't just my opinion. Check us out on Wikipedia.) Don't get me wrong; I love my town. I love how peaceful and quiet it is. But creating even a single, small museum exhibit about Shrewsbury would be a challenge. For me, visiting a city with as extensive, complex, and downright-amazing a history as London's is eye-opening. The Museum of London just skims over the millennia, racing through topics that could easily become entire museums of their own. While at the Museum, I saw several school groups, with young children fascinated by the bronze age arrowheads, the illustrations of the Black Death, or the absurdly wide dresses of the Victorian era (Don't think "absurdly wide" is the right adjective? Check this out: File:Victorian Dress.jpg.). I'm interested to know how being exposed to this kind of history affects the mindsets of these children as they grow into adults. I suspect that it makes them take a longer -term view of themselves and the world around them. I suspect that it makes them think more deeply about themselves and their own place in history.

This is something that fascinates me; The way in which London seems to, almost as if by osmosis, diffuse a certain mindset amongst its inhabitants. I'll be studying the influence of London and the mindsets of its inhabitants through my milestone work on authors from London, so it's useful for me to visit a place that so neatly ties together the entire history of London.


Today's Activity: The Tate Britain

The Tate Britain is a study in contrasts. On first arriving at the museum, I was greeted by an enchanting "auto-creative" sculpture, consisting of thick white foam rolling down the exterior of a bubble machine. Up one flight of stairs, I was enjoying an extensive white tube lighting display hanging from the ceiling. From here, I spent some time with an artistic film, titled "Blue," which featured an unchanging blue screen accompanied by a soundtrack of spoken word and music, describing the director's slow decline and death from an AIDS-related illness.

Then I wandered into one of the finest collections of Turners I have ever seen in my life. Bam. I walked through a doorway and there it was. I could still hear the soulful laments from "Blue." It took my mind a moment to adjust from the premodern, modern, postmodern, hypermodern, hypomodern, and good artwork behind me to the exquisitely finely crafted masterpieces of light and color ahead of me. The adjustment and shock of stepping so abruptly from the one to the other was disturbing, even slightly painful.

It was perfect.

I'm not sure if the museum intended to startle their visitors in this way, but if they did, good on them. In no other museum have I ever traveled so quickly between two styles as different as modern and Romantic Impressionistic landscapes. These styles have always been separated by long hallways, closed doors, or some other strong border. By allowing one to bleed into the other, the Tate Britain is giving visitors a chance to fully appreciate what each style adds to art and what it fails in. For instance, with all their beauty and mastery, Turner's paintings almost exclusively deliver a sense of awe. They do this powerfully, but it's a fairly limited range. More modern art, on the other hand, frequently fails to elicit a sense of wonder in viewers, but may absolutely succeed in making them experience fear, discomfort, absurdity, or anger. It's wrong to say that either style is "better" than the other. They're simply different, showing visitors different sides of the human experience. These sides don't always fit together in a complimentary or elegant way, but it's crucial for museum-goers to experience all of it as one comprehensive and contrasting whole. The Tate Britain does an excellent job at bringing just this experience.


Today's Activity: Victoria and Albert Museum

Hooboy. Impressive enough for you?

I spent over an hour in just one single room of the Victoria and Albert Museum. It wasn't even one of the bigger rooms. As far as the exhibits in the V&A go, this one was actually tiny. But, man. The things I seen. Unfortunately, while photography is actively encouraged in many other parts of the museum, it is not allowed inside the Jewelry exhibit.This is too bad because I can think of no objects more worthy of being photographed than the elegant sapphire rings and gaudy diamond-encrusted headdresses on display here.

Besides the sheer scale and beauty of the jewelry on display, I was fascinated by the evolution of jewelry over time that is so clear in the exhibited works. The collection spans over 3,000 years of European history, so I was able to clearly see the changing fashions, abilities, and fortunes of England and the Continent. Prehistoric jewelry started off as blocky and abrupt, making strong statement through volume and placement. Larger stones and thicker metal bands were emphasized, partially because of the difficulty of crafting smaller objects, and partially because of tastes and fashion. These tastes would change, and by the 17th and 18th centuries jewelry was becoming so intricate that it could sometimes look like pure diamond, with the wiring between stones almost invisible. The most modern jewelry on display, from the 20th and 21st centuries, seems to showcase intricate formations and exacting craftsmanship over quantity of stones, with the finest examples flaunting the nearly-unlimited abilities of their makers.

To me, one of the most fascinating aspects of jewelry collections is the way in which "beauty" changes over time and across cultures. Beauty can feel so definite sometimes, and it's healthy to be reminded that while a diamond might be forever, the culture appraising it is not. This will be an important concept for me to keep in mind when looking at historical English authors, whose ideals and worldviews may be very different from my own. In fact, these differences may prove to be the most interesting features of the entire project. Because who doesn't enjoy having their preconceptions challenged by some of the finest artists in history?


Today's Activity: Tate Modern

I am cautious to say that I am a fan of modern art, but I will say that I enjoy modern art much more than a lot of people I know. My flatmates, for instance. Other members of my group. My father. All of these people seem to have the following definition of "good modern art:" An object or collection of objects that are not modern art. I, on the other hand, find another definition to be more useful: An object or collection of objects that, when first experienced, may or may not appear to hold any meaning or elicit any emotional response, but when described in the context of the artist's intentions immediately take on a number of complex and fascinating attributes. "Good" modern art may be beautiful. Or it may be complex. Or it may be both. I don't always like modern art, but "good" modern art is something I enjoy, much as I enjoy a healthy dose of wasabi with my sushi; I wouldn't necessarily describe wasabi as beautiful, but I love the complex way it travels up my nose.

The Tate Modern provides visitors with a lot of "good" modern art, one of the largest collections of "good" modern art I have ever seen. As an example, take Monument for the Living by Marwan Rechmaoui. Initially, this sculpture simply looks like a tall and ugly rectangular prism of cut concrete. It is, in fact, a scale model of a tower in Beirut that was partially constructed when the civil war broke out in 1974. The tower was only ever used as a sniper outpost, and today cannot be knocked down for a number of logistical reasons. The tower is regarded as a monument to a conflict that has never been fully resolved. To me, Monument for the Living is a wonderful way to make people think more deeply about the long-term consequences of war and about the ability of something as simple and crude as concrete to hold and convey so much meaning.

Unfortunately, many of the other pieces felt over-complex, under-developed, over-thought, or under-explained. Many artists have yet to learn that sometimes a potato sack is just a potato sack. Simply saying that it has meaning does not necessarily make it so. I think that this is a useful lesson for me to keep in mind when I'm working on my creative writing deliverable; Just declaring that a piece relates to a great English author does not make the connection exist. Useful meaning always takes more work, but is always worth the effort.


Today's Activity: Imperial War Museum

For me, one of the most interesting facets of the Imperial War Museum is the front entrance. The museum is located in the center of Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park, a grassy and wooded space with benches, shade, and a few well-kept gardens. Passing through the gardens toward the front of the museum, I saw two enormous, powerful cannons guarding the front entrance. Once inside, my gaze was immediately drawn upward by the sight of an entire fighter plane suspended from the ceiling of the museum's main room. So far, the museum gives an impression of military might, honor through combat, and a legacy of military technology.

This story changes rapidly. Below the fighter plane is the destroyed shell of a car, looking like nothing more than a rectangular heap of rusted iron. The walls of the central room are lined with more artifacts of war. A deflated dinghy from a kamikaze aircraft. A human torpedo. A leather mask from a Japanese fighter pilot. Items with no glamour, no alour, and no beauty. This is the tone that the museum takes for the rest of its exhibits, underscoring the horror of widespread conflict through objects, pictures, and videos. But because the museum is laid out such that all the exhibits have balcony views of the central room and the suspended aircraft, there's an ongoing sense of contrast between the romantic view of warfare and dirty reality of conflict. This design efficiently heightened the sense of horror I felt while walking through the museum by reminding me that war is all-too-often portrayed as a heroic effort instead of as a filthy slog. The designers of IWM London should be proud of their accomplishment.


Today's Activity: Horniman Museum

I deeply appreciated the opportunity to go to the Horniman Museum today. London is far more beautiful than any American city I have ever visited, partly because of its stunning architecture and palpable history, but also because of the large number of parks and gardens sprinkled throughout the city blocks. Even with these green oases, though, I've been missing real foliage. The Horniman Gardens offer a wonderful break from the city air, reminding me of a miniature version of Tower Hill Gardens (for those familiar with the Worcester area). The Gardens have been free and open to the public since 1901, spanning more than sixteen acres. At the heart of the Gardens is, of course, the Museum itself, featuring an expansive natural history collection. This pairing is perfect; What better way to appreciate nature than to have a study of its fauna surrounded by a demonstration of its flora? I'm not going to exaggerate here and say that the Horniman Museum helped my milestones. But I will say that it definitely helped my state of mind (a piece of cake from the cafe didn't hurt, either). I had a wonderful time today!


Today's Activity: Hampton Court Palace

Visiting Hampton Court Palace brought home for me an unexpected lesson: That while the British monarchy was impressively wealthy in the 17th and 18th centuries, the British nation was quite poor.

Whether examining the intricate craftsmanship around every corner of the palace apartments or admiring the sprawling building and grounds, it is impossible to remain unimpressed by Hampton Court. This palace, after all, was built for that one purpose: To awe. However, when listening to the audio tour, I got the impression that all of this extravagance was beyond England's budget. The audio tour discussed how William III had been required to split his budget between palace renovations and the war with France. In today's England, while the construction of anything as lavishly decadent as Hampton Court Palace would never be approved, its construction would not significantly dent the nation's budget, and would certainly be dwarfed by modern defense spending. Today, the notion that the construction of a building could threaten the military budget of an major nation is ludicrous. For this to be the case, a huge percentage of tax revenue must be going towards construction. For this, in turn, to be possible, tax revenue must be small, which indicates that the nation has a low GDP. This, in turn, would prevent the nation from being considered "major." I suppose that this is what strikes me most; that amidst all the decorations and the grandure, Hampton Court's England was weak and poor by many of today's standards. Poverty is a strange lesson to take away from a palace tour, and that's exactly why I mention it. The British monarchy was wealthy, but only in an extraordinarily limited sense.


Today's Activity: Museum of London Docklands

The Museum of London Docklands celebrates the aspect of London that is a global financial center. This is a different view than given at any of the other sites visited so far, which have all focused on London as an artistic and historical Mecca. I've enjoyed going to cultural attractions, but after viewing so many expansive art collections and historic buildings, I'd started to seriously wonder how all of this cultural splendor came to be. Who paid for it? How could they afford it? How are so many world-class museums still able to open their doors for free? After visiting the Museum of London Docklands, I think I have a better idea of how all this is possible.

When I visited the Museum of London, I had been interested (if not surprised) to hear that the city of London had first risen to power as a merchant port. But this aspect of the city was never emphasised enough. Visiting the Museum of London Docklands, I was very impressed to hear how the stream of cargo ships into and out of the docks was continuous. That's a lot of ships! All told, I suppose that the MLD made me appreciate how important it is for major cities, such as London, New York, Hong Kong, San Francisco, and Paris, to be on a waterway. Without travel and commerce, nothing else can happen.

5-26-2017 and 5-27-2017

Activity: Blackpool Dance Festival

I was so excited to get to go to the Blackpool Dance Festival, one of the foremost Ballroom competitions in the world! I got there before 9:00 in the morning on Friday the 26th to claim a good seat in the balcony, and stayed there, almost continuously, until after awards had been given out at around 10:30 that night. The categories of competition on Friday were Ameture Over 35 Ballroom and Professional Rising Star Latin. Both divisions were absolutely captivating. From an initial pool of several hundred competitors dancing in over a dozen heats, the dancers performed Waltz, Slow Foxtrot, Tango, and Quickstep, and Cha Cha, Samba, Rumba, and Paso Doble, all of them beautifully expressing the dances in unique and intimate ways. When I went to bed on Friday night, I was sure that I had seen the best dancing in the entire world.

But then came Saturday. Instead of attending another two categories of the competition, I spent Saturday in Blackpool's World Congress, an annual two-day event where the best and most acclaimed dancers from all over the world come to give lectures and talks about a certain theme. This year's Congress was titled "Your Past, Your Present, Your Future," and explored the ways in which Ballroom is changing, and the ways in which the concept of time enters dance. As part of their lectures, the speakers offered demonstrations of different techniques and routines, all of which were beyond exceptional. These demonstrations were, truly, the finest depictions of Ballroom and Latin in the world, performed by dancers who are rightly recognized as the most graceful, swift, and expressive performers on the planet. I was blown away.

I was also happy to see the Congress include an extended presentation on the Smooth style, titled "The DNA of Smooth." Smooth is an American style that takes the International Ballroom style and combines it, as the presenter explained, with ballet, hip-hop, jazz, modern, and more. The result is an exquisitely graceful and rapturous dance that allows for the individual talents and personalities of dancers to shine. Until recently, Smooth has been almost entirely confined to the US, but has been making forays into Europe. In my dance classes here, the instructor introduced a Smooth Foxtrot as an "up-and-coming" style. The presentation on Smooth walked the audience through the major techniques, attributes, and charms of the style, introducing Smooth to the world in a major way. From what I saw, Smooth was well-received. My dance instructor was also at this presentation, and she said afterwards that she now understands how Smooth operates and flows, and that she was so impressed by the demonstrations that she believes that all Ballroom dancers should do at least one of their dances in the Smooth style. Score one for America.


Today's Activity: London Science Museum

Before visiting London's Science Museum, the only other major science museum I'd been to (repeatedly) was the Boston Museum of Science. I'd expected the two to be quite similar, but was pleasantly surprised to find that London's Science Museum focuses much of its energy on the history of science and discovery, with exhibits chronicling scientific advances throughout the ages. No matter how much I love Boston's MOS, I thought this was a great idea. Seeing historical context always makes the present-day reality all the more fantastic and tangible. For instance, I had not known that one early use of rocket technology was implemented by Indian armies against British and French imperialists, and consisted, essentially, of rocket-propelled spears. How cool is that? Seeing one of these spears next to a reproduction of Robert Goddard's first attempt at a liquid fuel rocket shows a fascinating progression. It gets even better when you see a V2 rocket and then a reproduction of the Lunar Module. It all gets better when you can witness where the technology came from and where it went.

If I had to name a second-favorite exhibit, it would be the Clockmakers exhibit on the second floor (Or third floor if you're American. Why can't we at least agree on how to number floors?). Besides the beauty and boggling complexity of some of the watches and clocks on display, I enjoyed this exhibit because, like the Rocketry exhibit, it gave a thorough survey of centuries of clockmaking. It's amazing to see clocks evolve from big, blocky things that need most of a room dedicated to them, to slim, elegant objects of jewelry designed to fit in a pocket. It's like watching the development of computers, but in slow-motion and with few added features. It makes me appreciate watches more, to have seen for myself the centuries-long journey they went through to arrive on our wrists today.

From the Science Museum as a whole, my take-away is this: Context, like a pinch of cayenne, makes everything better.


Today's Activity: The Wallace Collection

For me, the only thing better than a museum with incredible exhibits is a museum that is an incredible exhibit. Before going to The Wallace Collection, I hadn't been expecting to see such a magnificent display of grandeur and artistic vision. I'd expected to see 18th century paintings of French aristocrats, a few statuettes, some nice furniture, and a room or two of armor. What I got instead was a three-dimensional work of art so large that I could walk inside of it and wander for hours. The Hertford House is arranged magnificently, providing an extended frame for the timeless works of art kept within. Other museums, like the Tate Britain, also work to craft an intoxicatingly rich atmosphere around their pieces, but I've never seen one to do as good and thorough a job as the Wallace Collection.

Because of this success, I'd have to say that my favorite part of the visit came simply from traveling slowly from one room to another, enjoying the ways in which the rooms framed each other, sometimes contrasting in color and shape, always complimenting each other and adding to the overall visual experience. As I walked through, I couldn't help but think that the Wallace Collection is to art as a crown is to diamonds. Both works of art and diamonds are beautiful on their own, but when skillfully set within a shining frame are transformed. I'd never realized how far this principle could be taken, and am glad to have seen such a world-class example. Thank you to the Marquesses of Hertford!


Today's Activity: The Globe Theater

I've never been much one for Romeo and Juliet. In previous productions that I've seen, the play has always been presented as deadpan, straight-faced tragedy, with plenty of moping and sorrow and no acknowledgement of the fact that the underlying premise of the play is absurd. Any two households that maintain so strong and ancient a grudge must be populated by fools. For Romeo to fall so quickly out of love with Rosaline and so quickly in love with Juliet, he, too, must be a fool. And for Juliet to fall so quickly in love with Romeo and to move so quickly to marry him, she must also be a fool. It bothers me to no end when productions of Romeo and Juliet take themselves too seriously. Is there tragedy in the play? Absolutely. But could it all have been avoided? Definitely. So why must we glorify the Capulets and the Montagues by granting them more dignity than they deserve?

I was so happy to see a director finally agreeing with me in this view. Daniel Kramer directed this production of Romeo and Juliet, and goes to great lengths from the very start to depict each and every one of the players as fools. Sometimes sympathetic fools, sometimes lovable fools, but always as stumbling idiots who literally strut and fret their hours upon the stage. Kramer dresses his actors in absurdly over-dramatic outfits and paints their faces white, showing them to be the fools they are. Finally, a director who understands that the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is not in the loss of love, but in the foolhardy hatred that could give rise to such loss of love.


Today's Activity: Bus Tour to Stonehenge, Bath, and Lacock Village

Oh. My. Gosh. What an incredible trip!

From the moment we left from the London Eye, I was charmed and delighted by our tour guide Andrew's diverse knowledge and upbeat sense of humor. He made the drive to Stonehenge fly by. When we arrived, I was captivated by the solemn dignity of the stones, and spent what I believe to be the longest time at the site of anyone in our party. I loved the way their character changed as I walked around them; from some angles, the stones looked almost perfect, while other angles made them seem tumbled and gloriously ruined. I would gladly have spent longer with them if the bus hadn't needed to leave.

The ride to Bath was a beautiful trip through perfectly English countryside, exactly the kind of setting I can see inspiring Tolkien to write about the Shire. And then we came to Bath, which I can only describe as what Rivendell would look like if it had been designed by humans. An entire city built as a piece of art! Here, too, I would gladly have wandered for hours. If I ever make it back to Bath, I will definately be visiting the new, lead-free bath house! I will also be re-visiting the Fudge Kitchen, a small, artisanal fudge shop next to the Abbey. I stepped through their doors just as they were cutting up a still-warm batch of dark chocolate sea salt fudge, a five foot rope of a substance so incredible that it would make the gods give up ambrosia in a heartbeat.

And then there was even more! The tour stopped next at the tiny Lacock Village, a charming rift in the space-time continuum that, other than cleanliness and paved roads, is much the way it would have appeared in medieval times. Other than Venice, which was built specifically with cameras and canvases in mind, I can think of no place more perfectly picturesque. And above the village's intrinsic beauty, there's something special in knowing that so many great movies had been filmed there. Voldemort once walked through those streets!


Today's Activity: Royal Opera House

Today I went to the Royal Opera House for a production of L'elisir d'amore, a comic Italian opera. L'elisir d'amore is about a young man and a young woman living in a small country town. The young man, Nemorino, is hopelessly in love with Adina, the young woman, even though she is so far above him in intellect, beauty, and wealth. Adina refuses to love Nemorino, choosing instead a Sergeant from the military, Belcore. The opera follows Nemorino's attempts to woo Adina, and, when he fails, his use of a fraudulent elixir of love purchased from a traveling medicine man, Dr. Dulcamara. So sure is Nemorino that the elixir, which is really nothing more than cheap alcohol, will work that he turns away from Adina in the town, expecting that she now loves him and wanting a small amount of revenge. So scorned, Adina realizes that she misses Nemorino's affections. The two eventually marry, as is only right in this sort of story.

Having never seen a full, live opera, I wasn't sure what to expect before going to L'elisir d'amore. Would it be four hours long? Would it be unbearably shrill? Would I not be able to understand a word of it? I should never have worried. The opera was a terrific experience. L'elisir d'amore was the perfect length, coming in at under three hours, the vocals were beautiful and soaring, and the Royal Opera House has been kind enough to install a small projection screen above the stage for a running translation of the lyrics. I loved every aspect about going to the opera; I loved the posh atmosphere, I loved the over-stated theatrics, I loved the music - I even loved seeing the other patrons, dressed up so nicely to enjoy one of humanity's most "refined" achievements. If I had the money, I would absolutely go again!


Today's Activity: Windsor Castle

Windsor Castle is a study in barely-contained opulence, striving to be at once refined, graceful, regal, and overpowering, enormous, and intimidating. This struggle is, of course, predictable. As a military stronghold and audience hall for the reigning monarch, Windsor Castle must leave no doubt as to who is in charge. On the other hand, Windsor Castle is also the home of the monarch, and all livable homes must somehow include a sense of hearth. In my mind, Windsor Castle hits this balance quite well, quarantining its austere visage to certain, specific areas, leaving other spaces to provide a sane, if richly sumptuous, home.

To me, it was fascinating to mentally stand Windsor Castle side-by-side with Hampton Court Palace. Because Hampton Court Palace was almost exclusively a place of pleasure and reception, it could focus more fully on displaying the undaunted wealth of the Crown, with less attention being paid to aspects such as intimidation and defense. I've always known the technical difference between a castle and a palace, but only now do I appreciate what that difference means on an emotional level to visitors.

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