Holy Week – London Edition

Hello, dear Readers!

So much has happened since I’ve last written—I do hope you’ve been enoying your days as much as I have.  🙂

As to be expected when I’m living in London, Holy Week was a bit different this year. Since the dates usually coincided with my undergraduate exams, 2015 wasn’t the first year that I celebrated without my family.  But it was the first time that I’ve celebrate it in a foreign country. And it was made particularly special because I was joined by my boyfriend, Ben Brejle.

After Ben’s 8 time zone, 15 hour journey from Seattle, he requested a quick rest to see if he could ease his (literal) red eye. His tour of London began with a walk to Covent Garden… where I had to retrieve my boots, Birkenstocks, and coat from the Shoe Cobbler/Dry Cleaner.  One thing that I may have failed to mention in my ‘first impressions’ post is that Londoners where nice shoes. This may seem like a silly observation, but seriously—doesn’t matter whether you are walking with a brief case in the banking district, busking in the tube station, or sitting on the bridge with a coffee cup as a coin collector—you have solid shoes. Makes sense with all the walking they do!

With an itty-bitty flat and an itty-bitty wardrobe, I’ve tried my best to keep my shoe selection small and up to London standards.  My two favorite pairs are my lime green Birkenstocks (a birthday gift to myself during undergrad) and brown leather boots (this year’s Christmas gift from my parents).  Two days before Ben was set to arrive, I realized that the click in my boot heel was caused by a rock wedged in the hole that I had (unknowingly) worn probably caused by the miles of walking I did on cobblestone paths in Rome. Since shoe cobblers are pretty rare in my hometown, I was slightly irritated at the envisioned hassle that it would take to repair these. Good news though—since people have nice shoes here, cobblers (and dry cleaners) are almost as common as barbers. And since they have to the competition is strong, service is quick and prices are relatively inexpensive as far as London goes. Woo hoo!

Anyway, after a quick exchange at the cupboard of a store  we continued our walking tour from Covent Garden: The Royal Opera House, KCL’s Strand Campus, Twinings tea shop, the Royal Courts of Justice, KCL’s Maughan Library… all the way to St Etheldreda’s parish for Maundy Thursday (Holy Thursday) mass with a few minutes to spare.  Good thing Ben has a long stride!


Holy Thursday

On Holy Thursday, Catholics remember Jesus’ Last Supper and the Institution of the Eucharist.  Another special aspect of this service is the foot-washing ceremony, were we specifically recall Jesus’ exemplary teaching  of servant leadership.

 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. (John 13:13-15)

From my experience, the foot-washing ceremony is the part that varies the most between parishes.  For example, growing up at St Mary Star of the Sea in Jackson, MI, 12 parishioners (representing the 12 apostles) would be asked ahead of time to have their feet washed on Holy Thursday.  They were selected to represent the many faces of our parish community: young, elderly, pregnant, newly widowed, recovering from a round of chemo, etc. The priest would take off the fancy outer vestments, and go around with a bowl, pitcher of water, and towel to wash the feet of these individuals seated wherever they were in the church.  As a kid, I was captivated by this ceremony, feeling I had won front row tickets to a special when when one of the 12 happened to be sitting pretty close to our family.

St Mary Student Parish (SMSP) in Ann Arbor had 4 or 5 priests who said ~8 masses each weekend, and the physical church, which is comparatively small for the amount of parishioners they have, is often standing room only on Holy Thursday since there is only 1 mass offered.  At SMSP all the priests participate in the foot washing ceremony and they invite everybody else forward as well.  It becomes a sort of pay it forward chain of foot washing. Even though there are multiple foot-washing stations, since everyone is involved, it takes a bit longer—say 5-6 pieces of music instead of 3-4 in Jackson.

With these two very different examples in mind, I was a bit alarmed when we walked into St Etheldreda’s church and the usher approached Ben to ask if he would like his feet washed. I was unaccustomed to this on the spot recruitment method, but within 60 seconds we were both seated in one of the 12 foot washing seats. I soon began regretting the decision to pick up my boots before mass—it is not particularly easy to hide anything (least of all a large box of boots) when you are seated on the high altar.

Apart from the mass being in Latin (something rather uncommon in the US after Vatican II in the 1960s) the rest of Holy Thursday proceeded rather typically. After mass we continued our walking tour to London Bridge and routed us by my favorite grocery store so we could purchase food before most of the shops closed for the Easter weekend.


Good Friday

Good Friday was a bit more unique.  At 12pm, we watched a passion play in Trafalgar Square, the same location where I participated in the city’s celebration of Diwali this fall. I am terrible at estimating crowds, but the article that I saw stated that we were among 20,000 at the noon performance and another 20,000 attended the one later that afternoon. Post-play we made our way through the various parks en route to the South Kensington borough at which point Ben was growing more and more skeptical of his ‘jetlag’ fatigue. Good thing the pharmacy was still open!

Still wanting to make the most of his time in London, he suggested an evening service at St Paul’s (Anglican) Cathedral under the condition that he might call it quits if he started feeling any worse. I had never been to St Paul’s, which Anglophiles may know from watching Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s wedding in 1981. This Anglican service was pretty similar to Catholic Good Friday services that I’ve been to in the past except that the (loooong) gospel reading was sung and thus, lasting about three times longer normal. And being in London, there were some might fine dress hats among the attendants.

A soft drizzle greeted us after the service at which point we decided it was a good time to make some dinner and hot tea to ease Ben’s developing cough. After he spiked a 103F fever I started prepping for the worst by reading the guidelines for ‘Accident and Emergency’ (the NHS’s version of our ER) whilst trying to quash the A&E horror stories that I remember surfacing during my Foundations of Social Science, Health, and Medicine course last year.


Holy Saturday

Thankfully Ben began to feel a lot better by Saturday which supported my plans for markets & museums during the day, a taste of London’s famed Indian food for dinner, and an evening on the 32nd floor of the Shard with live music and a smidge of dancing. 🙂 🙂



Easter Sunday

On Easter morning, we gave South Kens another attempt with 10am mass at Brompton Oratory. In the States, Easter mass is usually a… full sensory experience.  Fresh lilies, incense, special music (and tons of it—many songs for prelude and postlude), starchy sun dresses, clip-on ties… Whether you look at it from a religious perspective or as a neutral third party, it is a BIG deal.

Not so much at this mass. There may have been one piece of prelude music. And after the children’s choir sang the Gloria in Latin, the 1st Reading, Psalm, 2nd Reading, Sequence, and Gospel were all read by the priest in quick succession.  Communion was organized in the ‘European’ way—no obvious queue until you reach the Communion rail. Shortly after the priest and other Eucharistic ministers began retreating to the tabernacle to store the excess consecrated hosts, crowds of people began developing on either side of the main pews. “Did all of those people manage to miss Communion?”  Nope, they’re just ready to get a seat for quickly approaching 11am Latin mass.  In and out, folks, in and out.

Post-mass we soaked up some Easter sunshine on our way through Hyde Park and took advantage of the photo opp that the flowering trees presented. We also made time for an afternoon tea before heading to the Barbican for James MacMillan’s St Luke Passion performed by the Britten Sinfonia. This was a brand new piece with a timing premier over Easter weekend. As a violinist, I felt the percussive use of the string orchestra was less than desirable, but Ben (trombonist) provided a more positive review.   We stayed for the post-concert discussion with MacMillan (composer & conductor) as well as 3 other academics with focus areas including both religion and music which satiated the more intellectual pleasure of listening to a musical performance… and gave me some great memories of Musicology at UM.  Kind of funny since that is where Ben and I first met. (We were the two engineers in that class that were also enthused about classical music haha.)

The walk– both in Hyde park during the afternoon and on the way back from the Barbican in the evening– provided a good opportunity for some reflection time of the last few days as well as the last few months. I’ve now been living in London for 8 months, but for the first time in a long time felt… like I was experiencing something quite new. I mean this in both the positive sense (Let’s see London from 32 floors up! And listen to a world premiere!) as well as not-so-positive (What lies at the core of my frustration with the rushed Easter mass?). As my elders like to remind me, this is life. And as I’ve discovered for myself, I would much rather ride out the high and low tide than breed disease in stagnant water.

Here’s a toast to the crazy days, the plain-ole-boring days, and the people that make experiencing either of those a wonderful adventure.



Featured Image: Walking across Blackfriars Bridge, St Paul’s

Let there be light!

This week’s M&M (Mass & a Museum) Sunday routine was spent in Kensington at the Science Museum and Our Lady of Mount Caramel.  I say routine, but life in London is always full of surprises.  On this particular morning, my walk to the tube station crossed paths with a herd of half-marathon runners.


Other than the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum was the only thing on the “Exceptional” / “Worth a Journey” list on my trusty street map that I hadn’t yet visited.  There were enough bio-exhibits to keep me satiated, but in general this wasn’t one of my favorite museums.  (Perhaps my expectations were too high? Or perhaps, with such gems as the Imperial War Museum or the British Museum, my standards have shifted to be quite high?)


The one objective bonus of this visit was the other museum-goers: apparently Sunday morning is the prime time for parents with children 4 years old and younger to venture out.  Many a buggy (stroller) to be found.  Though I’ve grown rather accustomed to the British accent, there is something absolutely adorable about it’s utterance in a child’s voice. To get the full effect, you must put on your best English accent whilst reenacting this scene:


Boy 1: Mummy! (tugs at the neckline of a darling little sweater) I’m warm, Mummy!

(Mom proceeds to help Boy 1 take off his sweater, take off his shirt, remove his teeny-tiny undershirt, and get dressed again.)

Mom: John (presumably the father) can you check with Henry? He also might be a bit warm.

(Henry, the younger brother who couldn’t have been more than 3 years old, trots around the nearby exhibits.  He darts behind a tower of old VWs and, out of direct eye sight from either parent, attempts to get into the passenger’s door of the lowest one. Meanwhile, John lengthen his stride to catch up to the swift toddler, soon discovering Henry’s situation.)

Dad: Henry!  Come out from there! (The space between the Tower of Cars and the wall surely would not have fit a full sized person. John’s voice becomes a bit more stern.) Henry. Come out. Now. No, do not touch the car.  Henry! No, you cannot get in the car… (John continues to rationalize with Henry until the boy surfaces again to the open air…)


Perhaps this doesn’t appear to be so humorous to the general populous, but for me, it brought back a flood of memories of growing up with my younger brother, Henry.  At 6’5″, he is now considerably taller than the British Henry that I had the pleasure of encountering this week, but he (17 years old) and my lil sister Geraldine (15 years old) bring just as many smiles to my face.  Special shout out to H & G, who will be heading to the State Championship matches this week for high school Varsity Tennis and Golf, respectively.  I’ll be cheering you on from London!

Just before I headed to Our Lady of Mount Caramel, I received a message from my friend, AB: “They’re celebrating Diwali in Trafalgar Square today!” Goodness, and just when you think you’ve made it through the “Exceptional” / “Worth a Journey” list!… 😉

I made it to Trafalgar Square around 2pm, just in time for the public dance performances. Nothing like a good bit of Indian dance music (including Bollywood favorites like “Jai Ho!”) to put a little swivvle in your hips.  Since the music and dancing could be heard from all parts of the Square, I was able to check out the side booths, quickly joining the queue for a free sari.  That’s right folks: they had piles of folded saris (~6 meters of beautiful cloth– it’s all in the way it it tied on you) that they were dressing people in FOR FREE.  The queue looked rather short, but since it takes a non-negligible amount of time to tie a sari, this translated into ~40 minutes.  I passed the time by reading one of the few physical (not digital) books for class.  This one was about Cosmopolitanism, which (as Wikipedia succinctly defines) is a philosophy “that all human ethnic groups belong to a single community”.


Considering the circumstances, I couldn’t have chosen a better reading topic.  Here were a few of my main observations.  (Before I get myself into stereotyping situations, I’ll preface this by saying that my understanding of Indian culture is mostly shaped by my travels there in 2013 with the University of Michigan Society of Women Engineers.)

  • Diwali is the Hindu festival of light  that celebrates the triumph of good over evil. Like other religious feasts such as Passover (Judaism), Easter (Christianity), and Ramadaan (Islam) the specific date depends on various lunar calendars instead of our traditional 12 month Gregorian calendar.  This year, Diwali falls on October 23, but London got a jump start with their October 12 festival.  (I liken this to having a Christmas parade in early December.)  When I glanced at the announcements from Our Lady of Mount Caramel, I was admittedly a bit amazed when I saw the main article was about celebrating light.  Upon further reading, I realized that they weren’t actually advertising the celebration on Trafalgar Square– rather, remembering the other-worldly solar activity (now referred to in Catholic tradition as the Miracle of the Sun & apparition of Our Lady ) at Fatima in Portugal October 13, 1917.  Though the overlap of events probably wasn’t intentionally constructed interfaith dialogue, it provided an excellent bridge for understanding.
  • India is a fascinatingly diverse country with a cultural color palette that is very different from what I’ve grown accustomed to in the US.  My interest in Indian culture began when my older sister Gretchen spent a 11 weeks working as an engineering intern in Chenai, and incidentally, wore a sari every day.  When she returned home, we attempted to resurrect our childhood days of playing dress up, but despite Gretchen’s best efforts I never managed to successfully make the sari look presentable.  Even when I traveled to India with SWE, the pants, long top, scarf combo of the salva kameez was all that I could handle. Since this (London) was my first experience getting fully draped in a sari, it seemed only fitting that my “blouse” was my Keep Calm and SWE On cranberry V-neck.
  • If the Brits love of queuing is on one extreme, the almost non-existent queuing strategy in Indian culture is on the other extreme.  I particularly remember a situation when I was trying to order food in the domestic airport terminal in Delhi.  Though American’s don’t queue with the same amount of fervor as Brits, I still relied on my American mindset as I approached the display case… which turned out to be rather ineffective: I stood while a steady flow of business men (from my perspective) “cut in front of me”, ordered their meal, paid for their meal, and began eating.  I’m not trying to make a case for either system, just trying to contrast the two.  While proper use of elbows and hand waving are key components of communication in India, I’m pretty sure that would earn you a stern British glare in London.  Such a juxtaposition: forming a queue while women tied saris and men politely guarded the entrances from passersby that tried jumping the queue. (Madam, madam!  The queue is this way!)


(Click on photo for expanded view + full caption.) 

The day was made complete by a delicious lunch of chole (spicy chick peas). Though it may not measure up to the dishes that I enjoyed wilst in India, it was indeed tasty.  My task now is to find the restaurants that have made London legendary for having the best Indian food outside of India.

Featured Image: sunrise from my apartment window