“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life. Why, sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London.” Samuel Johnson
Tired of “full English breakfast” in the morning, but not of London, I sought refuge in the nearby Caffe Nero across Russell Square. As I sat near the door with my apricot croissant and american, I could hear the family in the corner next to me speaking German. At the next table were two elegantly dressed women who I initially thought were Italian – no, after one of them spent most of her time on the phone, I could swear she was speaking Hebrew.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, a multitude of languages, every form of fashion, people from every tribe and nation rush along the streets here in London: people who stop to take photos of gray squirrels because they think they are exotic, people who seem just as strange and exotic to me.
London IS endlessly diverting. I find always one more street, even in this neighborhood that I think I know so well, that I’ve never been down. Yesterday’s walk took me to Tavistock Gardens, a square I’ve hurried by many times on the way to the British Library or Euston Station. Inside the square I find a monument to conscientious objectors in the world wars, a statue of Mahatma Ghandi, several trees dedicated to certain people, a memorial statue of Virginia Woolf who lived in a house facing this square.
Who knew that all this was in the square I’ve so often passed by?
On this trip we try to balance the busyness and entertainment of London and other cities with longer stays at retreat and conference centers. These places are often located far away from any town or village, in quiet, peaceful settings with public footpaths leading across the fields or into the forest, with nooks and crannies within the buildings where one can hole up quietly with a good book. Sometimes there are rooms dedicated as chapels or places of prayer. Stays in these places become mini-retreats.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls..” I have had the privilege over the past few months to experience a balance of community and solitude. Traveling with 18 students, visiting major cities in the U.K., Ireland and France provides lots of community — and busyness and entertainment! We’ve gone to theaters and concerts together, as well as worship. But staying in quiet places also gave me the gift of long walks, quiet reflection and beautiful spaces.
As we leave London tomorrow, I am grateful for the gift of this great city, as well as for the quiet beauty of retreats in the country. It’s been a wonderful balance!