LONDON, England—The house at 221b Baker Street stands five stories tall, stately over-looking the historic avenue. In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s descriptions, the area perpetually bustles with passers-by, but at this time only a few tourists exit the building, making room for two more. Walking in, one finds the first floor stocked with bric-a-brac. Postcards, board games, canes, magnifying glasses, statues and t-shirts boast the shadow of Sherlock Holmes, the home’s famous inhabitant. Stuck together, the pipe-shaped magnets do their part, urging tourists to grab not one but all. The puppets look like cartoons, appealing to children as well as adults looking for a return to childhood.
Every square inch of the ground floor rooms hold another souvenir recalling the great investigator’s story. Venturing up the stairs, one finds four floors furnished to house Holmes and all his greatness. Set up as Doyle’s stories suggest, the parlor offers two easy chairs, footstools, a fireplace and an overall comfortable atmosphere. The deep colors of the fabrics suggest historical significance and high class, while the small windows remind one of the conveniences of modern architecture. Sitting in Holmes’ or his friend Dr. Watson’s chairs, one expects to hear footsteps at the stairs and a knock at the door, followed by the entrance of a neighbor with an extraordinary and puzzling mystery.
Mannequins fill other rooms in the house. One such statue slumps over an unfastened trunk, face first into the box opening. His clothes bring to mind the early 20th century, and his pose almost certainly suggests his demise. Situated in their death poses, the mannequins act as evidence of Doyle’s stories and lead the tourist to believe Holmes really did live at 221b Baker Street and really did leave his house just as it was for later generations to admire. Holmes makes no appearance in the home, except for the tourists who don his hat and handle his pipe. The atmosphere leads the tourist to imagine herself in the great sleuth’s stead, free to consider the pieces of evidence under glass in each room and the situations of many cases through the mannequins.
Though one leaves without catching a glimpse of a living Sherlock Holmes, the tourist might make the acquaintance of Dr. Watson, or at least his look-alike. The actor certainly plays the part of the good doctor, clad in his long black overcoat, dress shirt, and shiny boots, and warm underneath his round black traveling doctor’s hat. “Dr. Watson” poses for pictures with the tourist and offers stories of the cases he has experienced with his dear friend Holmes. When enticed, the actor breaks away from his character and delights in detailing his visits to the United States. Having declared steak as the height of American cuisine, the actor and his Californian friend headed out for a sublime dinner of cow meat, but long waiting times and high prices chased them away from the fancier establishments.
“Then he took me to this great place called Chili’s, and the people there served me the greatest steak I have had in my life,” he said.
Dr. Watson converses with his new friends with the same gusto as he must have treated that steak he asks questions about the tourists’ travels and bursts forth with enough restaurant and attraction suggestions to keep his friends busy much longer than their visit allows. After moments in London with people too busy to give directions, the tourists much appreciate their 20th century friend and his helpful attitude.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s world of police work and puzzle-solving lives still in this sanctuary on Baker Street, a little piece of London that matches Dr. Watson with its charm and allure.
Normandy, France—The tour guide, Helen, was a short older woman with light gray hair and a heavy jacket that hung almost to her knees. When she spoke, she drew not only on her voice and her facial expressions, but she also made use of her gestures and other hand motions. Though Helen was a tiny woman, she had an enormous voice and seemed to be everywhere at once with more stories and more history.
As a worker at the American Cemetery at Normandy, Helen spent much of her time with tourists, helping them to find the graves of their family members and telling them the stories she had heard from veterans throughout the years. The stories tended to be tragic and romantic, themes not surprising considering the events that had transpired there and the reasons people had for visiting. On the fiftieth anniversary of the day that saw thousands of men lose their lives, veterans and their family members visited the cemetery to grieve for lost lives. The grieving was not solely for those who were killed, but also for the lifetimes lost to the widows and orphans and the optimism lost to those men who survived the invasion.
One man told Helen he had been through the terror of D-Day and had been assigned to burying the dead. After 24 straight hours of dealing with dead bodies, the soldier succumbed to his need to be finished with the terrible emotional strain of the task. After carrying and situating hundreds upon hundreds of men, he began towing some of those still on the sand into the grasp of the tide.
“He had tears in his eyes when he told me this,” Helen said with a shaky voice.
At the same anniversary, Helen came upon an aged couple and nearly came to tears herself when the man told her the reason for his wife’s weeping. Back during World War II, the woman had been engaged to her childhood sweetheart, who was drafted and served at Normandy on D-Day. With wet eyes, the man whispered to Helen that his wife’s sweetheart never returned from the invasion, and though she had moved on, years later she was still scarred by the loss of her loved one.
After sharing these emotional stories with her tour group, Helen cleared her throat and continued giving insights into the terrain. Whether the subject matter turned Helen into a story-teller or it was a natural talent, members of her group felt the tragedy sting their eyes as well.
The guide tried to cram even more into the group’s already-packed schedule, but rather than being frazzled or grumpy about the changes, the group whole-heartedly embraced the additions to the agenda because Helen seemed so excited about them. From past excursions that week, the group knew that the best tour guides were those who were excited about sharing the stories, and the group members could tell from Helen’s gestures and her enthusiasm that the gun bunkers and anything else Helen chose to show could only be interesting and a great thing to check out.
When the tour brought the group to her hometown of Bayeaux, Helen’s speaking speeded up and her voice crescendoed. She announced to the group that she fell in love with the place and moved there twenty-odd years ago, but the others hardly needed to hear the words, since she grew so animated and excited upon entering the place. Whether she was relating a story about the area, rounding up group members to view the Bayeaux Tapestry, or saving their lives by stopping traffic between the Journalists’ Memorial and the British Cemetery, Helen displayed her exuberance for life and her gift for romance. A trip can be made by the setting or the trip-goers, but on this occasion it was made by the tour guide. Our tour guide. Helen.
Jaymie Ocker discusses today’s trip to Normandy.