Tiptoe......................peeking through the gate

London, Day Three


Dear Friends~

     Day Three, which was Thursday, was supposed to be our Big Day in London. That meant the British Museum. I have a long and complicated relationship with the institution. When I lived in London years ago I never made it there. My excuse was, "I lived in London. I wasn't a tourist!" On a pleasure trip to London with a friend fifteen years later, I still didn't make it. New, true excuse: "My friend doesn't like museums!" Finally, in 2009, when I was traveling with my academic husband and three of our children, it was time to do it!

     So we did....but got there an hour before closing. (Huh?) Just enough time to see the Elgin marbles and nothing else. My husband was annoyed. "How in the world," he muttered, "can you go to London and wind up at the British Museum just before closing?" It was puzzling. Very puzzling. And we were out of days. So, when Ross and I returned alone to London in 2010, we were determined to Do It Right. Strangely, very strangely, the same thing happened again. The British Museum was almost the point of the trip and we arrived just before closing. Saw a few choice mummies and the Mildenhall Treasure. Blimey, Ross must have been thinking. What gives here? Indeed.

     It took me until July of 2012 to figure it out. This time, we had the Museum at the top of the agenda, and Ross had made it clear it Must Happen. But, on the day of reckoning, just before we left our hotel room, I had a lightbulb moment. "Ross," I said. "I just realized something. I think I don't like museums. I only like to have lunch in museums!" I cringed. What would my husband, teacher of Ancient History for ever and ever, do/think/say? He looked me in the eye...and then chortled, "Ah ha!, now I see." He raised his index finger in the air in a teacherly gesture and wagged it at me. "That is why through the years we spend less and less time with the art at the museums and more and more time in the restaurants!"

     Yes, yes, I nodded. Quite true.

     So we compromised. I don't much like studying paintings that can't move or talk (I'm fine with a  look), but I do love to people watch and wander the streets of a city. Ross offered me lunch at the Museum anyway, and said he would stay on to study artifacts while I left to study people.

     Lunch was wonderful. A special Shakespeare's London exhibit had just opened, and the restaurant was offering Elizabethan fare. Pan-seared trout with a celery remoulade; Mallard duck with quince jelly and a mound of thinly sliced, layered beets and potatoes laced with gruyere (pretty). Lemon posset (light lemon curd) and a Shrewsbury biscuit (shortbread) for dessert. Wonderful! It was so good I made a point of finding the chef to tell him so. While still flipping or slicing (it was opening day of the new menu) he glanced up and smiled at me. “That makes all the work worth it,” he said.

     Our blonde waitress was sunny and startling in lime-green levis and a white shirt.  Look around London and everywhere you will see a swarming sea of mainly black, gray and white clothing bobbing up and down the streets. Coats and sweaters, slacks and dresses in two tones. Ride the subway, look down the train and you will see a long line of mostly black and a little white. I complimented the waitress on her bright levis and asked why everyone wore black. She laughed. "Well, I've lived a while in New York City," she said. "They're all depressed over here. It rains all the time."

     I said goodbye to Ross and plunged out the Museum door to do London my way. It was raining (of course). I didn't care. My plan was to walk several fascinating miles in the shape of a square, landing back at our hotel in time for early dinner with Ross. The route took me down to the Aldwych, across the Strand, through Haymarket, up Regent Street and down Oxford back to the hotel. I was in my element (rain, I guess) the whole way. Bits of talk floated through the air like down, leaving me to imagine the before and after. Plots formed in my head about this haughty woman and that sheepish man. No wonder Dickens walked London five hours a day between lunch and dinner!

     My route included a stop at St. Martin in the Fields, where I slid into a worn pew for prayer and was treated to a little practice by a harpsichordist. Sweet. Down to the undercroft for gifts to take home. Way down there they also have the best tea in London. Around $10 US for a pot of tea, scones, chocolate cake, whiskey cake, cherry slice. I skipped tea sadly, since Ross wasn't with me this time. All that cake would be hard to walk off!

     Regent Street was in high gear for the Olympics. The shopping mecca for the world was hung with flags from dozens of nations. I stopped in Banana Republic to look for a London dress (I know, I know, it's an American company, but almost all the shops are over there) and found a tropical, silky sundress to remind me of our trip. In retrospect I realize a black or gray dress would be more reminiscent of London! I remembered from living there in the 70s that London clothes were better tailored than their American counterparts. And, in fact, when I put the dress on back home, Ross commented, "That dress looks really well made."

     More mist down Oxford Street and then into the dry hotel. Ross had just arrived, and there was another complimentary platter of grapes and pears, cheeses and crackers on the coffee table. A bottle of wine, too. Dinner. There was also a letter from the management responding to my complaint that I had been bitten a couple of times by bugs while sitting in the desk chair the day before. Management said they were delighted to inform me they had checked thoroughly and there were no bugs in our room. If you say so! Problem was I still had two inch-wide welts on my leg. (More on that another day.)

     Apres dinner, we had tickets for a double harpsichord concert at the Handel House a few blocks away. We walked over and took seats in Handel's performance room, where he more or less gave dress rehearsals of his works before they went public. The fellow to my right was a young man who looked like an old friend of ours thirty years back. I asked him where he was from, what he was doing. Turns out Henry is an American kid having a hard time settling. A saxophonist and composer who can't finish college. A young man hungering to travel, while three nervous aunts in Arizona wrung their hands and told him please, please, please don't, don't don't.

     Somehow, he broke free of the handwringing and left on July 17th, but found himself hours later across the sea in an interrogation room with nervous British officials who were not amused by his reasons for entering the country. They held him for five hours, peppering him with questions and the same questions and then some more. All the aunts and their fears seemed to materialize in the air, hover there,  surround him, choke him, as he sat in that chamber. Why did you come with no return ticket? Why did you bring only the mouthpiece for your saxophone? What are you doing here anyway? He didn't know what he was doing, brought the mouthpiece in case he got a chance to play someone else’s saxophone but wanted his own gear, didn't know when he was going back.

     After five hours of psychological and spiritual wrestling, Henry was released both from the horror chamber and his aunts' fears, and walked away a free man. He still didn't know why he was in England or when he would go home, but he was at peace. Since he mentioned wanting to find a monastery, I suggested he contact English L'Abri, where I had been a student decades before. He thanked us (Ross had joined us by this time), saying how grateful he was we seemed to understand  a young man who had a hard time settling. Oh, yes. We do.

     After the harpsichord concert--so elegant, so gracious and temperate!--I came up with a new and delicious plan--afternoon tea at 9 p.m at Selfridge's department store. Ross was less than enthusiastic. I tried to explain several different ways why this was an excellent idea. None of them gained any traction. Finally, he said what defeated and weary husbands have said for generations: "I'll do it to please you." I accepted.

     Afternoon tea is just as good at 9 p.m. as it is at 4. Even though I was seated across from a man who mildly disapproved of the outing, I savored every crumb of my two scones crowned with glistening jam and clotted cream, and every drop of my Earl Grey tea. Our Brazilian waitress, Emiliana, remembered us and greeted us like an old friend. We told her our son was thinking of moving to Brazil and she gave us her email address. "Just let me know if he goes," she urged. "My brother will look out for him." Nice!

     Back to the hotel for a good night's sleep, because tomorrow's plan called for many more adventures.