Exactly one week after I met up with George and Elizabeth, I traveled into Central London again. This time, it was a solo affair. I loved how quickly I could get in and out of the city center from where I now lived. There was so much to see and do that I wanted to take advantage of while I could. After all, there’s no guarantee of living in this city long-term. I told a friend of mine that I was heading in again. The friend, who had studied at King’s College London for his undergrad, replied with “I wish I had seen more of London while I was there. After a while, you forget to be a tourist…”
This time, I was checking off a target I’d had on my 2021 to-do list for a while now. I was heading straight for the British Museum to see the Nero exhibit, something I’d been planning on doing as soon as I moved to London. The exhibit ended in the last week of October, so I had to make it a priority. Despite there only being a week left until the exhibition closed (it had been open since the spring of 2021) it was still extremely busy. I shuffled along in a slow-moving line through a dark studio, elated to finally see the various exhibit pieces up close.
I’ve been obsessed with Ancient Rome for a while now. This year I had already finished Mary Beard’s SPQR, the TV drama Domina, and the indie game The Forgotten City, all three of which I loved, and now I was seeing some real Ancient Roman artefacts in person. I had an assignment this semester where we were tasked with redesigning a book that’s out of copyright, using the industry-standard software for publishing, InDesign, which we get free through the university. For my project, I chose to redesign Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico. I’m not sure what it is about Ancient Rome that captivates me so much. I gazed at the various marble busts of the exhibit, thinking there was something haunting- eerie, in fact- about them. Maybe it’s the fact that their paint has faded away and their eyes are blank. Maybe it’s their stoic, austere expressions. The busts in front of me were 2000 years old, and the people they depicted were long since dead.
It’s hard to imagine what the people who looked on them 2000 years ago thought or felt. Did they think of them in artistic terms, or were they as mundane to them as Instagram filters are to us? Would people have sneered at how handsome and heroic Nero’s statue made him look? Would those who didn’t know what Nero really looked like have looked on the statue with a mixture of fear and reverence? What did these sculptures that I find so beautiful mean to the various people who looked at them? After all- those are the people they were designed for. None of these things were intended for me, for us, for the museums that now house them. They were built for a context that no longer exists, a different context to the one in which they presently exist.
As beautiful as the busts were, one of the most striking things in the exhibit for me was the iron grate that had been pulled from the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE. You could see how the grate had been warped by the extreme temperatures of the blaze, and something about that really got to me. More so than the fabulous- albeit cold, self-aggrandizing busts- this grate carried some emotional weight to it. It felt more real than anything else there. This unglamorous, purely functional everyday item now told a story. I think that’s it- unlike the others, this particular piece had narrative power. It was supposedly used in a shop prior to the Great Fire of Rome, and so I feel like its misshapen bars give you an impression of the average joe in 64 CE whose life was suddenly upended by what happened. It set my mind off in a dozen places: What did the shop sell? What sort of interactions did the customers have with the shopkeeper? What became of the shopkeeper? Did they survive the fire or perish in its flames? How much did Nero really affect the life of this kind of person? Did this shopkeeper think about Nero much at all? Did the customers chat about him as they waited in line?
After I left the exhibition, I thought about these things as I headed toward Soho for some lunch. I figured it was only right to eat Italian food after seeing Nero, so I stopped at a nice little place, Amarcord Museum Italian Restaurant. I enjoyed a delicious shellfish linguine and felt good about life. This, right here, is what self-care looks like, I told myself. An Ancient Roman exhibit, some authentic Italian pasta, and I wasn’t done yet. For the afternoon I’d booked myself a ticket to see The Green Knight at the Curzon Soho, which was a film I’d been wanting to see for a long time. As it happened, a lot of films that I was interested in seeing were coming out around that time (that same month I also watched The Last Duel, The Many Saints of Newark, and Dune). And one of the things I was most excited for when it came to living in a big city was the prospect of having access to lots of arthouse movie theaters.
The Curzon Soho was an interesting cinema. It’s located on a street corner and all its screens are underground. I went down several levels, admiring the retro movie posters on the walls, thinking how crazy it was that somewhere above, the busy comings and goings of Soho continued unaware. I also wanted to watch Last Night in Soho in this theater for the novelty factor. My plan was to go on the last day of showings and remark to the person at the front desk “So you could say it’s the last night I can see Last Night in Soho in Soho?” whilst waggling my eyebrows. Sadly, I got consumed with the everyday stresses of being a Master’s student and never got to see the film.
I very much enjoyed The Green Knight though. Dev Patel absolutely killed it as Gawain. I loved how moody and mysterious the whole film was. It’s the kind of movie you end up thinking about long after you finish watching it. I exited the theater trying to dissect the film’s ending in my head, walking at an unhurried pace back towards Waterloo. On the whole, it was a really fun day, and though I’d have to budget accordingly before my next trip, I loved that I could so easily pop in and out of the center to experience the various things it had on offer.