…I am back, with a series of dispatches which lack of high speed access (and inclination) prevented me from posting while overseas…
My last overseas trip was last April when I made a harried dash for Paris to enjoy my 35th birthday. It was a whirlwind and meant to be: a mad, last minute decision, and one that was thoroughly, if frenetically, enjoyed consisting of little more than food, wine, shopping and the company of beloved friends.
This trip to London has been surprisingly sedate; and I am somewhat surprised by the change. Granted, much of the trip was given over to the day job duties (which alas, is not food – but corporate – related) so I did not actually get to enjoy London until my last three days in the city. My sister Kaly was also in London, enjoying the final days of her holiday; and so we agreed to spend Friday together before her scheduled departure on Saturday. As it happened, I came into the city Thursday night and so we were able to meet for dinner.
My sister suggested that I stay in Central London and recommended the Edwardian Kenilworth hotel, which I can heartily endorse – it featuring spare, Asian-inspired aesthetics, a plush bed (which, after four days of Spartan quartering in a business hotel was an intense relief), and best of all, a minute’s walk from the British Museum.
Her own hotel was a block down the street; a curiosity which induced me to ask: “Why did you have me stay here then?”
Answered she: “I wanted to see what this hotel was like in case I wanted to stay here on my next visit.”
Me: “You used me as a hotel guinea pig?”
She: “Yes, of course.”
Ah the bonds of sisterly love.
“What do you want to do?” she asked.
“Eat at a Gordon Ramsay restaurant, but apart from that, I haven’t any plans.”
“Why don’t you let me show you my London?”
We have not traveled together in almost thirteen years. Our last foray overseas was with our two sisters, Souris and Hani. Fittingly, given our disparate personalities, it was also the last and only occasion in which we four sisters journeyed together. Souris, thoroughly independent, parted ways from us in England, decamping for Scotland while we went on to Paris. I was obnoxiously sangfroid (irresponsible) about everything, which drove Kaly, with her disciplined scheduling, mad, an insanity further exacerbated by Hani’s equally laissez-faire travel methodology (which, like mine, consisted of staying up late, sleeping late, and going where the spirit moved us in the morning). It’s interesting how time changes things.
Kaly was the perfect boon companion on this trip with whom to pass time. She knows this country and this city like the back of her hand, navigating it with a fluency borne from countless holidays here. We share a mutual love of this country and our Anglophilia ensured a never ceasing flow of conversation about the country, its people and its history.
“You know where that name comes from?” I asked as we passed a sign for Elephant and Castle.
“Edward I’s wife, Eleanor of Spain, was born the Infanta of Castile, which sounded strange to English ears and they corrupted it to ‘Elephant and Castle.’”
These are the sorts of things that make me glow inside. Context is something you just can’t buy – even when it’s a shared belief in apocrypha.
First there was the requisite stop at the British Museum that I might indulge my Egyptology fetish and view the Rosetta Stone and the Stela of Paser (but no viewing of mummies or statues of Anubis either – nightmare inducing, as Emil discovered to his sleep detriment after we watched “The Mummy Returns” together; laugh. It is funny.). We did not visit the Museum so much as chirped hello; the Rosetta Stone was on display but the Stela is viewable only by appointment. We ran through the Grecian and Roman rooms at breakneck speed then exited to our next stop: Sotheby’s.
Kaly had been entrusted to pick up music manuscripts won at auction for a friend in New York so we went to Bond Street. Okay, it’s just insanely cool to say that I went to pick up something (anything!) at Sotheby’s even if it was by proxy.
After Sotheby’s, we stopped off at Harvey Nick’s to pick up currant jam and considered eating at their food court upstairs; but Kaly reorganized our schedule with a quick admonishment: “We can’t have lunch and tea so let’s go to the Orangerie at Kensington Palace for tea.”
At the Orangerie, I devoured a new potato and crème fraîche salad, pushing the celeriac and apple puree off to Kaly; the taste buds are still not at 100% and the spices in the soup were too pungent for me. Finished off with a raisin scone and ever delicious double Devon cream and strawberry jam, it was a perfect tea. My only sadness is that I no longer drink British tea; I’ve sworn off caffeine for a while and my inclinations have moved firmly towards the French Mariages Frères. Of course, there was no need to share this information with Kaly. Sated from our repast, in a fit of curiosity (and perhaps laziness since it was right there), we decided to tour the state apartments of Kensington Palace.
Save your money. Two words: RIP OFF. And we were not the only ones to think so; a score of tourists before us were all outraged over paying £11 to see what amounted to little more than bare, empty stone rooms. I’m serious. They really should be ashamed of themselves at Kensington Palace.
What was worth the price of admission, however, was watching the insanely stupid tourist outside who pretended to have food in his hand to entice a fat Kensington Palace squirrel to come to him. Because the oversized rodents are used to being fed by people, they lack fear and are surprisingly aggressive: we had one squirrel run right up to us and beg.
“This is normal,” Kaly said. “They’ve been trained to get food so they’ll come right up to you and beg.”
And menace! When the little bastard realized there was to be no food from us, he actually bared his teeth!
In any case, the Insanely Stupid Tourist kept holding out his hand and making the little squirrel jump up to try to grab whatever was in his hand (nothing). The Insanely Stupid Tourist giggled and tried to pet the squirrel, who, dancing for his food, was beginning to do a slow boil.
“That squirrel is going to get pissed off in a second,” Kaly said, in a voice too distinct to be discreet. “Idiot! You don’t tease squirrels used to feeding from the human hand! That’s an invitation to a biting! Rabies! Hello?”
I was utterly fascinated. It’s like watching a collision – you know it’s going to happen, you just wait breathlessly for that moment.
“Please let me watch.”
“No, we have other things to do.”
“Seriously, this would be worth filming.”
“For America’s Stupidest Human Being?”
I trotted behind her dutifully but longed to hear a human wail of pain behind me. Alas none was forthcoming.
Careening through the city by tube, bus and the occasional death march (being a New Yorker, she is unflinching about 90 city-block walks) I became acquainted with Kaly’s London, and it occurred to me that in countless visits to London, I’ve never really seen it this way – always before there was a purpose, and a time limit in which to accomplish said purpose; but this was London by way of the native, in bustling, rain-slicked streets with no mission other than to simply enjoy the city.
I do not know about others, but for me, visiting Paris is like meeting a dashing, feckless lover; every visit is dazzling and breathtaking. But I discovered on this trip to London that being here -- ah; it is quiet, precious, enveloping and purposeful, like coming home to the man you have loved all your life. And this makes me miss that particular man, all the more.