Monday, January 22, 2018

Highgate Cemetery, London


On one of my go out and adventure days, I take the bus through the center of London and on eastward. I keep my eyes wide open for no matter where I look there’s something grand; a dreary street with a startling steepled church at its end, a sign marking Drury Lane (which I’m not quick enough to get a picture of), the Thames with boats and bridges, the passing people, the contrasting architecture of new time and old, the shops, the notices by grass ways and sidewalks that say: No Dog Fouling which is of course, an admonishment to pick up one’s dog’s poop.

In Archway, I get off and after a quick chat with a local vendor about which direction I should walk, I head up the hill toward Waterlow Park. The day is crisp and lightly dusted with clouds. There isn’t even a drop of rain and though at first chilly being about 44 degrees, after a few minutes I unzip my coat and loosen my scarf. Stretching my legs feels nice after being in the bus for nearly two hours.

I’m all but whistling as I walk. For really, I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect winter day as I go along following yet another book reference.

When I’d been looking through lists of What Not To Miss While In London I’d stumbled across a mention of Highgate Cemetery. “Wait a second,” I thought. “I know about that place.” And had promptly written it at the top of my To See list.
Where would I go if I didn’t have books to direct me?

In An Uncertain Place by Fred Vargas (whose characters I seem to be following all over the place) Highgate Cemetery is the starting point for the novel’s mystery when a selection of shoes (with feet still inside) are left outside the main gates. Naturally, the legend of the cemetery with its unexplained, eerie happenings and allusions to vampirism links in with the plot. And, as befits a detective story, the shoes are the advance warning of a terrible murderer beginning his destructive mission.

I’m not really sure why I want to go so badly. But I do.

The night before, I look the place up to make sure I know what to expect while there—“The paths can get muddy underfoot, so do wear sensible shoes.”—and while I’m at it I find out that the cemetery is the final resting place of a number of notable people including Charles Dickens and Karl Marx. I also find out that the cemetery is separated into two parts, East and West. The East side can be toured without a guide while the West cannot. At this point, I’m not even sure if I’ll need to go inside. It’s just the gates I really want to see.

Therefore, upward I go. Past The Old Crown tavern where the words Take Courage fortify me as I puff along, past a hospital, past a church, I get to the top of the hill and find my way into the park.
Just to be directionally clear, I stop in at the café and ask the man working there if the cemetery really is directly through the park.
“You literally go straight through,” he says.
“No deviation,” I say with a smile, “neither to the right nor to the left.”
Without a twitch of eyebrow (though with a twinkle in his eyes), he says, “Literally straight. Even when you come to the lake and to the trees.”

Thus informed, I go more or less, if not quite literally, straight through the park. It’s friendly with trees, the occasional squirrel, and the aforementioned lake replete with ducks. The grass, weighted with water, squishes underfoot. Avoiding patches of mud the best I can in my sensible shoes, I meander through and eventually arrive at the cemetery.


There’s the famous gate. There’s the road the detectives would have driven up. There’s the place where the still footed shoes were left. There.

I stand and stare. I take my pictures. I glance behind me at the park.

Is this enough to see?

I’m not sure, so I go inside the little ticket booth at the entrance and the lady gives me a brochure, telling me (almost chastisingly) that the guided West tours are all done for the day. I go out and scan through the brochure, calculate the entry fee’s cost against my day’s budgeted allowance, and decide to self-guide myself through the East Cemetery.

I’m glad I do.

There’s a stillness there among the “dead but not gone,” as a few of the tombstones proclaim.
“If you live on with those you loved, you have not really died,” some others say, and I ponder this, having an internal conversation with myself about legacy and meaning and death.  
The trees are tall and protective, kindly protective, inviting. Not at all menacing, not at all creepy. Maybe all the menace and fright are to be found in the West Cemetery. How will I ever know having missed the West tour?

Though lightly chastised, I am not sad as I walk the paths among the crosses and slabs, the angels, the spires and monuments, among the trees, stopping occasionally to mark a date or to read an inscription. For cemeteries are the place of a million stories. Each life and each death spin a complicated web of mystery, pain, and joy. Although impossible to know, the imaginings like memories are maybe another extension of that person’s life. Maybe. Somehow.

One man’s stone says, “Better a spectacular failure, than a benign success” Just like that with a comma in the middle and no period at the end.

One woman’s reads, “Thy dragon is subdued Thou hast come home again.” I stand there for a while wondering, What dragon? What legend, what torment, what home, and what joy to be there again?
Musing, I wander down another path and the not so distant sound of children playing reaches me—laughter, voices, excited noise. “Ah,” I think, “that’s the contrast there, here’s this place of memorial and death and yet the children’s voices are still heard. There’s still life on the other side of these gates.”

The barren trees seem to be listening too, but what they think I don’t know. The sun inches its way lower in the sky. I pass a trio of woman. What drew them here? Vampires? Legends? A relative? A book? Marx? Do we acknowledge each other as we cross paths? I don’t remember. I’m absorbed in my own thoughts. I’m intrigued by the slabs worn nearly smooth by time and the cracked and broken monuments. I find it comforting that nature takes over, weaving its way in with roots and vines around and over and through what we have done.

The brochure I was given says, “Cemeteries were also intended as tourist attractions right from their earliest days, not just as places for the bereaved to mourn. Visitors would be improved by reading epitaphs, admiring the art of the memorials, and escaping the noise and pollution of the metropolis.”
Are those women improved? Am I? Yes, I’m sure I am. And while much improved, strolling by the root and ivy covered stones, nevertheless, I begin to think about leaving. I still have a long bus ride ahead of me and a few other places I would like to see before the day is over. But, almost as an afterthought, I decide to find Marx’s grave (Dickens’ grave is on the West side). Why not? I’m here.

Again, I’m glad I do.

I follow my little map and then look up. It’s impossible to miss.
The monument is a monstrosity. A giant, rectangular block of gray with a formidable bust of Marx on top. A memorial unveiled in 1956 by the Communist Party for him, his wife, their grandson, his housekeeper, and his daughter. It feels out of place among the other memorials, the trees, and the intertwining vines. This is not a memorial for nature to easily befriend or overtake. It is a monument to man. To one man. To his ideas and his impact on social science and people. Embarrassingly enough, I’m not even really sure what that impact was, at least not for me personally, or if that even matters.

I take a few photos and as I step away two men approach. One seems to be a sort of tour guide and the other his guest. The guide gives me a look that I can’t quite read. Is he wondering if I am a Marxist, a Communist, a Socialist?

No, I’m none of those things. Not here, not today. I walk away from Marx and head back toward the front entrance. I’m none of those things. I’m just a reader following fictional characters and finding in the process that real life is all around me.


Monday, January 15, 2018


There’s a line in the book I’m reading—A Climate of Fear by Fred Vargas—that says, “Icelanders are said to be as severe as their climate, but as kind as the grass is green.”
I find this out for myself in nearly my first interaction with an Icelander. I’ve come in on an early morning flight and even as the day advances the darkness sticks like tar; pitch and dark. There isn’t much to see in the blackness (even though I peer into it as hard as I can) as the bus takes me from the airport to the bus transfer station where I’ll get on a smaller bus which will drop me off near my hostel. 

It’s the driver of the smaller bus who brings the quote to life.
I get on with all my luggage assuming he has a list with the stops he’ll make. After all, I’ve booked this online ahead of time.
But as the stops go by I begin to wonder. So I ask him, “Where will I get off for Hostel Village?”
“I am not the Holy Spirit,” he chastises me. “How do I know where to go if you do not talk to me? We passed that stop a long time ago. Now you’ll have to go to every stop and I’ll drop you by last.”
I’m too tired to feel bad. My check in time is not for hours, so I am not missing out on anything by staying on the bus. It’s comfortable. It’s warm. We do a few more drops and then he says, “Okay, I will show you the stop where you will stand if you take the bus again. And then I’ll drop you off at the gas station across from your hotel.”
It’s here that I thank him sincerely and take a moment to apologize for the misunderstanding and, apparently penitent enough, he forgives me and waves it off. “It’s okay. No problem. It’s only that you could have been at your hotel a long time ago.”
“It was a pleasant ride on the bus.”
“Well, that’s good to know.”
We’re practically friends now.
As I get out, he tells me, “Be careful. Watch out for the ice.”
I’m being careful, holding on to the railing of the bus as I get off. I put a first tentative step down. But the ground is like a windblown lake frozen in a second’s time, uneven and slick as slick. Both my feet go up and I’m down.
“Are you okay?”
“I am, thank you.” I’m okay. Nothing of me is broken and none of my things seem broken either, although the snack bag I’ve been carrying has discharged all its items. I’m too travel tired to even have sore pride so I begin the tricky process of turning around and trying to stand.
“Are you okay?” the driver asks again.
“Yes, I think if I can get just there I can make it,” I say, pointing to the large rock next to me.
“It’s ice everywhere.” I look around, and it is. He evaluates me for one moment. “Don’t say where you got these,” he then tells me, bending down to undo something from his shoes. He hands me a pair of crampons (studs for shoes) that attach to the shoe with elastic bands.
“Really?” I ask, grateful.
“If not, you’ll kill yourself.”
 I thank him again, attach the crampons, gather my scattered things, and begin the slow, inching process of studding my way down the walkway and across the street to the hostel. I send a blessing out after the driver, for he was right. If he hadn’t given me the crampons I probably would have killed myself. Even with the studs, it’s still slow going.
Welcome to Ice Land, I suppose.
Just that easy, I’m across the street and down the walk. I get checked in and the clerk lets me get into my room hours early which is another unexpected kindness. 
After 11:00, when the sun has finally come up high enough to give the clouded sky a half-lit, twilight feel, I put on my shoes, crampons and all, and go walk around Reykjavik. Just as I’d heard, many of the buildings are brightly colored. The wall art is fantastic. The wind off the water is brisk and just across the way with the mountains as a backdrop is a red lighthouse. I venture up and down the streets safely on foot because of the driver.
The next morning, I’m picked up by a different driver who will take me and a few others to the rendezvous point for our South Shore tour bus.
I’m his first pickup of the morning. He offers me the front seat or the back. I take the front. And we start out in silence after he’s introduced himself and warned me that we have several more places to stop. Silence. No enthusiastic chitchat. Here’s the severity of the climate, I think remembering the quote. If reserve could also be called severity. I like reserve. I’m okay with quiet. Especially at 7:00 in the morning before I’ve had coffee or breakfast. However, silence aside, a roundabout or two later I ask him if he knows where the arena where Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky played the 1972 World Chess Championships is.
“Yes, I know that. We’ll pass by it.”
The morning does not get less dark, and we drive on picking up several more people. After we’ve collected the last couple, the driver turns down a street and slows down slightly. “Amanda, there is the building you were asking about.”

Sure enough, there it is. He’s driven down the street especially for me. He didn’t have to take this road and I’m touched. I feel as if I’ve had a perfect day already and the tour hasn’t even begun.
The building is a sports arena that was modified for the chess tournament according to Fischer’s very particular specifications. It’s nothing great but for the history. Some say that that World Chess Championships was the event that drew attention to Iceland as an international spot, pinpointing it as a real place on the map. It gave Reykjavik world attention. Enough so maybe that it was the place chosen for Gorbachev and Reagan’s summit regarding Cold War peace in 1986.
“It’s probably a twenty minute walk for you,” the driver says. “If you came back I’m sure someone there would let you in to go look around.”
For the second time, a driver is right.
The following day, after my tour of waterfalls, a glacier, the black sands beach where I see the trolls who’ve been turned into stone, and a visit to the town of Vik, I walk to the arena driven by some odd desire to record my being there with pictures. Snow dusted, I arrive and head over to the doors. I try a couple, but they’re locked. Inside, I see some people. After noticing me peering in, a woman comes and opens one door.
“Is this the building where the World Chess Championships were played in 1972?”
“Would it be okay if I came in and looked around.”
“Of course. Many people come and ask that,” she says, standing aside to give me room to enter. “Go in, look around. We’re getting ready for a game, but you can go look.”
I do. It’s oddly thrilling. 

I thank her when I leave. I walk around all day, see the Höfđi house where Reagan and Gorbachev met, have lunch at a vegan restaurant that also sells records, go to Loki Café which sits across from the Hallfrimskirkja church and drink a Priest’s Coffee which has a dash of Iceland’s signature alcoholic drink Brennivín (also known as The Black Death which has something to do with prohibition and the black label with a skull which had been on the original bottles), crash an art exhibit opening for the free wine, and end up at Sundhöllin Local Baths where I soak in the geothermal pools. There the snow touches down on my upturned face. There the 107.6 degree water relaxes my tired muscles. There the 50 degree ice bath gives me the adrenaline to probably live forever. There the steam rises up into the open sky. I stay for a few hours.   
In the morning when I check out I offer the crampons to the clerk.
“Someone gave these to me. Can you use them?”
“This is perfect,” she says. “Many guests ask after these. These are really good.” She takes them from me and immediately turns to the guy who’s preparing to go out into the city. “Do you want these?”
After she explains to him what they are and we both instruct him on how to put them on correctly, he thanks us and heads out into the snow.
As I shoulder my pack and head for the door, the clerk tells me again, “Thank you for the crampons.”
I say the proper things in response, but in reality, what could I do but pay it forward? In the end, you know, I’d also like to be as kind as the grass is green.