Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Work in Progress: This Realm, This England, Part 2

Here’s the rest of my (excessive!) write-up about our recent trip to London. More crying, more pudding…and if you missed Part One, you can find it here:


Day 4: Woke up early (for us) so we could get to the 11:00 AM service at the Queen’s Chapel at Savoy, which featured a lovely choir and cherubic young soloist with an angelic voice. We were also gratified to learn from the very welcoming ushers that the church had a special stained glass window to honor the cathedrals in Washington, DC, that had stored the church’s silver during WWII. Interesting to start a church service with everyone singing “God Save the Queen,” and it’s no wonder that she’s living such a long, excellent life with so many prayers sent her way. Again, we loved doing something that felt a little bit British.

Off to the National Gallery to admire art. Having been to Westminster Abbey and the chapel, we spent more time than we might have typically with the medieval and Renaissance religious paintings. And, yes, I found a reason to cry here, too: at Leonardo da Vinci’s “Cartoon,” which is a study for a painting. That face…this hardly does justice, but it’s still beautiful even online.

We then walked around the fancy shops on Jermyn Street—I couldn’t believe there was a whole STREET devoted to men’s shoes, shirts, and cologne; Steve was loving it—and on Old Bond Street. No wonder the British men are noticeably more fashionable than the men (and women!) I see around DC—shocking that a bespoke suit might look a wee bit snappier than a rumpled pair of Dockers, isn’t it?

That night was our fancy dinner at Scott’s, a seafood place. It was good—and certainly buzzing—but I did resent having to pay a “cover charge” to sit down at a restaurant! We had oysters, which were thrillingly brinier than the oysters we usually eat around here, and we both had Dover sole, which was excellent. Emboldened, we ordered a side of carrots here, too, and they were also superb. What do those British cooks to do to carrots, I wonder? Keeping in the pudding track, Steve had Bakewell pudding for dessert, and I had rhubarb/apple pie with a scoop of clotted cream the size of my fist. Yes, I ate it all.

Day 5: I’m starting to worry about having to leave. I never want to go home. I want to move into the Savoy. I’m starting to say “lovely” to everything.

We finally get to the Globe Theatre and take a tour. I cry when we step inside the building and I see the stage and the ground area. It’s also shocking to learn how recently this building opened—1997—and that it’s an American actor who spearheaded the drive to get it open (Sam Wanamaker; a struggle of 25 years to fund and build it)—and that in Shakespeare’s time, the play was presented to the actors in the morning, they rehearsed a couple of hours, then put the show on that afternoon—and only that one time! Great and inventive gift shop…I end up with an edgy “Alas poor Yorick” T-shirt. Steve goes for a “What fools these mortals be” coffee mug.

Back across the river to St. Paul’s Cathedral and another audioguide. Even with hordes of people and a zillion school groups, this cathedral is spectacular. I’m a new Christopher Wren fan—interestingly, the first architect to see a cathedral to completion. And he developed an instrument to measure a flea’s eye! We walked up the 247 narrow stairs to the Whispering Gallery in the dome—but skipped the 514 more to the top for the view of London (the sign that said “Stairs are narrow and winding and YOU CANNOT CHANGE YOUR MIND and turn around” was convincing; Steve, not a fan of heights, was actually convinced after one minute in the Whispering Gallery). It was moving to be reminded of the Blitz and the bravery shown by average British citizens—a team of people spent nights in the Cathedral during WWII so they could put out any bombs that hit the church. I cried at Nelson’s tomb: “England expects that every man will do his duty.”

Tea at the fancy Dorchester Hotel! Finger sandwiches! (Cucumber, egg, salmon, chicken, cheese.) Scones! Clotted cream! Jam! French pastries! I’m not sure one is supposed to pig out on finger sandwiches and scones, but they let us, so we did…in an elegant way, of course.

Dozing…and then to the Beaufort Bar in the Savoy Hotel, which specializes in champagne. Mmmmm…bubbly! We try not to think about how many pounds we spent in one day on beverages.

Day 6: The allure of tea, ordering WHATEVER WE WANT for breakfast, and reading the Daily Telegraph has not waned.

We reverse gender roles: Steve goes shopping, and I go to the British Museum (which is an evil vortex of 10,000 school groups all filling out worksheets about mummies). Once I dodge the mummy room, I’m in Babylon, Assyria, and many other REALLY OLD places, where I see letters on clay tablets, jewelry, dishes, a piece of Gilgamesh (dating roughly 2000 B.C.). Then I discover rooms about the Romans in England—and am seeing now that I can finance my new life in London if only I manage to discover a “hoard” of silver that was buried in England back in the early A.D.s. Illegal to keep such a find, of course, but it’s still tempting, given that people are today digging up stuff like that! (Read here about some Roman silver from the Brackley Hoard, a group of over 300 coins discovered in 2005 by a metal detectorist on agricultural land in Northamptonshire, England.) It could happen….

The Rosetta Stone was amazing. Egyptian statues strewn all about were amazing. The room done up as a 19th century museum was amazing. I cried when I saw the display of Grecian urns set up as if in the original museum (founded in 1753) and imagined John Keats seeing such an urn and deciding to write “On on a Grecian Urn” (though I’m technically not sure of the origin of his poem).

I also liked the recent items: great displays of Victorian jewelry and dishes…same type of stuff as what was displayed about the ancient cultures—so things haven’t changed all that much through the centuries. A culture is its plates.

Meanwhile, Steve happily sprayed his hands with every British cologne known to man, talked suits and shirts and cufflinks, found the food at Fortnum & Mason, and came home with a number of exciting edible, smellable, and wearable treats. It’s not clear if he cried.

Commence dozing.

And the theatre! I was so tired that I thought, “This had better be some amazing play.” And it was: War Horse. I had been dubious despite the uniformly excellent reviews, perhaps because descriptions included the words “heart-warming” and “horses brought to life by giant puppets.” Really? Puppets? Call me a believer: the puppets were amazing; you could not believe the level of study and detail that made skeletal puppets the size of a horse—operated by humans in full view—become totally horse-like. The puppetry was so beautifully amazing that I cried the moment the first foal appeared on stage. And since the play was about World War I, I cried about that, too. And since it was about WWI and how horses were sent to take part in the war and had—of course—very poor conditions to deal with, I cried the most about that. Luckily, the play was so heart-warming and so beautiful that practically everyone in the theatre—even the stiff upper lips—were crying by the end. It’s playing on Broadway now: GO SEE IT!

Day 7: Steve tried kippers at breakfast, which he loved. We strolled around Covent Garden and the neighborhood. Then it was into The City to meet a British business associate of Steve’s for lunch. Have you heard how British people often are good drinkers? Believe it. We met this guy at The Wine Library, which was an amazing place, tucked in a cellar filled with—guess!—wine! No tables, but benches and stools and a lovely, small buffet of various terrines and cheeses (mmmm…hare terrine! Some sort of fish mousse!). The star attraction is—guess!—wine! You stroll through the cellar and pick out a bottle, which is then opened, decanted, and served. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Oh, heavenly.

I’m embarrassed to record what all was consumed. Suffice it to say that it was a Hemingway-esque afternoon, and that port was involved. And, you know, when you spend all afternoon drinking wine—followed by a few quick beers—it really feels different than drinking at night. On our way from the wine to the beers, we saw a glimpse of the Roman wall. I got to say it one more time: My God, things in this country are OLD!

And what fun to get to chat with a Londoner. He took my multitude of nosy questions in good spirit and explained to me why I was tacky (yes, they use that word) for reading the Daily Telegraph. He offered nuance on the darts tournament we had seen on TV one evening. He explained the difference between Manchester United and Manchester City (and made sure to brainwash us into hating Manchester United). Basically, he taught us everything we need to know so that we can fit in when we move to London next week.

Back for our last meal: Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, an elegant, British restaurant that opened in 1828 as a chess club and now features giant roasts being wheeled around and carved tableside. We took a hunk out of one of those—fabulous! And can one be rhapsodic about horseradish sauce? This one was worth rhapsody. Continuing the pudding theme, we shared treacle pudding for dessert.

Day 8: WHATEVER WE WANTED for room service breakfast, and off to the dumb airport. I cried.

To conclude:
The only bad thing was that my allergies were still kicking up, even from London trees. And cars don’t seem to hold pedestrians in the moderate regard that the U.S. does; I was mildly terrified every time I crossed the street. Literally, those are my only complaints about London.

And finally: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” Samuel Johnson…whose house we passed by on one of our walks.


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