Saturday, April 14, 2018

last day in London

For the first time, we have a sunny day, with temperatures flirting with 60 degrees Fahrenheit. It's a Saturday, so the streets are crowded with weekend wanderers. Over breakfast, Joyce and I discussed spending the morning packing (flight tomorrow at 10am, we leave the hotel at 6:45am, we have dinner at another very fancy restaurant, this time with the director of the play we'll see tonight, so preparing now is pretty much unavoidable). After that, we were going to ride a bus over to the parks near Buckingham Palace to spend some time people watching.

But alas! it was not to be. Joyce, despite her cane and years, is absolutely fearless and full of energy. I, on the other hand, am a wuss. The pace and variety of London mostly makes me feel overwhelmed and lost. I canceled on our park outing, crawled back into bed, and pulled the covers over my head, which had exactly zero effect on how overwhelmed and frightened I felt.

Finally, maternal guilt dragged me out. I promised Lizz, the older of my two daughters, that I would bring her back refrigerator magnets.

One of the reliable delights of this trip has been Ed, the concierge. We tell him what we want, and he guides us to the best way to do it. Today, I needed low-budget tourist traps, and Ed sent me off three or four blocks to the vicinity of Leicester Square, where I found just what I needed. Mirabile dictu, I even found my way back. Usually my sense of direction is great, and my internal navigation gets me from here to there and back again almost without a thought. Not in this neighborhood, where streets do not meet in right angles if they can avoid it.

Plus I've had no stamina whatsoever walking around, with the exhaustion inflicting itself suddenly causing a torrent of sweat along with the weariness. It's probably something I should discuss with my doctor when I get back, but meanwhile it has given me a great excuse to take black cabs everywhere. When I'm not succumbing to London overwhelm, that is.

Friday, April 13, 2018

why haven't we heard about this?

This morning's London Times leads with a story about a joint British/US task force headed to Syria. Lede: 'The largest US air and naval strike force since the 2003 Iraq war was heading towards Syria last night as Theresa May won the backing of the cabinet to join in military action. US-led strikes after the suspected chemical weapon attack in Douma which left as many as 40 people dead are expected within the next three days."

Later in the story: "The US is amassing ten warships and two submarines in the Mediterranean and Gulf region. The mobilisation will give Mr. Trump the option for a significant military campaign against Assad. The USS Donald Cook, a guided missile destroyer with up to 60 Tomahawk missiles, is already within range. Three other destroyers are also close by. In addition, the USS Harry S. Truman, a nuclear-powered carrier with 90 aircraft and five escort ships, which set sail from Norfolk, Virginia on Wednesday, could be included in any action by the end of the week. ... The fallout from the Douma attack has the most dangerous standoff between Russia and the West of modern times."

I'm a news junkie. NOT ONE OF MY US NEWS FEEDS HAS ANYTHING ABOUT THIS. Why do I have to be in London to find out we may be heading into war with Russian and Iran in Syria? Is the American press focused so myopically on Trump's twitter feed that they can't see a major military operation underway? If it were one of the British tabloids, I'd figure it was just typical hype, but The Times of London?

If my head weren't so stopped up with this cold, I would be seriously freaking out right now.

Thursday, April 12, 2018


You know that feeling when your body is deciding whether or not to succumb to a cold? That's what I've got today, which is why I'd huddled in my hotel room, drinking lots of water and sleeping when I can.

Yesterday, I spent seven hours in the Young Vic, a wonderful theater, watching the two parts of "The Inheritance", a play by American playwright Matthew Gomez, about the experience of gay men in the 21st century, structured around E. M. Forster's novel "Howard's End". The first half was dazzlling -- a magnificiently coordinated chorus of excellent young actors on a nearly bare stage that was mesmerizing for three and a half hours. Joyce and I spent our supper telling each other how great it was and anticipating the second part. Then the second part was talky, a little unbelievable, and kind of clunky. You know a play is not doing well when Vanessa Redgrave (no, really!) comes onstage to play a grandmotherly figure caring for a magical house, and you wish her speeches were shorter.

So I'm tired and snurfly and trying to rest up so I can enjoy the play this evening.

One note I need to enter: we find ourselves surrounded by handsome, attentive, solicitous young men, many with French accents, who comprise the wait staff at most of the restaurants we've patronized. I suspect it is a side effect of Britain's fading connection to the European Union. Another handsome, etc., young man, a Croatian this time, pedaled Joyce and me home on his pedicab from the theater where we saw the Olivier Award winner for best play, "The Ferryman". Magnificent in some ways (I'm talking about the play now, not the handsome Croatian), a bit clunky in plot structure. A couple dozen characters, all speaking in Irish brogue that left me struggling to understand the dialogue at times. There was lots of livestock on stage, including a live rabbit, a live goose, and a live baby, all of whom turned in convincing performances. It was set during The Troubles, the conflict between Catholics and Protestants that is again hanging over the Emerald Isle as the Brexit negotiations stumble against the  question of Irish borders.

And every play we've seen so far has featured actual flames -- Monday night, we were at a theater lit entirely by candles; Tuesday night, a lampshade caught fire (deliberately -- it was in the script); and last night, a crucial document was burned to keep an intended heir from getting a property. It sure focuses the audience's attention.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

A Cold, Wet Monday

Yesterday, it was very Portland here in London. It rained on and off, it was chilly and grey, and Joyce and I spent four hours riding a tour bus around London seeing buildings and neighborhoods and parks and bridges. It was astonishing, then it was interesting, then it was overwhelming. London is so much bigger than Portland, not only in space, not only in population, but also in history. References in the narration on the bus ranged from "this is where Paul McCartney wrote "Yesterday"" to "this is where the Romans founded Londinium shortly after Jesus died". We got on assuming there would be a round trip of a couple hours, and when we hadn't gotten back to our starting point (Trafalgar Square, within sight of the Nelson Column and St. Martin-in-the-Fields) after almost four hours, we disembarked at Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum and caught a cab back to the hotel.

Black cabs are wonderful. You can get one with an iPhone app like Lyft's -- say you want a cab, the app finds you by GPS, and offers you several sizes of cab within single-digit minutes. The drivers are courteous without being servile. They navigate the maze of inner London streets with calm and The Knowledge, an intimate familiarity with how to get from point A to point B without having to consult a map or tune into a GPS. They calmly offer assistance with eveything from entering and exiting the cab (most black cabs have modestly higher thresholds than I'm used to) to convincing the credit card reader that we are indeed able to pay the fare. And, if asked, they can provide guidebook information about such things as the nose carved into the marble of a gate outside Buckingham Palace that has been rubbed smooth by horse guardsmen rubbing it in passing for good luck. (Its original purpose was to provide backup for sculptures whose original nose might by knocked off. That's what the cabbie said, and I have no reason not to believe him. Why else would there be a nose carved ten feet up the side of a marble arch?)

Last night, we saw a play presented in a low-tech theatre (candlelight only) with magnificent wood work. It was vaudeville plus exquisite puppetry based on four Hans Christian Anderson tales -- "The Little Match Girl plus Some Happier Tales". I was lukewarm at best about seeing it -- "Fairy tales? Give me a break! Where's the dark complex insights into the human condition?" -- but it was excellent. And the discussion afterward ranged all over the place -- great exchanges of insight and understanding.

Tonight it's the winner of the Best New Play Olivier Award, "The Ferryman". We'll have dinner at the Savoy Grill by Gordon Ramsey. And afterward another discussion session. Ain't life grand!

Monday, April 9, 2018


My daughter points out that I saw Hamilton on the night before the show swept the Oliviers, the British equivalent of the Tonys. The show won best musical, best actor in a musical (Aaron Burr, who was competing with the guy who played Hamilton), best lighting (which recreated the Battle of Yorktown onstage), best choreography, best sound, best supporting actor in a musical (King George), and a special award for outstanding achievement in music for Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote Hamilton, and orchestrator Alex Lacamoire.

In case you're thinking of seeing the show over here, the next available tickets are for a Thursday matinee in November. Plan ahead.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Hamilton -- side notes

I can't say anything meaningful about "Hamilton", which we saw last evening.  It is at least as good as you've heard, and probably better. The largely British crowd whooped and hollered in spite of being "the bad guys" in the American Revolution, and everybody sang along with King George's 'da-da-dah da da" in his first song, and everybody stood and cheered and clapped for minutes at the end.

I wish I could have gone from seeing the show to talking about the show with the Brits and Europeans, for whom it was not (a) familiar history and (b) our side winning. Maybe it's just testimony to what a marvelous work of art "Hamilton" is, such that its art overcomes its historical setting. But I'd like to hear what a Brit saw and experienced, what a European saw and experienced. I was often moved to tears by the recreation of familiar history in a mode and medium so much of the present. Damn, that show is SO GOOD!

On our way in, we had another "kindness of strangers" episode. As we walked toward the theater, we saw a line stretching for about a block from the entrance. I wasn't sure what it was for -- maybe people hoping for released tickets? I saw a gigantic man -- over six feet tall and bulky like a wrestler or mafia enforcer -- in a suit coat clearly posted to control any unruliness in the waiting crowd. I asked him what the line was for. "Tickets", he said succinctly, his eyes never leaving the people in line, as if he was expecting to have to enforce the rules at any moment. "Oh, we have tickets, so I guess we should join the line," I said. "Is she with you?" he asked, looking over at Joyce, standing with me, leaning on her cane. "Yes," I answered. "Oh, no, mother, we can't have you waiting in that line, come with me," he said, and led us to the front of the line, clearing the way before us like an ocean liner with two row boats in tow. He was so big and so intimidating and so unexpectedly kind, and I loved being called "mother" in that British usage that I only knew from BBC dramas.

People over here are much more soliticous of the aged than I'm used to. When we got into the black cab to go to the theater, I slipped and fell back onto the sidewalk. Fortunately, I landed on my backside instead of my head -- I put it all down to the fact that I was wearing a long skirt (believe ir or not) in a vain attempt to "dress up" for the theater. It was my first outing in the skirt, and I wasn't used to the odd binding effect of the loose material around my knees. (Joyce says it wasn't that, it was my inability to find grab bars inside the cab's back seat, and she asked several times if I was sure I hadn't hit my head, probably fearing a potential concussion. Me and professional football players.)

So as I lay there on the sidewalk, a guy from the hotel, the cab driver, and two random passers-by, one east Indian and one with a French accent, helped me to my feet, inquiring after my well-being.
Repeatedly. I guesss I actually am obviously a little old lady.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

London: the kindness of strangers

I jumped onto the departing Heathrow Express as the doors closed. But my friend and traveling companion Joyce, walking behind me, didn't make it onto the train, and the conductor was unable to re-open the doors. I had both our tickets, and she had no phone (yet). The conductor instructed me sternly to find a seat. The train pulled out, fully loaded on a late Friday afternoon, headed for downtown London.
"Don't worry, we'll take care of your friend. She was the one with the walking stick, is that right?", the no longer stern conductor asked me in a pleasant African accent. A passenger on the train helped me find a place to sit.
The conductor made a phone call. A staff member back at the heathrow train station found Joyce, told her there was no problem, that she should just take the next train and "tell them Vernon said you can ride without a ticket."
Meanwhile, I had arrived at Paddington Station, dragging my luggage behind me and wondering how I would find Joyce again. A woman and her daughter, leaving the train when I did, told me not to worry, she was sure things would work out. The African conductor left his train to wait with me, paying to rent me a luggage cart, checking schedules to see where I should wait, telling me how to get to the taxi ranks without having to drag my luggage up a half flight of stairs, and, when he had to reboard his train, connecting me with a colleague who babysat me until Joyce emerged from the next train, having successfully invoked Vernon's name to get a free ride.
The driver of our black cab to the hotel was young, conversational, and very well informed about American politics, though he confessed to having no idea where Oregon is. We rode through dense traffic on London's narrow non-rectilinear streets discussing gun control -- his idea was that we should limit guns to what the founders knew of when they wrote the Second Amendment, breech loading muskets. He said following American politics is almost as good as watching "Dallas" for sheer entertainment value.

We are now happily ensconsed in pleasant single rooms at one of the points of Seven Dials. Now if we can only adjust to the time difference, and if I can only get unpacked!