Friday, September 21, 2012

The Continued Adventures of Celia in Liverpool…

In June I decided to write a series of blogs about my experiences as a college student in a study abroad program with the University of Liverpool. This is the second installment, you will probably want to read the previous blog first.
It’s long enough ago that I really cannot remember the names of any of the students I met in Liverpool. What lasts firmly are more sensory; I remember the damp chill of the spring air that gave way to summer warmth, but always the scent of diesel fuel and fresh asphalt. I remember the gentle and rhythmic repeating pattern of hill and dale giving way to the sites we visited. Learning the cadence and deciphering the local dialect. One of my greatest appreciations became the clear delineation of leaving a town and ending up in the country; no sprawling mass of humanity. Even the light… when most of the landscape includes deciduous low growing trees, the sky stretches so far that pure clear sunlight can be seen shining far, far off on the horizon, and overhead the clouds can be soggy with unshed rain. When I think of this specifically, I think of Wylfa Nuclear Power Station on the northern coast of Wales, its towers drenched in sunlight as we drove in a charter bus along a far and distant hill.
There are many experiences I miss; living in a world where there is the dense core of the city center, where bustling seas of bodies weave in and out of each other after work and on the weekends; stopping in at Tesco’s (grocery chain), Boots (pharmacy), the myriad of clothing stores looking at what was fashionable and different, very basic living. As students of Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning, we trolled the streets of these towns to absorb the beauty of the old adjacent to the new, to travel by foot the worn paving of many generations and to literally feel what people have always travelled, the path that was most direct.
In school we had been taught to observe the paths that people wore out in the landscape, because they were the paths we needed to design into a space. There should no “left over space” in design. Grass does not exist as filler, it is planned; you do not plant shrubs around a foundation to hide where the building erupts from the earth, you plan the transition so that it is discreet or celebrated. It turned out these simple lessons became the foundation for our academic experiences at school in Liverpool.
As mentioned in the previous blog, the school didn’t really know what to do with Landscape Architecture students, so “they” sat us down and asked us what we’d like to do. In the end we served as critics to graduate architecture students, and helped them work on the relationship between their buildings and the environment. One of my favorite projects was a Breast Cancer treatment center that had been designed for below ground, the concept was that the building represented the womb; not only to represent another part of a woman’s body, but to represent growth and nurturing. When the young male student and I visited the site it turned out to be on the edge of town, the old building recently demolished, the rubble still lying on the ground. The buildings surrounding it were industrial, and there wasn’t a living plant in sight. It was the least nurturing location one could imagine. Do I remember the 24 year old fellow’s name? No. What I remember were many conversations about whether to leave the site in its raw and brutal state to express the devastation of cancer, or whether the site should be enclosed by plants; a sensory garden, to help bring the patients and their families back to the basic elements of life, a place to reflect, and possibly, heal.
It’s interesting when you pose these thoughts as design exercises versus real life experiences. Fundamentally both are great design concepts, but with seventeen years of life passing and many dear to me having suffered the pain of breast cancer, I can artistically perceive both as viable, but as a woman I can feel only one. It would be interesting to know what this student, now 41, would design.
At the same time there was a request made to the college by a local elementary school for assistance in designing a playground. What makes me laugh about this now is that I have children and everything those parents ended up asking us for are the same things parents still ask for now. I love it! To be honest I think the staff was a bit overwhelmed by how involved we got. We had children give us wish lists and drawings, we asked parents for input, we asked the staff to help us refine the needs. We took thousands of pictures, we drew thousands of drawings, and in the end we wrote a book which included not only the designs, but how to fundraise and implement the project. The only downside is that we never learned whether any of it happened.
So, back to the beginning of this adventure; on day one of trudging around Liverpool and getting our bearings in terms of food, shelter, and provisions, it started to snow. It was March! So, with as many layers on as we could put, we trolled looking like bag ladies (and gents), and tried to appear appreciative of our tour guides efforts. Every pub, tea shop, or restaurant was a sought after haven. Students disappeared into them, and by the end of the day, there were only a handful of us left, at which point we disappeared into the pub with Steve, the Professor who had picked us up from the bus station the night before.
I have shared on a number of occasions, I’m sure, that my mother is from England. I think unconsciously, until we sat in that pub, part of what I was trying to understand was what life for me would have been like had my family never moved from England to the U.S. When I had previously been in England, it was mostly under the kind guardianship of relatives. I just wanted to feel all by myself what daily life might have been like. To look left then right when driving or crossing the road, to stand next to a building built five hundred years ago and not think it odd or tremendous, to understand the responsibility of the daily grind of living life there. I spent many hours driving the roads of the U.K. not only admiring the sites, but contemplating what life would have been like to live there, with extended family, with different expectations.
There is a phrase that goes something like this, “You cannot know where you are going if you do not know where you’ve been.” So, this trip became the spur, became the beginning point that was plunked down into the present (or past present as is now the case).
Again, back to the agenda: We arrived in Liverpool while most of the students were on some form of a break, only a handful of students and faculty were around. They quickly suggested a Pub Crawl; sounding like great fun, off we went, twenty two Americans and half a dozen Brits.
If you don’t know what a Pub Crawl is, the very short version is that you go from one pub to the next, the end goal being that you only go home, when crawling is the only form of transportation your body allows you. Most of my memories from that night, I must admit, are diminished by vast amounts of lager that I consumed, not the passage of time. Two highlights from that night… I was in a Mexican Restaurant and needed fresh air and privacy desperately. So I did in fact crawl up the stairs to the street level. I was sitting on the curb, head between my knees, investigating the installation of cobbles, when I heard shouting.
It became quite clear that the shouting was being directed at me, and though not at full capacity, I could recognize anger. Just as I was coming to this realization a lovely man emerged from the Mexican Restaurant, shouted back at the woman, yes by now I was focusing enough to determine gender. She stalked off, looking “quite put out!” The fellow who came to my rescue helped me to my feet and it turned out that I was about six inches taller, fifty pounds heavier, and the street lights glowing around us, illuminated his red hair and freckles. Seriously, and with no intention of offending my Irish friends, he could have jumped right off the Lucky Charms box.
The conversation went something like this:
Me: “Thanks! What was that all about?”
Him: “She heard your accent and knows you're American.”
Me: “Oh! Does she dislike all Americans or just me?”
Him: “She doesn’t like Bill Clinton.”
Me: “I’m pretty sure I’m not him.”
Him: “Yeah, well, Clinton met with Gerry Adams today.”
Me: “Sorry, who’s that?”
Him: “Who’s Gerry Adams? He’s the leader of the Sinn Fein.”
Me: (Knowing who the Sinn Fein are) “Oh, my apologies. If it helps, I think Bill Clinton is a bit of an ass.”
Him: “It helps a bit. Let’s get you home.”
Me: “Gotta get my friends.” (Still had the presence of mind to not let myself wander off with strange men, even if they were diminutive.)
Him: “I’ll go get them; you sit here with your head between your knees.”
Soon we all departed, stumbling in relatively the correct direction, when there was a sudden request by my Irish defender to stop in a pub. I think I had a glass of water, but I distinctly remember singing a rousing rendition of “My Girl” while my cohorts, primarily the Leprechaun, sang back up. Needless to say, it was a painful day that followed.
Part of the next day’s pain was a minor flirtation on my part with a lovely twenty two year old student whilst pub crawling. When we clambered onto the tour bus the next day, he had saved me a seat. We’d only been in town for forty eight hours and I was already in trouble. We’ll shorten the story and say that he and I spent an awkward day playing “Dodge the Dude” and I oohed and ah’ed as we drove the highways and byways of Merseyside; taking in the Strawberry Fields (Beatles), Tudor Architecture (Speke Hall, built in 1490), Toxteth (where the riots had been held and where I lived), the shipyards of Liverpool, Penny Lane, and finally, back to the University, from where I trudged back to Toxteth and got ready for our second night of Pub Crawling.
I will only say about the second night of Pub Crawling… it was shorter, less enthusiastic and much more innocuous than the previous night.
So, the next installment in The Adventures of Celia in Liverpool will include: Phantom of the Opera, a ride in a cop car, and driving in the Cotswolds.
As for gardening tips: Well, having skipped writing all summer, you probably think that there isn’t much to say. But there is!! With perennials dying back and the fall clean-up getting under way, it is an excellent time to divide and move perennials around (share with friends), dig up shrubs that outgrew and out-competed other plants, oh, also, trim all your ornamental grasses back, so that next year you have all fresh growth and no winter burn. It is a fabulous time to go to nurseries and look for discounted plants, but much more importantly – plants that bloom in the winter, or have spectacular bark or texture. Some of my favorites are Hellebores (many varieties bloom from October through May) and Witch Hazel (have delicate and fragrant flowers in the winter).
Thanks for reading!