Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Other of the Two Cities

London has existed in my mind since about the age of six. My parents took a trip over the ocean and brought back a tiny mounted guard with a funny hat, a little red double-decker bus, a medallion with my name on it (and, oddly enough, some other guy named "Westminster"), and the habit of clotted cream with tea. Later on, I peopled this Great City in my mind with characters out of Dickens, Mary Poppins, and Arthur Conan Doyle. You can imagine the motley crew - Julie Andrews dancing with Oliver Twist all over Kensington Gardens, while a gentleman by the name of "Westminster" strolls by with a big, fat cigar in his mouth. Around the corner, an angular figure who suspiciously looks like Sherlock Holmes keeps a vigilant watch on the whole lot of them.

Well, the stories are all true. And here are some more.

First, there was rain. And (so I've been told) as only London can produce. Mainly, wet shoes and umbrellas fighting for street corner space. When we occasionally tilted our heads skywards and caught a glimpse beyond our hat brims - what a surprise! Rather than the rows of stately "Haussmann-ized" buildings that usually frame our viewpoint on Paris, London seemed an endless supply of fascinating architectural odds and ends shoved together, as if we'd stumbled into a colorful antique shop. The old and the very old and the new all piled in corners, waiting to be discovered. Still, having puddles up around our ankles seemed less and less adventuresome and more and more of a bother. Just when we were about ready to break down and splurge on galoshes, we fell upon the shining door of the Waldorf Hilton. This seemed as good a place as any to air out out our sodden selves, and what do you know? Two of our friends and their small son happened to be occupying the very same hotel...and room. Yes, serendipity is a beautiful thing. And when it comes to the Cox family, planning is even better.

But before we dwell on the sweet reunion of like souls, there are a few details about the afternoon that must not be forgotten. The sun breaking through the windows at St.-Martin-in-the-Fields, while a young girl masterfully ordered a Brahms concerto to come forth from the instrument cradled on her shoulder. Waltzing in and out of the National Gallery of Art, with its seemingly endless rooms rich in Dutch painters, Rubens, and others. Being awkwardly chased around Whitehall court during the changing of the Queen's Life Guard, where a swaggering, vociferous man proudly issues changing orders once a day. I wonder - did he dream about that job as a boy? He seemed to enjoy it well enough. Popping through the passageway to St. James' Park, filled with diving ducks, elegant swans, and more - a regular aviary.

The angle of the sun told us that we'd better reconvene with our travel partners. Sure enough, they had made some vague adjustments to the new time zone and were ready to stumble out and pursue the object of tasty comestibles. Ah! The Seven Stars. A stone's throw away brought us to this cozy pub, where hot meat pies were packed away with all speed and washed down with glorious pints of. Cheers, Ben and Karl. Of course, a veritable avalanche of conversation ensued. Greatly encouraged, we turned down our beds for the night.

On day two, the umbrellas stayed home. Basically, we sauntered up and down Fleet Street from down till dusk...and beyond. First, St. Bride's Church captured our affections straightaway with its quiet courtyard and fascinating history as the "publisher's" church. Soon afterwards, the domed outline of St. Paul's cathedral appeared in view. While impressive, it seemed less reflective of a place of worship than the first. But we did enjoy the view from as we had our first cup o' tea in jolly old England. (And yes, there was clotted cream.)

Regarding holy places, another thought-provoking sight was the garden we found built upon the remains of a small church, with topiaries and such indicating the original columns. Karl's question: why not worship out-of-doors? And by golly, who says we weren't?

Soon the lunch hour had us running after double-decker buses to try and catch up with Ben, Sasha, and Creighton for the remains of the day. We towered over the busy streets from the upper deck and got a superb view of the truly recognizable monuments against the crisp backdrop of a chilly winter day. Grandeur and clean lines.

Just as the sun lowered and the lights on Big Ben began to dimly glow, Sasha and I decided that it was teatime. And everything must come to a halt for this all-important hour. Diving into the dank, serpentine passages of the Tube, we came out in the funky, Notting Hill area, where supposedly a certain "Tea Palace" welcomed lovers of the leaf. After asking around a bit, we finally attained to the coveted destination. The best way to describe this place was understated but generous, unpretentious but still awfully proud of the tea. I lolled my tongue over a bit of Lapsang Formosa and lazily pondered which finger sandwich to begin with. Ahh. (And yes, there was clotted cream.)

Upon our arrival back at the hotel, we found that the boys had come down with a severe case of cabin fever in our absence. Without further ado, we set ourselves loose on the London night, in search of music, ale, and whatever else might suit our fancy. The five of us eventually curled up with pints in a corner of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese - a haunt of Dickens and the gentleman below, who seemed to sum up so well my melancholy upon leaving the following morning:

“You find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” - Samuel Johnson, 1777

*Many thanks to Ben, Sasha, and Creighton, who let us crash in their hotel room, and without whom this trip would have not been nearly as jolly. Hint: see Sasha's blog for more stories!*


Ben said...

Ahhh, I miss London, Paris, and the von Gohrens abroad already.

The rain was in London and Paris was chilly, but the -20 air temp I confronted this morning was something else.

Christa said...

Ahhh England. It feels like coming home.

You must go to Oxford, you would really enjoy it!