London for Thanksgiving

Random Vacation Notes

It was very cold. 

Our hotel was the Base2Stay Kensington at 25 Courtfield Gardens. The towel racks were heated yet nothing spontaneously combusted. Crazy!

I was lucky to be traveling with three ladies who love posing for pictures, there's none of that "For fuck's sake, not again" exhaustion or even feigned exhaustion, they are all good fakers and complete hams even when they're truly exhausted. And so pretty! If you stacked the two things Sarah loves best—laughing and being photographed—on one of those justice scales, it's tough to tell which side would pull her down first. She would hire her own private paparazzo if she could.

Also, this was Chelsea's first trip to London—in fact her first international trip ever—and although she rejected all of our suggested nicknames, I would say she passed the test. 

Day 1

We had Thanksgiving breakfast at Balans. For the record I will trade a turkey dinner for the full English anytime.

Thanksgiving's big activity was a ride on The Eye, which I've wanted to do for ages and ages. I guess it's a little like going to the top of the Empire State Building or visiting the Statue of Liberty, but I love those things, too. I mean, let's call a nerd a nerd.

That afternoon we spent a lot of time on the Golden Jubilee Bridge at near-twilight, being loud and American. Oh, but I repeat myself!

Thursday night, Roxie and I saw the other two off to the prom (opera), then went for dinner at Bumpkin in Notting Hill. We split a bottle of rosé and enjoyed a long lovely chat, and that is all I have to say about Bumpkin in Notting Hill.

Day 2

Friday was our Gaudy Night field trip to Oxford. There are 39 separate colleges spread out through this little town and we passed maybe 10 of them, most of which are closed to visitors. You would need 18 pairs of legs to see everything in one day.

Day 3

Saturday morning Sarah and I had lunch at the Tate, which was the best part of the Tate aside from Rodin's The Kiss, which I plan to follow around the world. I enjoyed the slow-cooked pork shoulder sandwich, the view from the restaurant on the top floor of the Tate, and Rodin. I ate a lot of pork on this trip; it was an almost exclusively piggy week. Nobody knows why.

In the afternoon I strolled around Borough Market and then headed east towards Tower Bridge and then north to  Brick Lane where I strolled right off the map and feared I'd have to pee in a corner until finally I stumbled upon Liverpool Station. Stop and think before you decide to walk everywhere alone, that's all I'm saying.

Day 4

On Sunday we wandered through Bloomsbury searching for the ghost of Dorothy L. Sayers and found her just where we thought she'd be, on a quiet little street in a tidy little building watching cable TV.

At least one of us has a copy of Gaudy Night with her at all times. You would call it a talisman, I believe, which according to some dictionary is both a lucky charm and something called a "juju," which is essentially witchcraft. I can't really argue with that. Roxie brought her special carryalong version, which she can never toss because I made her underline all the good parts.

We found the actual street where Harriet Vane lives in Gaudy Night, or would have lived if she were an actual person (which let's face it she kind of is). In modern times Harriet Vane would ride the Swamp Rat, still dressed in her cozy tweeds and little cap and Magical Blouse of Vulnerability. 

On Sunday afternoon a girl we passed on a deserted street in Bloomsbury pointed us in the direction of a local pub and we followed the direction of her pointing down an even more deserted street and at the end of it was The Duke, which is how I came to spend Sunday afternoon with three friends in a corner booth in a corner pub in Bloomsbury drinking a glass of cider and watching the room turn gold as the sun fell around us, and I got that feeling I always connect to my family, of being happy and safe and home, no matter where we are, and a couple of times it came at me so intensely I thought for sure it would shoot right out through the top of my head. Yet I managed to hold it in. This was my Thanksgiving.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Rose Theatre

Finally somebody wised up and turned A Midsummer Night's Dream over to the queen. And not just any queen, but one who is a Dame. (I like both senses of that word.)

Let me interrupt myself at the beginning to say no one has been better served by turning their hair silver and hacking it short, nor by laying on the eyeliner. Dame Judi, I salute your flawless slide into fashion babedom, which from what I can tell started past the age of 65. But then slide isn't quite accurate, either, it's more like that "out-bursting of a trodden star" that Thomas Lovell Beddoes talks about. May we all be trod on similarly, dears, and burst out with such tremendous fun and flair.

(Again, don't be mistaken, this is not a review.)

Now here's a long story in 10 sentences: When Kristin Scott Thomas pulled out of A Little Night Music, I figured somebody owed me something, and that something turned out to be Judi Dench playing Titania in Peter Hall's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Rose Theatre in Kingston, just outside London. I ordered my Eurostar ticket online, so all I had to do was show up at Gare du Nord Thursday morning, check in, sit down, and go.

Except I caught a stomach bug in Paris the day before.

And then had to get to London on zero sleep, an empty stomach, and a badly shaken digestive system.

And then had to get from London to Kingston.

And then back to London.

And then back to Paris.

And I did it.

On three bottles of Sprite and half a room service hamburger.

A testament, my friends, to the lure of seeing Dame Judi Dench on a stage.

(Still not a review.) Also: tip! Use the iPhone maps app. Seriously. I would still be walking in circles in the wilds of suburban London, talking to strangers, without that thing. Kingston needs to crank up the signage, because some of us are American and not geniuses who can intuit what "west" might be according to where the sun may or may not have set two hours earlier on a rainy day.

Moving on.

A Midsummer Night's Dream isn't my favorite Shakespeare play, not by a longshot, endlessly bored as I am by the troubles of juvenalia. Those four crazy kids will go on and on (and do, and did). But with Shakespeare the one thing you can count on is never seeing the same play twice; the conceit here is that Dame Judi is Elizabeth I, so enchanted by the fables of her courtly players that she decides to kick it herself as the good Queen of the Faeries (there's a short wordless intro where she enters as QE I, picks up a Playbill, then disappears). Thus as Gloriana is she bedecked, beruffled, and bewigged throughout, falling head over girlish, impish, rapturous, gleeful heels in love with a weaver in the form of an ass. And what an ass! I loved him, too, with his big silly head and his soft puppy eyes and those long, long lashes (played with perfect panache and tomfoolery by Oliver Chrisproduction stills here). The sad/happy sight of this 75-year-old woman, this dame, this queen, letting go with such ease, turned entirely upside down by this monster who almost doubled her in height—sighing with such joy, laughing with such release, piping in with a loud honking bray to match his, caressing his woolly ears with such trust and tenderness—ah, this was what I got out of bed and crossed the Channel for.

And I would do it all again in a second, the flu, the train, the train again, getting lost in the dark, getting lost again, the no sleep, the wavering hunger, all of it over from the start. It wasn't the jungle, for heaven's sake, but for me it was something wild, having to give up so completely any concept of familiar ground, and realizing I could survive there, by gut and on tiptoe if necessary, and enjoy it, which is the key, enjoy whatever comes, and nothing felt remote, it was all right there with me, visible, every detail—that was the gift I went seeking last week, the reason I went alone, and I write it down here, now, so I can remind myself later where I found it.

London wraps

We stumbled our way through London, SarahB and I, exhausted but eager, generally plan-less but ready for luck. (Actually we had no choice, our chief rallier having fallen ill at the last minute. Woe!) We were forced to be nimble, if you will, and made the best of it by stumbling. The city that received us was ready to help, by the grace of taxi drivers, shopkeepers, concierges, ticket salesmen, and waiters. Eternally patient men. I suppose they've seen worse than us.

Stumbling opens the city before you, lays you at its mercy, drops you at doorways and odd corners and—at least once—onto a train heading in the opposite direction of your desire (Moorgate, to be precise). It renders you vulnerable—one wrong turn turns into three and then six and by the time you recover your wits you are already on the wrong side of the map. You may need to part ways with your pride on this, but it's true: you have to step into the map.

Stumbling leaves wide room for surprise. It's what makes you audience to a parade of mounted sentries passing through Hyde Park as you search for a bathroom (of course) five hours after arriving, barely awake but still standing thanks to an ice-cold lemonade and the clip of an autumn breeze. Hark! say your ears before you turn your head, are those horses I hear? Horses far off, horses drawing close, the racketing counterpoint of hooves on cement, fresh on the heels of a rollerblader. (What do they sound like through headphones? The rollerblader's not telling.)

Stumbling says, Here are your limits. Dear god, HERE ARE YOUR LIMITS, and wear comfortable shoes. Bring a scarf. But mostly it says, Why not? It leads you through bright garden squares and book-lined streets, into public houses large and small and even something nicknamed "The Show after the Show," where you dine before the show on pâté and salad as a guitar-and-accordion ensemble bears its mark upon your evening. (I wouldn't discount the accordion as an instrument of joy, though it sounds better at the other end of the table.)

Stumbling means sometimes you should check the facts beforehand, so you'll know whether or not Elizabeth I (via Westminster Abbey) is entertaining on Sundays. (Tragically not. But she was always a little weird about religion.) Likewise the Leicester Square discount ticket booth, where you flip your proverbial coin and take your proverbial chances (in this case, An Inspector Calls, which came out one pro and one con, noir-ish allegory understandably not to everyone's liking). Also, you're liable to eat more sausage & mash than is good for you, and are all the gladder for it. And nothing stands between you and the Strongbow.

Finally—do I need to say this?—stumbling requires good instincts (i.e., we're not dum-dums, and SarahB is no London neophyte). A vibe is a vibe and a big city can be mighty big, and this one felt substantially bigger than the one we had left. Nerve-making, is the true sense of it, and in the way of the best adventures—as foretold, as sought out, as stumbled upon—utterly rich and rewarding.

+ flickr flickr flickr

Come send your love to London River

The evenfall, so slow on hills, hath shot
Far down into the valley’s cold extreme,
Untimely midnight; spire and roof and stream
Like fleeing specters, shudder and are not.
The Hampstead hollies, from their sylvan plot
Yet cloudless, lean to watch as in a dream,
From chaos climb with many a sudden gleam,
London, one moment fallen and forgot.

Her booths begin to flare; and gases bright
Prick door and window; all her streets obscure
Sparkle and swarm with nothing true nor sure,
Full as a marsh of mist and winking light;
Heaven thickens over, Heaven that cannot cure
Her tear by day, her fevered smile by night.

— Louise Imogen Guiney, "The Lights of London"

Passport check: LONDON

London Westminster: The Sun Won't Set

via www.flickr.com

Remember that episode of Friends when they go to London for Ross's wedding to that awful Emily, and Joey spends the whole trip shouting "London, baby!" in Chandler's ear like a buffoon? (Of course you do.) Well, I am that buffoon. And you might want to toss some words of pity and prayer in SarahB's direction* because today we leave for LONDON, BABY!

* She is extra lucky, since I will also be practicing my French. LONDON BEBE! Quelle horror.