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Friday, August 14, 2015

From Midnight in Paris to some Sunny Afternoons in London: one long last post until my next adventure

In the airport lounge at Heathrow, heading home. We’re munching on the vestiges of our British snacks, meat pasties (that’s pah-sties, not pay-sties.) I remember one food chain in Boston used to serve them, I am thinking it was Au Bon Pain, although that doesn’t seem quite right.  But then they stopped serving them. They’re good, and I’ve just decided they bear a strong resemblance to knishes.

We had a very nice last half day in London, actually a very nice five days in all. Started off at the Tate Modern, a great modern art museum right on the Thames, in an old power plant or some such large industrial building. I’m wondering if it was in some way an inspiration to the guy who created Mass MOCA. It has some of the same capacity for large scale works, although they didn’t seem to be using it as such at present. The museum, and all, or most, of the London museums, are free, although they do ask for donations, suggesting about L4, or about $6, very reasonable. I wonder what percentage of visitors contributes. The museum seems to do quite well, they have had several times the anticipated yearly attendance, and are currently building an addition.

There is much construction all over the city.  The very friendly, chatty customs officer at the airport, and our cab driver into town, both told us how much London has changed in the last decade.
I don’t remember all this construction our last visit, which must have been at least a decade ago. The ovoid building people call the Gherkin is very impressive, especially in contrast to some of the old architecture around it. I wonder what the verdict is, if people generally like it or hate it.  I happen to like it, think it’s fun to come around a corner and get a glimpse of it. It looks rather like an alien spaceship just landed in the city. There are many more glass towers  with other unusual designs, and I get the sense that they are all competing to be the most innovative and daring in design. I saw a listing for some kind of exhibit or talk about the future of London architecture, and wish we’d had time to check it out.

We walked a lot, and took the bus a couple of times, and the tube once, in our five days. Loring strides quickly and I try to keep up, but get waylaid easily by an interesting building or store or plaque. It’s amazing that we didn’t lose each other during all of our walks.

I’d chosen an apartment in the Shoreditch area of East London, just a few blocks from the trendy Brick Lane. The street is bustling, and especially so this morning, on Sunday. Even at 10am there were throngs, and on our way back to the apartment, I mean flat, it was even more crowded. Brick Lane itself is a mix of vintage clothing stores, pastry shops or different ethnicities, and Indian curry restaurants. At each restaurant there are men trying to hustle your business.  In the neighborhood in general there is a mix of Muslim men, women, some in headscarves and some in burkhas with just their eyes showing, lots of children, and young white couples pushing baby strollers, or whatever they call them here. (prams?)

And graffiti, all up and down Brick Lane and most of the streets that came off of it. Some of it was good, some not so good. Iv'e seen a lot of street art in the last few months, in London and Paris, New York, Miami, and Havana.  I  must say I was most impressed by the graffiti I saw in Miami a couple of months ago. Not being nationalistic and hoping I don't sound like too much of a braggart. 
In medieval times, this was a Jewish area, from something I read on a tile wall produced by children from a nearby school documenting the history of the area. There was also a separate plaque, not part of the school project, that talked about Jack the Ripper and who he might actually have been. It did not say, however, if this was the area he stalked. Glad I was there in the bright sunshine, though.
Our flat was in a row of small buildings called the Victoria cottages. The Albert cottages were across the street.  They date from the 19th century.  

Our apartment had a bedroom, combined kitchen living room, a bathroom, and a small area with a desk in a kind of alcove. We were on the second floor, and the stairs leading up were quite steep and narrow, with a turn. Not a terrible problem, except that I am very leery of stairs and escalators, etc. since my recent mishap.  The windows overlooked a courtyard that the aribnb listing had described as a garden, one of the reasons I’d chosen that apartment.  To get to the garden you had to go downstairs, down three doors to a little alley where the trashcans are kept, then through another doorway into the garden. None of that would have been a big problem, but the garden wasn’t maintained, the chairs were covered in bird poop, and no one seemed to use it much aside from to hang laundry. But it did make for a nice view out the windows.

The bathroom was interesting. I’m always interested in bathrooms. The toilet and shower were the same space, with no separation for the shower. So when you showered, everything got wet, and then the floor was wet for a while too. And, I can’t say I’m a big fan of watching myself in the mirror while I am showering. Since returning, I’ve learned that it’s called a wet room.

In the five days we were there, we ate breakfast at home,  cooked dinner a couple of nights – frozen cottage pie, not bad at all, pasties the other night, and veggies. The difference between cottage and shepherd’s pies, I am told, is that the former is made with beef, the latter with lamb.
We were meeting my friend Kwan for Indian food one night, and so sought out pubs with traditional food for the other dinners. I now know what Scotch eggs are. One night I had what seemed a contemporary take, the other one that seemed more traditional. It’s basically an an egg baked into a sausage patty. My first version was made with pork and venison, and a duck’s egg. The other night was just regular sausage, and I assume a chicken egg. Both were good.

At the first pub there was a beer apparently brewed in the Bronx. We took a picture of me by the sign. But there was also a grapefruit flavored beer, and not being much of a beer person, tend to like the flavored ones, and am addicted to grapefruit. It was good, but one beer is about all I can handle, so I didn’t get to try the Bronx.

It seems that many pubs, all of which have beautiful signs and interiors, don’t serve food at all, are just bars. And I saw a couple that served Thai food, which seemed totally incongruous to me. But it all depends on the context, I suppose, and what you are accustomed to.

The several markets around  our area have a large number of stalls with clothing, jewelry, etc. and also a large number of food stalls. The variety is amazing, ranging from Japanese to Mexican (complete with very aesthetic display of yellow Old el Paso taco boxes, to Moroccan to Lithuanian.  As we approached, I noticed large numbers of people sitting on the curbs of the sidewalk. They were all eating food purchased in the market.

The quantity and size of vintage shops and stalls was amazing. I looked for a bit, then had to leave, feeling overstimulated and overwhelmed.  I’ve never seen anyplace in the US with this kind of quantity of vintage clothes.

During our five days, we met up with two old friends. One was Nicole, a Dutch woman who was one of the au pairs I supervised when she lived with a family on the North Shore a couple of decades ago.  She subsequently moved to London, married a Syrian man, converted to Islam. They lived in Syria for several years, then moved back to London.

 They have two young daughters,  who she brought with her. The plan was to meet at a fountain at Somerset House, a huge mansion that was once connected with the Britsh navy, and now is a cultural center. Nicole had never been there, and thought it would be a good outing for the kids, and it was. 

Only problem,  when Loring and I arrived, we couldn’t find the fountain. I went and asked a guard, who explained that it was in the courtyard, which we’d just walked across, but hadn’t yet been turned on for the day. So back out to the courtyard, and spotted a woman in a headscarf and two small girls, who’d seen us and were walking toward us. Just then, the fountain turned on, one of those splash fountains, and it covered most of the courtyard. The girls squealed and ran into the water.

Later, we went out to the large balcony that overlooked the Thames and had a nice snack bar, with beautiful French pastries.  We sat and talked while the girls blew bubbles and ran around in the sun, drying out their bodies and clothes. 

Nicole had planned to take the girls to the National Portrait Gallery, and we headed over with them. It seemed as good a plan for the day as any.  I have really liked that museum when I’ve been there before.

And there, an amazing thing occurred. There was an exhibit, a yearly competition for artists to submit portraits. I stood looking at one, unusual in that it showed a young man lying on the floor, back to the viewer,  not showing his face. I think of a portrait as a face, and this was interesting because it didn’t have one. I leaned it to read the information, and, lo and behold, the artist was from Massachusetts, and had just graduated from Gordon College, just a few miles from where we live.

But that’s not all!  Another woman viewing the picture looked at me and smiled. I smiled back, thinking we were sharing our mutual admiration of the painting. Then, a couple of minutes later, after I’d moved on, she came over to me in the gallery and asked if I was an art critic. I’d been writing down the artist’s name to look up later and maybe even contact. The woman who’d asked me, it turned out, was the artist’s art teacher at Gordon College, and a couple of years ago, she’d encouraged Rebecca, the artist, to enter this completion when they had visited London together with a group of students. So, an amazing double coincidence. One, that the artwork caught my eye, and two, that the teacher happened to be there at the exact moment I was viewing the painting. Added to the fact that the teacher and student had visited this very exhibit two years ago with a student group, and the teacher had encouraged Rebecca to enter the competititon.

Another day, we headed over to  two small museums we’d read about. First, the John Soane house. Soane was an architect and collector in the 17th and 18th centuries. He collected many things, but particularly Greek and Roman architectural elements, and they were arrayed all over the home, on every bit of wall space, on the floor, in nooks and crannies, many of which he’d designed himself. Loring said it was the first place he’d ever seen with more things on the walls than our house. A vast exaggeration, of course.  There were also many plans and illustrations of places Soane had designed, most of them monumental.  It turns out that Soane had students who came to the home to sketch many of the architectural artifacts. Although it’s hard to imagine too many students  being able to fit into the space at a time.

One room housed all paintings, one of which looked quite like a Canaletto , who painted both in Venice and in London. Those of you who are avid readers of this blog, if there are any of you, might remember my previous quest for Canelettos in Venice, only to find out that there were only a couple of them there. And then our subsequent weekend visit to DC because there was a big Canaletto exhibit. So to find here, in one of the lesser known London museums, actually two Canalettos, and for me to recognize one as his, was remarkable.

Next unusual museum, The Hunter Hospital museum, or something like that, was just across a small park from the Soane house.  It was a collection of medical specimens from the 19th century. It was fascinating but also kind of creepy. They were arranged in glass jars  on glass shelves on two floors. There were thousands of them, ranging from animal skeletons to human fetuses.  There was a section about ether, which mentioned Mass General, where the first anesthesized surgery was performed. And there was the examining table of, and information about Lister, who introduced anteseptics to surgery. And for whom, I assumed, Listerine was named.

Every day, we walked long distances,  between  6 and 10miles. You never know what you might stumble into. Interesting architecture and juxtapositions.  Really old buildings crammed between modern ones, some of them dating back to Elizabethan times. Yesterday we walked by a building that was part of Lloyds of London. It seemed it was just a branch bank, although perhaps it was more. There were tellers’windows, beautiful marble columns and artwork, and then also computer screens and ATM museums. The tellers seemed amused at our gawking, in a friendly way. On our way out there was a tv showing the news. It was Donald trump making one of his ridiculous statements. The guard and we chuckled and shook our heads together.

Just a few doors down was a very narrow little store, with a sign saying Twinings. It was the actual original Twinings tea store, and had been there at least a couple of centuries. They had all kinds of teas in tins, but also individual teabags from which  you could make your own selection , a minimum of 15, which of course I did, making sure to check each one for hibiscus, which has a very strong sweet taste that I don’t like, and which is an ingredient in many herbal teas. There were many more choices than are available at home, and I was pleased to see that there were quite a few without hibiscus!  Now I just hope I like them.

And then up, eventually, toward Covent Garden and the theatre district to the Harold Pinter Theatre, where we had matinee tickets for a musical about the Kinks called Sunny Afternoon. I had looked hard for a play that wasn’t a revival or a play that had originated on Broadway. This one had gotten good reviews and much of the story takes place in London.  I was able to get tickets in about the 5th row, in the orchestra, or rather the stalls, as they say here.

The play was terrific. I hope it makes it to Broadway. I didn’t really know that much about the Kinks, although I was familiar with most of the music they used in the play, which depicts their early years in the 60s and early 70’s. The play tells the story of the group’s early years, through the music.  It doesn’t feel like they forced the music onto the story, the songs work well to tell the tale. And since, as Ray Davies says at one point, the songs are about us, it makes sense, and that’s the whole point, I guess.  It just keeps moving, and is very well staged and choreographed. There’s a walkway up through the stalls, on which a lot of the action takes place, along with performers running up and down the aisles. I’m a sucker for a play that puts the actors out into the audience, I think it always adds an element of excitement and connection.

I was ready to wait for the actors by the stage door, but don’t think Loring thought I was serious. I used to do that regularly when I was in high school and went to Broadway matinees on my own.

After the play we met up with my old friend Kwan, whom I’d met perhaps a decade ago, on my volunteer trip to Transylvania, where we and a dozen or so others worked with kids from a social service agency for a couple of weeks.  I hadn’t seen him since, but we’d stayed in touch through facebook.

Kwan lives about two hours outside London, near Nottingham and Sherwood Forest, which he said is still (ie since Robin Hood’s time) a nice place.  He took the train in, and back home again, that same day. He has friends in London, and comes in periodically to visit.  What a treat to see him, and we were amazed that he spent four hours travelling back and forth, just to meet us for dinner. We had dinner in an Indian restaurant not far from the theatre.  Dinner was fine, but not better than Indian food I’ve had at home. Don’t know that I should expect it to be, but since London is replete with people of Indian heritage, and with Indian restaurants, I guess I’d expected more. The restaurant advertised itself as the oldest Punjabi restaurant in London, with four generations of the same family running it. I suppose that doesn’t necessarily mean better. Anyway, the main point was to visit with Kwan.

Kwan walked us over to Holborn station, where we took the tube for the first and only time. The second day there had been a one day tube strike, which didn’t really affect us. The busses still ran that day, and we did take one, although we’d thought they’d be terribly crowded, and I was in no mood to cram into public transportation after my previous mishap.  But they were not overwhelmingly crowded, although the streets were, with throngs of people walking home from work, and the ride was very slow.

That day, our friendly bus driver was very forthcoming about his disdain for the strike. The tube workers are unionized, the bus drivers are not, according to our bus driver, and the train workers also make about three times the salary of the bus drivers. And the work, as he said, doesn’t require the same level of skill as driving a double decker bus in narrow streets and traffic.  The tube workers are striking to prevent being put on different schedules as the new night service gets implemented.
Other London adventures -  on our last morning, before the West End show, we walked across the Millenium footbridge, near the Tate Modern, where we’d started out the first day, and then along the Thames. It seemed like everyone in London was doing the same. It was a nice sunny day, and I’d say it was a mix of Londoners and visitors.

We walked from the Tate up to the London Eye, the impressive Ferris wheel along the riverbank. Along the way, there were buskers, cafes, an art center, and a summer festival, which included a small artificial beach along the lines of the Paris Plage. We stopped to have our final meat pies at one of the many stalls and cafes.

Those busking included living statues, although the trend these days seems to be moving ones, so perhaps statues isn’t the right word, sand castle builders, (on the real sand at the edge of the Thames, not the artificial beach) and musicians.  There were signs with rules for the buskers, to relinquish the space after two hours if others were waiting to perform, to stay in the designated spots, etc.

  I mentioned toilets a while back, and that I had more to say on the subject. I’d read about some London tours called Loo tours, a tour of various public toilets in the city. It was started by an American woman who was frustrated by the lack of free public toilets, and wanted to share info about where you could find them. But she also got into the history of plumbing, which is very interesting.  So there was lots of info about the Romans, who did have plumbing systems, to the Middle Ages, when they dumped it out the windows, etc.  According to the website, she and her two employees do tours a few days a week, but there was also an audio tour. We weren’t available for one of the guided ones, weren’t even sure she still conducted them.  So we downloaded her tour yesterday, did a long walk before, and picked it up a few miles along. Some of it was interesting, especially the historical parts. But we ran out of time and interest partway in. I think it would have been much more rewarding as a live tour. It’s kind of hard to follow the directions, not because she didn’t do them well, but because we kept getting distracted by other things along the way, and also because we were trying to share one phone and pair of ear buds.

Our plane home didn’t leave until 6pm Sunday. We wanted to be there by no later than 4pm. And the ride in from the airport had taken 2 ½ hours through crammed city streets. We’d been told 2 hours by our airbnb host, and were incredulous about that, but it was an underestimate. So we knew we wanted to leave our flat by 1:30pm.

Our driver on the way in had given us his card, and said he’d give us “a good price” on the way back. Since we had no phone, we’d  borrowed Kwan’s at the restaurant the night before. Loring got the guy on the phone ok, but the next thing I heard, on Loring’s end, was “you’re leaving for Greece tomorrow morning?”  Which put us back at square A as far as a ride to the airport. We considered taking the tube after all, about which we were both hesitant given my recent debacle.  So we went walking, a last stroll through the neighborhood, which we’d planned to do anyway, hoping to find a cab we could schedule for later.

Out on Brick Lane we soon stumbled into a cab agency, with a bell to ring for an upstairs office. The man came down, clearly from his residence above, very friendly, and quoted us a price of less than ½ of what we’d paid on the way in. We didn’t hesitate, although I have a feeling we could have negotiated an even lower price.And chances were he wasn't licensed, but that's something we don't worry about much, having taken many unlicensed taxis in many countries.

So the rest of our last morning was a visit to Whitechapel  Gallery. We’d passed by it several times during our stay, but hadn’t had the right opportunity to visit until now. It was a great last event. There’d been some type of competition, and the works, all modern and in a variety of media, were on display. They ranged from video installations to sculpture to paintings. 

The trip to the airport took an hour, less than half the time as on the way in, although the driver had said an hour and a quarter to an hour and a half. That might have something to do with the much cheaper fare.  This was early Sunday afternoon, and the way in had been a weekday  afternoon.
The trip back was uneventful . That’s good, I’d had enough of eventful for a while.  Many exciting experiences, a near disaster mishap and then, another one, memories of sitting by the window or on the balcony, night after night, watching the Tower twinkle, and then, finally getting to share it with Loring. Lots of museums and monuments, and also many unexpected places and events stumbled upon. Seeing some old friends after a long time, three in all from three different places and times in my life.

And now here I am on my porch, finishing up this chapter of my travels. . I already read last Sunday’s Travel section. What’s next, who knows, but I’ve got a bunch of ideas.
I’ve got to watch Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris again(hate the man, loved the film) keep up my French, and figure out a way to get the Kinks’  “Sunny Afternoon” out of my head.

signing off, for now...

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