CHRIS ALLEN: London Journal — Unmissed Opportunities …

I almost missed one of the coolest things ever because of my unwillingness to ask a question.

Last Saturday, I had a free day. I ate a leisurely breakfast, showered, changed and considered what to do with the day. I had no plans at all. I toyed with the idea of seeing a play in the evening, visiting some of the remarkable museums, walking to some new part of the city and exploring markets or sitting in Russell Square reading a book.

And suddenly I knew. I wanted to go to York. I wanted to see York Minster. It was getting on in the morning, and I wavered going at all. I didn’t know if I’d have enough time. But I grabbed a jacket and an umbrella, walked to King’s Cross station, stood in line for a ticket and took the chance. The train boarded at 11:15 a.m., to arrive in York at 12:45 p.m.

British village from the train.
British village from the train.

Let me just say that riding on a train is an unbelievably comfortable experience. I chose a “quiet” car — cell phone ringers off, no noisy children, no loud conversations. I watched the city roll by for the first 10 or 15 miles, then the open green countryside of rural England. I was on an express, so we flashed by towns and villages, passed grazing cattle and sheep and flew under scudding dark clouds. The threat of rain followed us all the way to York. The Virgin train was fast (about 70 mph), smooth and quiet. What it was not is cheap. British train travel, while wonderfully civilized, is expensive.

York’s ancient city wall.
York’s ancient city wall.

York was founded by the Romans in 71 CE, the northernmost outpost of the empire. It is at the confluence of the Ouse and Foss river, and was prone, not surprisingly, to flooding. Nonetheless, it became a busy trade center. Christianity came along sometime before 300 CE. It is an unbelievably beautiful medieval city that retains most of its city wall. In fact there is a walk that includes the wall, and stairways lead up to the top, where anyone can stroll.

I was there for one main purpose: to see the enormous York Minster. A minster is a sort of supercathedral. Think of Westminster Abbey, seat of the Church of England. By 311, York already had an archbishop but work on the minster didn’t begin until about 627. It was a wooden structure that eventually burned to the ground. Several other attempts did, too. When the Romans left, the Angles settled. Then the Vikings came along, then Anglo-Saxons, William the Conquerer and so on. It was batted about by various invaders and settlers, and its fortunes rose and fell with them.

In the 11th century, York became an important religious center, with a number of abbeys of friars and monks located there. They all ended in 1435 when Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church and declared himself the spiritual leader of the new Church of England.

The current minster was started about 1080, still a Catholic outpost. It was declared completed in 1472, when it was consecrated as a building of the Church of England. This is the church I set out to see.

The Micklegate to York. Half-timber buildings can be seen beyond.
The Micklegate to York. Half-timber buildings can be seen beyond.

I walked through the Micklegate and the narrow road led me toward the river.

I chose to sit outside a pub for lunch, but just as I ordered, the rain began. We all retreated inside until it stopped, and by then, after fish and chips, it was nearly 3 p.m. The last train to London was at 8 p.m., and I had an opened-end ticket, but I had to use it that day.

I had no idea where the minster was, and I didn’t want to ask, so I just began walking. I came upon the remains of the 11th century castle and the castle museum. By the time I finished those it was after 4 p.m., and the sky opened up. The umbrella gave me a moving cocoon of dryness, but from the knees down I was soaked. Then I found a map and figured out I was in possibly far from the minster, I couldn’t figure out the buses, I didn’t want to ask, and I gave up trying to see it. I had come all that way and would miss York Minster.

Somewhat miserably, feeling terribly sorry for myself, I started back the way I came, but I took a detour. This led me to another ancient church, a busy shopping center and another map. And this map showed me I was about three blocks from York Minster. And then I did that one thing I had been reluctant to do: I asked a local, who confirmed it was just up the street. I quickened my step and arrived at the Minster to see a young guide standing in front of the closed entrance. I glanced at my watch. It was 5:15 p.m.

“Closed?” I asked.

“Yes, we’re closed for Evensong. You can join Evensong if you like, though. It just started.”

“How long will it be?”

“An hour.”

“I have to catch a train by 8,” I said.

“Oh, plenty of time. When you come out, just walk straight down this street, through the gate in the wall, and you’ll be at the station. It’s no more than 10 minutes.”

So I walked in. An usher showed me to a seat — there are no pews, mostly folding chairs — and handed me a program. The choir was in full voice, the pipe organ filled the air, and my soul was warmed.

And here is the unmissed opportunity. Had I found the minster when I first arrived, I would have paid admission and walked around with a guidebook and my camera. I would have marveled at the stained-glass windows, the soaring heights, the crypts of  the archbishops who lay buried nearby. I would have admired the carvings, the immensity of the structure itself, the history of the place. I would have enjoyed every moment I was there.

But this was more because I got to not only sit in one of the grand structures in Britain, but I got to experience “why” it was there. I got to experience not just the church, but the “purpose” of the church.

I listened to the sung psalms, some accompanied by the organ, some a capella. The choir was mostly male. A few females supplied the upper ranges, but most of the soprano and alto voices were those of boys. The gravity of the readings that separated the psalms echoed through the church almost lost in their own reverberation, but the chants and intonations of the choir were clear and crisp.

I walked out so happy that I had found it after it had closed to tourists. At the conclusion, we were not hurried out into the street. We were allowed to walk around and take all the photos we wanted. No one came to shoo us away. I got the best of both. Forty-five minutes earlier, I would have missed the true meaning of York Minster.

There is an old saying that says the early bird catches the worm. The corollary to that, of course, is that the late worm does not get eaten. I was the late tourist last Saturday, and I got the entire meal.

I strolled back to the station, got something to eat on the return journey, boarded the train 15 minutes later and headed back to London in the steeply slanted sunlight of a late British evening. Clouds still lingered, but broken enough to let through golden rays.

And as I looked out the window opposite to me, a rainbow arced into the heavens. A sign? Nah. Just a coincidence. I settled into the comfortable seat and watched night fall on England.

CHRIS ALLEN: London Journal — When A Bomb Explodes

I’ve been to Kabul, Afghanistan, four times in my life. The first three times a suicide bomber blew up something and took innocent lives somewhere in the city.

The first time, in 2010, it happened on a road I had been on just two days earlier. But in none of those cases was the bombing anywhere near where I was. The last time I was there, last spring, there was no bombing. It had taken place the week before, killing 60 people.

Those bombings were not really close to where I was. I mean, they were in the same city, but not near where I was staying or working. I didn’t brush them off, but I realized them for what they were — targeted at a specific sector of the population, not random. I have developed an attitude toward bombings. I know I have never been involved directly in a bombing or lost anyone to one. And I realize people who have may have an entirely different attitude.

I have a group of eight college students here in London with me. We fly home Saturday. The bombing in Manchester caught our attention, the attention of the university administration and, of course, the parents of my students. Manchester is at least two hours from London by train, not really in our neighborhood. But somehow it seems close. So far, 22 people have died. This was also targeted — at young people attending a concert in a large auditorium. It was staged for maximum injury and maximum attention. It accomplished both.

So this morning, I sat down with my students. Troupers that they are, none of them appeared to be nervous about the bombing. I gave them a chance to talk it out. I urged them to call their parents if they felt a need to — I’m sure just about everyone did. One of them said her parents were putting some pressure on her to come home, but she didn’t want to, and I offered to drop an email to any of their parents they wanted me to. No one took me up on the offer.

I told them that 22 people had died. But that same day, 7 billion people did “not” die. The world sometimes seems like a dangerous place, but the truth is most of us are quite safe. And I said the same thing I say to everyone who asks about all these things: If we flee home in fear without finishing what we came here for, the terrorists win. We can’t let them win. Take precautions? Be vigilant? Absolutely. But as the British are quoted as saying, Keep Calm and Carry On.

With that said, we all stood up, walked out of the hotel to our appointment, and carried on.

CHRIS ALLEN: London Journal — I Was THIS Close!

Brasenose College, one of the 35 colleges that make up Oxford University, has produced a few distinguished alumni — and probably more dubious ones. Among the more impressive are an archbishop of Canterbury, a prime minister of the United Kingdom and one of Australia, the alleged inventor of rugby, a couple of minor playwrights, some poets, a World War II codebreaker and one of the physicians to King George III, who lost the United States to the revolution.

Brasenose is a Harry Potter-like setting, all ancient stone buildings, heavily timbered ceilings in the dining hall, a soaring chapel with a massive pipe organ, a closely clipped fine grass central green and stolid academic reputation that dates to its beginning in 1509. The history oozes from its walls.

Students on our trip to London get to make a brief tour of the college (which it charges for in an effort to raise cash any way it can), and it’s impressive. At least the first 10 or 12 times, you walk along the preordained path. By the 15th time, a certain sense of sameness sets in and one finds one’s self standing at the door-within-a-gate entry into the college not really wanting to go through it again, even with one’s favorite guide leading the way.

So I didn’t. I watched my students walk into the stately grounds, and I hightailed it around the corner to a covered market that I knew of. Perhaps, I’d find a bit of jewelry to bring home, or a cute, tiny baby outfit for my granddaughter for her birthday. Maybe I’d sit down for a cup of coffee and a great pastry. Or maybe I’d just do some browsing and look at all on offer.

As I neared the market just the next block on, I noticed traffic cones set outside of the opening. As in Omaha, Neb., traffic cones are a common sight in Britain during the summer. But there were a couple of police cars, a very classy silver Jaguar and people milling about as well. There was also a flatbed tow truck whose driver was hooking a cable to the front of a an offending Kia or something like that sitting outside the market.

Curious.

I walked around all this unchallenged and sauntered into the market. I was at the grocery end of things, so I took my time passing by the fruit and vegetable stands, the fish mongers and the butchers. One of the butchers boasts of owning the oldest ham in existence, a blackened hunk of meat shriveled to a hard slab that looks like an instrument used in some sort of fraternity initiation ritual. Yep, on display, with the whole story, in one of the chill cases.

I wandered back toward the clothing stalls, and I rounded a corner to find a mass of photographers and two videographers. Being a journalism teacher, I realized someone impressive was visiting the Oxford Covered Market. I strained to see who, but I couldn’t see through the somewhat shabbily dressed journalists and the impeccably dressed aides, all of them men, every one men, surrounding the dignitary. I figured it was a foreign ambassador, perhaps from Japan, the Congo, maybe Belarus, come to see the right way to do a covered market. Or perhaps a movie star like Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow or Meryl Streep looking for the proper gifts to take home after filming a few scenes nearby.

I visited a few other spots then came upon them all again as I returned to the front. Again I strained to see. Nope. I last saw the press amoeba moving past the cheese seller, and I almost stopped to  ask who the dignitary was, but the look on their faces warned me against that. Besides the mass was moving toward me and I didn’t want to be absorbed into it and swept away. One last time I tried to see who I was missing. Nada. Oh, there was one young woman in the group, though, and she was the one doing all the explaining to the mystery guests.

So I left the mob and glanced at the Jaguar as I did to see a tall, thin gentlemen dressed in the most splendid blue and red livery, gold tassels hanging from braided ropes looped about his shoulders, pointed hat perched perfectly atop his head. He should have been sitting on a golden carriage holding the reins of a team of horses. Instead, he was climbing into the right side (this “is” Britain) of the Jag only to grip the leather-wrapped steering wheel.

My students arrived at the the university bookstore about 10 minutes after I did, several blocks away from the market. They bought some souvenirs, and we all got back on the coaches to drive on to Stratford-upon-Avon, birthplace of a William Shakespeare, to have a tour of that very spot (I went and had lunch — I’m familiar with that place buy now, too), thence on to Warwick Castle to conclude a full day’s adventure in sightseeing.

About five miles down the road, our guide, Norma, whom I’ve known now for 17 years, said, “Did you see all the traffic around the market?”

“Yes,” I answered, “I was there.”

“Really,” she said. “Did you see who was there?”

“No, I never got a good look.”

“Well one of the shopkeepers told me it was Prince Charles and Camilla.”

“No kidding,” I said. “Nope, I never got a good look. I saw all the press around them. Never saw them.”

I was that close, and I didn’t actually see them. I wish I’d tried harder, but I didn’t. I just wasn’t that interested in seeing the ambassador from Belarus. Damn.

But here’s the thing: I was dressed in casual slacks, a slightly rumpled UNO polo shirt, a red-and-black field jacket that’s been around the world but still holds its own and New Balance shoes.

The heir to the throne was in the covered market. There were a couple of officers outside. Nothing was blocked off. People were coming and going, as I was. There was no security checkpoint, people were carrying bags and purses, women and men were transacting business, all while the next King of England was looking at stinky cheese. No one panicked, no one overreacted, no one brandished any sort of firearm in defense of the prince. No one had to.

The English are so dignified.

CHRIS ALLEN: London Journal — Always An Adventure

I’m back in London after a two-year absence. This is my 15th time here, each time with a group of students. I have eight with me this time, the fewest since my first year in 2000. It’s expensive, and although the cost of coming here for two weeks for the class is quite reasonable, it’s still expensive for students.

I have unfairly compared London to New York. It does neither of them justice. Of course, there are many similarities: Both are centers of industry with global corporate headquarters; both are media and entertainment capitols; both are international banking hubs; both have about 8 million people.

London, of course, is much older. Just outside the Tower tube stop is a part of the London wall. It was built by the Romans when this island was an outpost of the Roman Empire and was called Londinium. It was built 2,000 years a ago — just about the time Jesus walked the Earth. You can walk right up and touch it, and there are other spots around town where the wall is still visible.

Along Fleet Street is a pub called the Cheshire Cheese. The sign above the door says “Rebuilt in 1667.” Let that sink in for a moment. “Rebuilt” in 1667. The original pub was destroyed in the Great London Fire of 1666, the one that killed all the rats and ended the last great period of the plague. It was actually one of the first buildings rebuilt after the fire.

Why?

Simply because the workers of the day who were rapidly putting the crippled city back together again had to have a place for lunch and a pint of ale. First came the pub, then came the city, a somewhat vulgar version of “form follows function.”

Now, 390 years later — 390 years — the Cheshire Cheese still serves up fine ales and excellent food, like steak and ale pie.

The city is dotted with squares — Russell Square, Bloomsbury Square, Tavistock Square, Brunswick Square, Lincoln Inns Field — finely tended square block parks of grass, flowers, benches, fountains and statues to this historic person and that.

On warm days people flock to the squares. Families have a picnic or at least some ice cream. Kids run, shout, kick a ball and laugh with mom and dad. Young adults spread blankets or mats, kick their shoes off and sit back with friends, sharing a bottle of wine and some cheese with bread. The elders sit on the benches, often with a jacket even on warm days, and watch younger versions of themselves decades ago. Some smile, some doze, some sit with the wives of many years in contented silence and enjoy the activity around them.

The noise of the city seems to disappear in a square. And believe me, London is a noisy city. It is choked with traffic. Older double-decker buses roar when the traffic light turns green or when they pull away from a bus stop. But it is a very walkable city, and I find myself walking five or10 miles a day. If at all possible I avoid the city buses, the tube (subway) system and taxis.

The best thing to do when one walks down a London street is to look up. The storefronts at ground level are everyday storefronts, nothing special. But upward you see the great architecture of the 20th, 19th, 18th and 17th centuries.

The streets are lined with restaurants of all sorts. Indian restaurants abound. Indian food, after all, has become British food.

But London is a global city, and immigrants have come from around the world to live and work here. I met a Portuguese man and an Argentine man both serving from from their kiosks in an open-air mall.

Here in the Royal National Hotel, if you stand in the lobby for an hour, you will hear at least a dozen languages. The Royal National calls itself the largest hotel in Europe, and it may well be. There are 5,000 rooms here. And I’m not kidding about that. Pensioners on holiday to London and grade schoolers on class trips swarm the lobby and the courtyard.

The global nature means global menus. There are jokes made about British food, and indeed you can still find things like boiled beef and jellied eel. But every ethnic food has also found a home here.

Many of the restaurants are fairly small, long bowling-alleys of tables and chairs. Young immigrants are often your servers. And if you can’t find an ethnic food to your taste, pub grub is a fine alternative. Pubs are quite proud of the food they serve and especially take pride in their fish and chips. Believe me, there is no fish and chips like the fish and chips made from freshly caught, never-frozen cod.

“When you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life,” Samuel Johnson once wrote some 400 years ago. It’s even more true today. Even after 15 years of bringing students, often on their first visit to a foreign country, I still love life, and I still love London.

CHRIS ALLEN: Photo Gallery — Inside India

Chris Allen took in some sights while in New Delhi, India, to attend USAID-supported workshops for Afghan professors from Kabul University and Balkh University in communication studies and Kabul Polytechnic University in hydro-engineering. Among the places he visited were the India Gate, a war memorial located astride the Rajpath, on the eastern edge of the “ceremonial axis” of New Delhi; Connaught Place, one of the largest financial, commercial and business centers in New Delhi; and historic Red Fort in Old Delhi, the main residence of the emperors of the Mughal dynasty for nearly 200 years, until 1857.

 

 

CHRIS ALLEN: Indian Journal — A Blanket Hangs Over New Delhi

New Delhi is in trouble. It is desperately trying to reduce pollution, and some of the steps it’s taking are admirable. But they don’t seem to be making a difference.

One can see the pollution hanging in the air. Worse, though, one can taste it. It’s grit on the tongue. It’s a scratch in the throat. It’s a tickle-cough. It’s a smell.

The Hindustan Times reported that the air quality in Delhi reached the “very poor” level Dec. 29, and was forecast to worsen Dec. 30. For those interested in numbers, the PM10 was recorded at 304, and the PM2.5 at 197 micrograms per cubic meter. The normal levels are 60 and 100 respectively.

PM stands for particulate matter. The EPA describes it as “a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets (including acid) found in the air. Some particles, such as dust, dirt, soot or smoke, are large or dark enough to be seen with the naked eye. Others are so small they can only be detected using an electron microscope.”

PM10 is especially dangerous because it can get sucked deep into the lungs and even work into the bloodstream. People with heart or lung diseases like congestive heart failure or asthma are advised to avoid any exertion in this weather.

In 2015, more than 6,500 people died of respiratory illnesses, one of the leading causes of death in India. Many people who work outside wear masks over their mouths and noses, but most don’t. A colleague stepped out of the hotel the other morning and asked one of the doormen if he smelled the smoke that was quite obvious to us in the air. He considered the question and replied no, everything smelled normal to him.

I use a CPAP machine at night for apnea. At home, I sometimes forget to change the filter. On my old machine. it was a nylon cube about three-fourth inch square, and after a month or so, it looked pretty much white and new. Three years ago, when I was here in Delhi, I took the filter out after two weeks. It looked like a piece of coal, jet black and sooty.

At the time, we were staying in a guesthouse with no air conditioning. This time, I’m in a good hotel with a ventilation system. But after five days, the filter on my CPAP is the color of a fine charcoal suit. The hotel’s system isn’t doing much to stop the pollution for us here.

The reason?

There is, of course, not just a single one. Delhi is a city of 20 million people. The Hindustan Times says the government reports there are 10 million cars registered. That’s one car for every two people, including children. A government report estimates car exhaust fumes contribute 25 percent of the city’s pollution.

Farmers in the rural areas surrounding New Delhi also contribute to the deadly haze. The only way they have of clearing stalks from the rice paddies is to burn them. Smoke from thousands of fires shroud the city and combine with vehicle fumes and dust from constructions sites. Open wood and paper fires line the streets at night as homeless people struggle to stay warm.

The result is literally a choking, acrid pall that settles over the city, and in a temperature inversion as Delhi has had for the last few days, it does not dissipate.

The city is trying to make changes. It has banned trucks that belch black smoke into the atmosphere. It has tried road rationing. Cars with odd-numbered license plates alternate with even-numbered plates on the road each day. It’s trying to get rid of cars more than 15 years old, in poor condition and with less pollution control. But it doesn’t seem to work.

Public transportation is woefully inadequate here. In a city of 20 million people, there are fewer than 5,000 buses. They are unreliable because they can’t get through the traffic jams created by the cars people drive because the bus is unreliable. The train system is already at capacity. There is no other way than autos, motorcycles and tuk-tuks — the three-wheeled motorized rickshaws — to get around. Interestingly, though, many of the auto-rickshaws are powered with compressed natural gas, which emits less pollution than gasoline, or would if the engines were tuned. Really, the motors on those things aren’t much more than a garden tractor.

I’m relatively healthy, if a little chunky around the middle, and I’m only staying here two weeks. The pollution is going to annoy me but not kill me. I’m going home to the clean air of a Midwestern city. I’ll cough out the soot in my lungs over a few weeks, try to remember the pollution I left behind in New Delhi, and I hope I remember to say a prayer of thanks every morning.

CHRIS ALLEN: Dubai Journal — What Is Dubai?

What is Dubai?

Dubai is planted firmly in the Middle East. It is the most famous of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates. The UAE is a founding member of the once-powerful cartel OPEC, which controlled oil prices for nearly 40 years. It is now weakened by in-fighting and by a defiant Saudi Arabia, which is determined to set its own course in deciding oil production quotas based not on its own economy or those of its coalition partners, but it’s enmity of Iran.

Dubai is Arab. It is Muslim. But step out of its spectacular airport, climb into a taxi, and drive toward the city, and you don’t see Arabia. You see a city that could be planted in America, Canada, Europe, Japan, China, Australia or parts of Africa. You see steel, glass, marble and granite. You see construction cranes and rebar and cement. Shopping malls that house ice skating rinks, an indoor ski slope, and miles of stores with European couture names.

You see six- and eight-lanes highways that carry a lot of foreign automobiles. You see an elevated tram that scoots along the highway, crammed with people. Automobile dealerships selling BMWs, Audis, Mazeratis, Bentleys and Lamborghinis down to the lowly Toyota, Ford, VW and Chevy. Hyundai and Kia bring up the rear.

You see people from all over Southeast Asia. They come from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Afghanistan to find work. They come from Africa — Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt and Sudan — and send money back home. Business people from around the globe work here in every sort of business. The executive and technology jobs are filled with suited or casually dressed expatriates from America, Canada, Australia, Germany, The Netherlands, China, Japan and Thailand.

Yes, Dubai is Arab, but it is minority Arab. By some estimates, only 10 percent of Dubai’s population is actually from Dubai, and no estimate puts it above 20 percent.

Dubai runs on an expat population. Emiraties — citizens of the United Arab Emirates, own many businesses and ventures. But it’s the expatriate population that runs them. Unlike in neighboring Oman, which is two-thirds to three-quarters Omani, very little Arab is heard spoken here.

There is almost no oil left in Dubai. The largest of the emirates, Abu Dhabi, has the remainder of the oil here. It is the richest of the emirates, a fact that Dubai would just as soon you don’t know.

A friend of mine was dining with an old classmate, and the classmate leaned over the table and said what he had to say had to be whispered because he wasn’t sure who might be listening. Dubai, he confided, is in a recession. Hardly surprising news to anyone who’s been following the price of oil as it crawls along at drastic lows from five years ago. But why the big secret?

The only things that keeps Dubai going are global business and tourism. Oil, which once seemed unlimited and lucrative, is depleted and cheap. Dubai has to keep up the façade of a forward-looking, economically progressive city that is still growing, still vibrant, still vital and still relevant. The fear is that if global businesses scent an economic slowdown, they’ll start to flee. And if they flee, there is no replacement for the lost revenue any more. If businesses flee, the money leaves, the tourist attractions will begin to deteriorate, and Dubai will return to the sand.

That is the fear, of course, and like many fears, it is probably overblown. Dubai is not going away any time soon. It is still an economically progressive city. It is still relevant. But the floor is much thinner, more precarious that it has been for the past 50 years.

The Middle East has been important to the global economy precisely because of the oil. But as the world moves away from oil as its energy source, the Middle East in general will become less important, less a place that business feel they have to be involved in to protect their interests.

Politically, the region will change as well. Staying on the good side of Gulf countries in the name of world economies will become less important. The region will still be part of the global economy, but a smaller part, and with less influence in the economy than it has had by controlling the price of crude.

It will affect the Arabs and the expats alike, and Dubai needs those expats.

Executive and technology workers have offices in the steel and glass towers, sitting in air-conditioned offices, suites and cube farms. The construction workers build those towers, laboring in 95-degree heat with visible heat waves shimmering off the concrete and steel. Taxi drivers drive a couple hundred miles a day.

Some of them get to work in air conditioning. Service workers in hotels, restaurants and office buildings make sure everything looks great for the hordes of tourists and business people who make trips to this glitzy, money soaked spot in the sand.

But in Dubai, the money is showing the first signs of drying up. The question now is not What is Dubai, but What is Dubai’s future?