Monday, May 23, 2011

Work in Progress: This Realm, This England, Part 1

Despite being an English major, immersed in English literature, I had never been to England. Now that I’ve just returned from a week’s vacation in London, I can only bemoan that it took me so long to get there.

Reader, I loved it.

I’ve always considered New York “my” city, the indisputable place of “where I’d live if I had millions of dollars.” Now I’ve got to amend the game to “where I’d live if I had millions of pounds.” I’m already feverishly plotting a way to get back—and soon.

To help stave off my depression at being back at boring old home, here’s my trip recap. (Yes, excessive and overly detailed…as much as I admire the British spirit, I can’t quite embrace restraint just yet.)

Day 1: We arrived at Heathrow, and I literally loved London from that moment. Everywhere was a sense of order! Rules! Politeness! I felt a strong and immediate kinship; I just instantly knew this was a place for me.

It helped that we stayed at an amazing hotel, The Savoy (first opened in 1889; in Covent Garden), which recently reopened after an extensive remodeling.. We were upgraded to a larger room—always nice; and also a good trick so that the guests don’t then complain about the crash of the bottles for recycling hitting the dumpster early each morning. From the beginning, The Savoy was known for its cascading showers, and the modern interpretation of that is to brag about the size of the showerheads in the bathroom, and they aren’t kidding: this thing was the size of a pizza. Best hotel shower ever!

Our room wasn’t ready, so the hotel treated us to our first English tea—thank goodness the server took pity on us and taught us proper pouring techniques; by the end of the trip, we were pros. After a restorative cuppa, we walked along the Thames—no rain!—and when the lack of sleep set in, took a boat ride which was helpful in orienting me to the bridges and neighborhoods. The boat was peaceful until a school group boarded and the top deck filled up with boys proudly wearing new lime green Yankees baseball caps. In spite of the commotion, I teared up when I first spotted Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. And Big Ben was…well, ever so much more than just a clock! I teared up then, too.

A nap, and our first British food at Gordon Ramsay’s Savoy Grill: Steve’s steak pudding in suet crust was excellent, and somehow the simple side dish of carrots managed to be the best carrots I’ve ever eaten.

Day 2: Our hotel package included breakfast, which meant we returned to the lovely and elegant Thames Foyer and were allowed to order WHATEVER WE WANTED from the breakfast menu. !! I asked several times—“Really? Whatever we want?” So—tea, fresh squeezed orange juice, and—of course—the English breakfast, with scrambled eggs (sort of an odd texture, but I adapted), sausage, smoked bacon, ham, grilled mushroom and tomato. How I loved the toast rack! How Steve loved getting salmon royale—eggs benedict with smoked salmon. Clearly we would have to walk off those nine million lovely calories…

And walk we did: to Trafalgar Square. To Buckingham Palace. (It’s massively huge. I mean, really, does one family need all those bedrooms?) To St. James Park (the British ducks were adorable). To 10 Downing Street. (“It’s America’s White House,” we overheard a tour guide explain to his group, after which everyone dutifully took pictures.) I later read in the Daily Telegraph—the paper I loved reading every morning for its odd stories about bee swarms settling inside car doors and its rigorous attention to the poor woman who was beheaded by a vagrant—that the Camerons actually live in 11 Downing Street because it’s bigger, but I didn’t know that then, so stared only at 10.)

We took a thousand photos of Big Ben, all of them straight into the sun. Admired the Houses of Parliament. Stood in a long line at Westminster Abbey (thanks, Kate and Will!).

The Abbey was worth the wait, and, of course, I felt very familiar with it, having watched the royal wedding. (Official programs available in the gift shop…yes, I bought one!) We audio-guided our way through the Abbey, just stunned at the beauty of it, and how OLD it was. That was my constant theme, muttering, “Everything here is so OLD”? And the other constant theme: crying. I cried at the Poet’s Corner. I cried at the War Poets: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity." I cried at T.S. Eliot: "The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living." I cried at Shakespeare: “…Leave not a wreck behind.”

To recover from the crying, we went to the famous American Bar at the hotel and had some amazing cocktails, including a fabulous White Lady. (Recipe here)

Indian food for dinner at the Masala Zone—perhaps not the most authentic place in London, but a thousand percent better than what we used to. At least I didn’t cry there!

Day 3: After another breakfast in which we ordered ANYTHING WE WANTED, we bravely rode the city bus--!!—to the Tower of London. We thought about taking the Yeoman Warder’s tour, but between the herd of 250 people following him about and my inability to understand the nuances of the bellowed accent, we went with the audioguide again, and were pleased. We saw the prison with its graffittied walls where political prisoners languished (better to be there than beheaded, of course) and learned that the guards back then hedged their bets in terms of treatment, since they were never sure who might end up in power again. We saw the Crown Jewels—good lord! There was a 530-carat diamond the size of an egg! I was on board with all the coronation traditions and egg-sized diamonds…but then I got to the Imperial Crown of India, which was worn ONCE, when King George V went to India and no one wanted to let the Crown Jewels leave the country, so they made a whole, huge special crown just for this ONE trip. It was never worn again, and frankly, I don’t think it would be so terrible to sell off pieces of that and, I don’t know, donate it to the Globe Theatre or something. (Scroll down for a picture)  Saw the famous ravens. Fell in love with William the Conqueror’s White Tower…it was so OLD, started in 1078. After several hours of exploration, we were exhausted. So, what better time to go walking?

We walked across the Tower Bridge and got to see it open, for the anachronistic “Dixie Queen.” On the other side of the river, we strolled along…curious about something we’d noticed in the guidebooks, and, frankly, seen labeled on every single map: Vinopolis. The guidebook described it as a wine bar…which at this point sounded more restorative than tea.

On and on we walked. When we finally arrived, we paid for a package of 6 wine tastings and a Bombay Sapphire cocktail (and that was the smallest package!), and entered the wonderful world of Vinopolis…which was inhabited by young British girls tottering about on stiletto heels in packs of bacherlorette parties complete with blinking tiaras and sashes that read “the future Mrs. John Williams.” We consoled ourselves with imagining that we were actually doing something that British people might do—in fact, we might have been the only tourists there. We did have some decent wines in our tasting, though there was one unfortunate, still-makes-me-shudder choice of a white from South Africa that tasted exactly like green peppers.

Walked home—might I say that there has been NO RAIN this entire time?—and Steve dozed while I read the entire Tower of London guidebook. (Ask me anything.) By the time we got moving again, the pub we wanted to go to was no longer serving food, so we ended up at an “American”-style steakhouse in the theatre district called Sophie’s that was satisfying and served up some excellent desserts: sticky toffee pudding and rhubarb fool.

To be continued....!


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.