December 20th, 2005
From the other side (of the channel)
The four of us pushed into the Eurostar and found our seats. We were on our way to London via the under-the-channel "chunnel" train. Our friends, Linda & Susan, were with us and we were all in high spirits.
I was vowing to everyone who would listen that this time I was going to bond with London...
In visits past, I had found this mega-city difficult and unappealing, gritty, un-pretty. Not to mention the food - but enough of that. In all fairness, during my previous visits I had been suffering from jet lag or last-night-before-flying-home anxiety so, really, this poor impression of LondonTown had been forged on suspect conditions.
Whatever - I was determined to look anew.
The two Russian men in the seats across the aisle from us broke out their flasks and settled in for the journey. We broke out our Palmiers (palm-shaped pastries) and settled in also. As we munched, the train glided (or could it be glid?) from the Gare du Nord and Catherine read to us from the London guide book. I practically choked when she announced that Paul, a pastry chain found on every other corner in Paris, was listed as a gourmet restaurant - voila la difference. This did not bode well for my bonding vow. But Catherine assured me it was okay.
The train trip was a breeze. The chunnel tunnel was not claustrophobic and we even managed to study our Richard II notes during the ride (more about that later). We slid into Waterloo station just as the sun was setting and London looked glorious in the golden rays. A good sign I thought.
Bumping and pushing our bags out of the station, we got into one of those long, black, London cabs. Very roomy with a boot up front for the luggage. Our cabby didn't quite understand our accent, nor us his, but at least we were in the same ballpark and that felt comforting.
It's not that I can't communicate with the French taxi drivers (in fact I carried my end of a 45-minute conversation just the other day when I went to get our Thanksgiving pie from The Real McCoy grocery store over in the 7th arrondissement.) However, here in London there was an assuredness that no matter the accent differences, we would finally understand and be understood. In France I am always afraid that may never happen.
Our hotel, the Hilton Euston Plaza was on Upper Woburn in Bloomsbury right near Mary & Bernie's apartment. Mary told me the hotel had just been renovated and it was nice inside. And, best yet, it was smack in Virginia Woolf territory so the ghosts of writers past drifted about. Very London.
After settling into our rooms, which were exactly what one would expect from a redone Hilton - comforting, we went to a little Indian restaurant just across the street and down Woburn Walk. The night had come crisp and cold and the leaves crunched underfoot. I had on my wool scarf and mittens and my breath came out white as we walked. It was tight and warm in the restaurant and we supped (isn't that the word?) on chicken tika masala and somsas and nan and curried vegetables. We all agreed it was a great first meal and Catherine predicted we were going to have good food in England - a tip of the hat I think to my bonding vow. (We did go on to have a number of nice meals, and even the very soggy one in Oxford seemed fun rather than horrid.)
That night, I slept like a dream and woke to a beautiful fall morning and breakfast in bed.
Catherine and I spent most of the next two days at the Frieze Fair while Linda and Susan took off on other ventures. Although described as crass feeding frenzies, the big art fairs do provide a huge amount of work within a short period of time. They're art marathons. Eyeball extravaganzas.
In only three years, Frieze has become one of the hottest fairs on the circuit. Rows of galleries filled with artists and art buyers underneath a huge white tent right in the middle of Regent's Park. It was hopping. In fact, I read that about $12 million worth of work was sold during the four-day fair and many careers were made as well. I didn't actually see any frenzied art buyers, although I heard they were up to all kinds of scandalous tricks.
Me, I bought a catalogue, the small one that didn't weigh much and I did feel a little frenzied while waiting in line to do so.
I came out of the show mightily impressed with English organization and I loved the crowd and felt right at home. Being able to eavesdrop without language barriers was a plus and the numerous cafes in the fair pavilion had passable coffee. Moreover, Regent's Park was stately and as good as any Paris park and I told Catherine I wanted to come back. She smiled in that cheshire cat way.
The second evening of our stay was our big Shakespeare night - Richard II with Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic Theatre. Heady stuff and hence the reading of Richard notes on the train. Susan actually slogged through the play on the airplane, but the rest of us only managed cliff notes from Wikipedia.
I was flying high because my brother Charles had just arrived in London to accompany his Board of Directors (from the Great Lakes Theatre Festival which he runs in Cleveland) on a luxe art tour. We were invited along for their first night of theatre - the Spacey night. What timing!
Charlie looked fantastic despite jet lag. The five of us walked over to Quaglino's, a new Terence Conran hot spot, for dinner. Everyone seemed to know Sir Terence - a household word - so I played along and then looked him up on the Internet.
Conran is the English designer who founded Habitat and The Conran Shop and supposedly created the idea of "lifestyle" in terms of home furnishings. As I see it,"lifestyle" in this context means a look of designery sameness between the salad bowl and the bedroom lamp that spells SMOOTH.
I know about this "lifestyle" thing from IKEA. Affordable perfection. (Oh no, your gloves don't match your shoes.) They are definitely into this matching perfectionism in Paris but I thought London was more about mish-mash. Guess not, if Conran is any indication. It turns out IKEA came first, and now IKEA owns Habitat. IKEA was founded by Ingvar Kamrad (the I and K in the name), who began his career selling matches in a small Swedish town. Put that in your Horatio Alger hat.
Habitat by the way, saved me and Catherine when we were so desperate to furnish our apartment and didn't know where to go. Situated on the right bank of the Seine, across from Le Samaritaine (which is now forlorn and closed), Habitat glows with designery perfection like a beacon of hope. Many a day I rode the Line 9 and Line 1 metros down to Habitat and came home laden with curtains and pillows and, yes, a salad bowl. I didn't do so well on the matching perfection because I got overwhelmed in the store and couldn't think straight; however, I figured an expat is allowed some leeway for cultural disorientation let alone the lack of a car for transporting home furnishings.
And to think all this went on without my knowing of Sir Terence.
[Speaking of Sir's and hats, I am reminded that Sir Elton is getting married in London this week to his long-time Canadian beau because England has just passed the gay marriage act. Hats off to the Brits. And what kind of hat will Elton wear? A friend is going, only 600 of Elton's closest are invited, and we're hoping he brings back stories.]
Anyway back to the tale, Quaglino's was empty. It was too early for normal people to be eating. And it was incredibly sleek, glide-ably so. I can't remember a thing about the dinner or the decor for that matter (that's the thing about perfect - it's not memorable) except that Charlie regaled us with stories of people refusing to see Henry IV because they hadn't seen the first three yet.
After dinner, we boarded the Board's big charter bus and bounced over the Thames to the Old Vic theatre. It was misty out and we passed Buckingham Palace. Catherine, Linda, Susan and I got introduced to the crowd in the bus. I stood and waved just like the Queen.
The play was good, all grays and blacks and severely elegant. Sometimes the stage looked like a Hopper painting, other times like a Rothko. Spacey too seemed to slide from form to form - at moments rather Hitlerish and at others like an 80's junk bonder. After the play we bounced back to Charlie's hotel and had a round table discussion with Ben Miles, the actor who played Bolingbroke opposite Spacey's Richard. As a night, it was simply the best. One that I wish I could do over and over. (It seems London was giving its all for me.)
The next day Linda, Susan, Catherine and I left with a wistful good-bye. We drove north to Saffron Walden, a small market village near Cambridge where there is a giant, turf labyrinth. We had a lunch of Toasties (grilled cheese) and celery soup and then walked the labyrinth.
At Linda's instigation we had been to the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral a few days previous, and the Saffron Walden one was similar except it was outside and grass rather than inside and stone.
Walking a labyrinth is an ancient practice designed to bring about spiritual balancing and enlightenment. People often mix up mazes and labyrinths - but they are quite different. One is meant to confuse; the other to clarify. Labyrinths are actually symbolic of the life journey from the outside to the center and back again, and the twists and turns taken during the process of walking one are supposed to create an interaction between right and left brain activity that produces a deep, inner alignment.
The labyrinth at Chartres has been a destination spot since medieval times. Apparently walking it (on foot or on knee) was a mock pilgrammage to the Holy Land. A crusade for those who couldn't get out of town. We took the train there, about an hour each way, and then we had a lovely lunch right next to the cathedral at a charming place with lace curtains and cushy chairs. Not much in the way of arduous but who says pilgrimmages have to be painful?
Labyrinths are found all over the world, and since the 1970's there has been a renewed interest. This has motivated the restoration of many that had been neglected for years. In Sweden alone there are over 300 stone labyrinths near the Baltic Sea, most of which were built by fishermen who walked them to ensure good catches and fertility, and many of which have now been re-stoned. So labyrinths abound now - who knew?
I don't know if I've been spiritually altered by these labyrinthine trompings. I'm not sure there's been enough time to tell. But as far as enlightening goes, I figure nothing ventured and at the least I've had a few good excursions.
After our walk on the Saffron Walden labyrinth, we headed for Oxford and then Bath. It was a quick jaunt through the countryside during which time Catherine did a smash-up job on the driving bit and we saw a little of Merry Ole. I lost my glasses in Bath so things were a little fuzzy on the trip home - which is as it should be after such a brilliant time of it. (I've noticed how my language has taken on an English affect in this letter - I am insufferable.)
We came home to where we don't understand the language, as Catherine says, and I announced to everyone who would listen that I had bonded with London. Then I went down to Paul's for a gourmet croissant.
Happy Holidays and a Joyous New Year to all of you!