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From Finding Sir John Soane Marbles to Einstein's Luggage

My last day in London was spent building up a firm dislike of the French. I didn't set out to do so; it was thrust upon me. It started first thing in the morning, when I was woken at 8am by the whispering and giggling of three French girls. They managed to giggle and hiss their words in such a way that it would have been preferable for them to shout and kick over chairs and crinkle plastic bags; certainly less irritating at least.

So I was dragged out of a pleasant sleep in this decidedly unpleasant way, forced to wake up over an hour earlier than I intended. So I made my way to one of the highlights of my time in London, the Sir John Soane's Museum, a sizeable townhouse that once belonged to a 19th Century architect and art collector named, oddly enough, Sir John Soane.

Soane was a firm believer in the supremacy of the classical era, especially artistically and architecturally, and the museum that was once his house is filled with the detritus of his lifetime of collecting. Ancient chunks of marble, paintings of Greek and Roman buildings both real and imaginary, blue prints, paintings of proposed buildings (he was an architect himself), even a number of models. Roman busts sit on every table, and every wall uncovered by paintings is itself covered by large oak bookshelves filled with leatherbound tomes. In the cryptlike basement, an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus sits amongst classical columns. A separate picture room is set aside for two series of Howarth paintings, "The Rake's Progress," and "The Election," both satirical and patronizingly moral.

Soane left the house to be converted into a museum upon his death, on the condition that things be changed as little as possible. The caretakers--one with the bushy eyebrows of a mentat and the worst facial tick I've ever seen, a series of rapid blinks that contort his entire face and call attention to muscles you never knew existed--appear to have honored his request.

Unfortunately, once again, I encountered obnoxious Frenchmen. A tour of French high school students--mostly girls--were swarming the museum, standing disinterested in the already cramped aisles. They seemed more interested in exhibiting their own treasures--belly rings, tight jeans, and push-up bras--than examining the priceless Egyptian sarcophagus or the fascinating marbles.

I'm not really sure who they were preening for. The caretaker just blinked furiously and I simply pushed past--a gesture that itself seemed to be welcomely interpreted as an awkward grope and did more harm than good. Still, my days of awkwardly groping teenagers are over with, no matter how tight their jeans or bare their navel. I just wanted to explore the bloody museum.

So, with this fresh French frustration filling me, I prepared to leave for France. Luckily, my Francophobia was almost completely overwhelmed by my hate and fear for airports and airplanes. I was flying via Ryanair, which operates out of London Stansted airport. I'm not precisely sure why it's called "London" Stansted, since after paying 14 pounds and driving for an hour and a half on the airport shuttle, I think I was closer to France than to London. Of course, given my travel luck, the hour and a half leg of the trip turned out to be the short leg.

After arriving at Stansted and spending nearly an hour in line just to check my bags and get my ticket, I spent another three hours being shuffled from one gate to anoher as the flight was repeatedly delayed by a U.K.-wide failure of the air-traffic control network. Three hours late boarding the flight the actual flying time took only two rough hours in the air. Still, the eight hours from start to finish for the trip was more than necessary; and of course it always feels much longer.

I actually have developed a theory about this, whilst sitting in Stansted. Actually, it's more of a theory about a theory. I firmly believe now that Einstein must have spent a fair amount of time in airports and airplanes. His theory of relativity, most especially the section concerning the variability of time, must certainly have been developed due to his experience of spending time in airport queues and waiting lounges. Not to mention sitting on the runway waiting to take off.

You see, according to relativity, time moves differently around areas of especially high gravity and at excess speeds. So, the exceptionally high concentration of mass centered in airports (of which my luggage makes a not insignificant contribution) creates something approaching a naked singularity (basically, a black hole), thus warping time around an airport. This is what Einstein observed, and which, as a good scientist he refined from an anecdote into a world-shattering theory.

So, like the proverbial light-speed traveling twins, the person who spends time in an airport or in an airplane will have aged at a faster pace than the person waiting for them, in proportion, of course, with how long that person was waiting for them at their airport.

As for me arriving in Perpignan, Ylva had been waiting for me at the airport for the entire extra three hours, and was about as happy as I was about the wait. I was tired and grumpy, happy to finally see her but having to struggle to pretend I was happy to be in France. Ylva eased me into it by making me a meal of baguettes and cheese (pretty much the only meals I ate in France) and taking me to a French filled Irish pub to drink chilled red wine and Foster's beer. I'd like to claim it made sense at the time, but it didn't. Still, I wasn't buying, so I wasn't complaining.

Ylva also eased me into the French experience by whisking me off to Barcelona the next day.


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This page last updated on 10 June, 2002, and does still try to awkwardly grope teenagers.
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