Sunday, October 9, 2011

A Dad Visits his Son at SOAS in London

I'm sitting in the Etihad lounge at the Heathrow airport w/ a Campari n soda, a plate of salads and blue cheese to fill my palate before my 9 pm flight back to Kathmandu.  That petite piece of blue cheese reminds me that I forget to buy some Stilton cheese in London while chasing that elusive original licorice Chris had asked me to bring back... 

It's been a lovely, precious week in London with Joshua over the Desain holidays break.  I'm glad that I asked J. in the days leading up to his own departure from Kathmandu if he would enjoy a family visit so soon after he arrived for his Junior year at SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London).  He said, 'yes, that would be nice.'  

So, although Shakun and Leah preferred to have their week at home in the garden, rather than getting on an airplane, again, for me it was (as they say...) a 'no-brainer'.  For the past 4-5 years, I've thoroughly enjoyed traveling from Nepal to visit the boys at their new schools (NMH, Georgetown, Deep Springs and now SOAS) as they have grown so quickly and impressively over the past few years and gone out in the world to pursue their own dreams and identities.  

These visits have given me the opportunity to see Josh and Ezra's new schools, the earthy, physical environments in which they have gone to live and study, meet their new friends, their professors and, occasionally, sit in on a class or two to stretch my own mind in new directions and ideas.  The fact that each school has been in a beautiful, unusual or refined square mile of this fascinating world has only added to my anticipation and pleasure in wandering off my own square acre of garden in Budhanilkantha to encounter this civilizing world in western Massachusetts, urbane DC, the desert of California and now the most global and syncretic of cities, London.

For me, too, it's been part of that father-son bond that each of us seeks to refine and deepen as our children grow up past those childhood days of innocence and dependence.  It's a more complex pattern of new feelings and expressions as they become bigger, smarter, stronger, more sophisticated and worldly than we were at their ages.  

Like many of my friends, we struggle a bit to find the right balance of paternal advice and authority as our sons reach past their mid-teens and into their early 20s, when they are well on their way toward their own new-found forms of independence, explorations and minor rebellions.  These are new roles for both parent and child, ones that we each struggle in our own ways to find the right language, right thoughts and right emotions to guide and support each other past old paradigms and patterns.

The metamorphosis of parental love and concern...

(Subtext: "Parenting for Well-Educated, Well-Intentioned Idiots")

Last night, our last together this time in London, Josh n I had a lovely evening w/ my dear friend, Caroline Arnold.   We met her at the SOAS pub for a drink then went to an upscale, organic restaurant pub in Islington for dinner.  She'd come from Geneva that morning to see us (arranging some meetings in the day...), then headed up to see her Dad near Henley last night about 11 pm.  We'd had dinner earlier in the week, after the Spurs-Gunners game at White Hart Lane, with Zoe, Caroline and James' oldest daughter who I'd known since she was born in Nepal 26 years ago.  Zoe has done her Bachelors and Masters already at SOAS and there can't be a better or more enthusiastic supporter of the school.  

Another of life's greater joys as we age is to re-meet the children of our dearer friends as they grow into young, inspiring and thoughtful adults.  For me, to sit over a pint the other evening listening to Zoe and Josh debate the merits (and demerits...) of global economic systems was a pleasure of rich satisfaction and confidence in the future of the world.  As troubled as the world is these days, there is still this profound sense of commitment and idealism that the world's cynicism has yet to completely tarnish  in our children and their generation.

After our steak and potato pies with a bottle of dark Argentine wine in the comfortable pub setting, Josh n I walked back after dinner to our temporary 'abodes', he retiring to his SOAS dorm by St. Pancras station while I continued on the extra 15 minutes toward my modest yet very convenient guesthouse in Bloomsbury near Russell Square, just the other side of the park from the SOAS campus.  

It's been a full and fulfilling week w/ Joshua, from the Tottenham vs Arsenal football game on Sunday, then seeing 'War Horse', a magnificent play about WWI and man's attachment to his beloved beasts on Monday, Joshua's 21st birthday.  We saw the new film 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' together, then I saw "Melancholia" by Lars Van Trier the night Josh went out w/ Pam Chen, his friend from NMH.  We went to the musical, "Billy Elliot". as well -- but I wouldn't recommend it: too much vaudeville and less substance for my taste (I much preferred the film).  

Plus repeat visits to the remarkable collections in the British Museum, the Tate Britain and the National Gallery.  All, even as everything else becomes more expensive here, still free to the public with impressive. succinct one hour tours to absorb the details of selected pieces or paintings of their awe-inspiring repositories of world kulture.  I highly recommend the Assyrian friezes in the British Museum, especially the 8th C. BC lion hunts carved in stone, the Pre-Raphaelites in the Tate Britain and the humanizing Caravaggio in the National Gallery a common man's Christ resurrected in a tavern with his unsanctified, every day apostles.  Actually, there is nothing not to like in the National Gallery.  

There is much in these museums that personify England, as well.  On my short Tate Britain tour the genteel lady guide took us first to meet the original Tates themselves, greater than life-sized portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Tate as you enter the galleries.  Our guide noted that Mr. Tate had made his personal fortune that endowed the museum in sugar.  

Naturally, I asked, "where were his plantations?" to which she seemed momentarily flustered.  "I assume in America.", she said.  "Most likely the Caribbean, in the Bahamas or the Virgin Islands." I responded.  Then, slightly embarassed, she replied,  "There is less said about where he made his money."  "There is often a darker story about great fortunes.", I smiled as I tried to close the chapter.

Thus, the irony, once again, is that the great wealth used to establish this magnificent, priceless art collection was bought, no doubt, from the riches accumulated through the slave labour of the 18th C. British colonies.  Plantation and prisons, one could say.  As the actual site along the Thames of the Tate Britain was originally a former penal institution before it was torn down to build this glorious palace of beauty and culture.

Still, even after a full week in London, I'm eager to return next year to rent an audio guide to spend more hours lost in the magnificence of what mankind has created, destroyed and recreated in our brief time manifesting visual artifacts, ritual objects and visual impressions of our awe in this world.  It's definitely too much to absorb in one visit, or a dozen visits, but observing the accumulation of art, ideas, designs and beauty permit us to partially forgive the horrors and brutalities that man has also caused each other and other cultures in his persistent desire for empire, greed and possession.

When not trundling in and out of these world class museums, I was fortunate to meet Michael Gibbons, one of my closest colleagues from my Save the Children years, who was here in his new, dynamic role for the Wellsprings Foundation working on child rights and education.  Plus, we had a lovely day Wednesday with my Amherst friend, Walter White, a sr. advocate in London specializing in things Russian for the past 16 years, with his equally impressive son, Sasha, who graduated from Amherst last year and is going to LSE for his Masters now.  Walter hosted Obama Campaign Manager, Jim Messina, for a lunch at his law firm that we were invited to attend which, naturally, was quite a treat, as well as an insight into the hurdles (e.g., the tightening of voter registration and unregulated campaign finance) ahead for the Democratic president to gain his second term.

Then, this morning we went to meet/surprise Charlotte Ramble at the SOAS store, where she works.  We hadn't seen her since a 50th birthday party for Jerome at his family home in Normandy some 5+ years ago.  Charlotte must have recognized Josh from his FB page, I guess, as we could tell that she knew us as we strolled up to say hello.  We chatted by the jangling cash register as students came by to purchase their sandwiches, catching up briefly on her life and while I enjoyed another of those precious moments I'd had this week (Zoe, Sasha, Charlotte) when observing a child become a soul incarnate in the fleeting years between meetings.  Josh said he'd give her a call this week and get together before a party she's invited him to this coming w/end.   Charlotte seems another adorable pea in her SOAS pod, thinking already of doing her Masters there while enjoying the fact that both of her parents, Anne and Charles, will be there later in October to present their learned lectures to her colleagues and peers.

Time to go!  It's soon to be another long day's plane journey into night, as I fly to Abu Dhabi in a few minutes (they just called us).  It'll be a long stint at the airport in Abu Dhabi tomorrow morning (6-7 hours), where  I'll find a place to have some food and a shower.  Then complete these meandering thoughts, plus, hopefully, draw "Oliver Twist" to a close (my London reading in Russell Square and Regents Park...).   

I'm home abut 8 pm on Sunday.  Back to the congested, polluted streets of Kathmandu while the fragile, window narrows for Nepal to come to agreement on a new constitution and the exquisite autumn lightens our own blessed botanical garden where the 'suntala' (orange) and 'kagati' (lemon) trees rapidly ripen below Shivapuri hill... 

Adieu London, you were a generous, expensive, entertaining moment in time for me.  

Be equally as kind to my son and share your worldly wisdom with him over the coming year.


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