Monday, August 16, 2010

London Calling

We are here in London, England, England, across the Atlantic Sea. We have come to London to visit the Queen, only to find that she is summering on the Cape, or perhaps Scotland, so we shall have to make the best of it and soldier on without her. (Actually, you can’t open your wallet without visiting the Queen, so we see her quite often. Hope you heard the t in often.) As I write this, we are beginning our second full day (a friendly, not unhopeful overcast), having arrived as the sun was going down on Saturday. Do I begin there, on the plane, descending through luminous clouds over Wales, beholding a patchwork of green crossed with darker hedgerows like stained glass with leaded borders, suddenly believing we really are in this different, storybook place?

Or I might begin with the first British signage on the ground (Baggage Reclaim; Please Queue Here) and public address announcements in those plummy, toffee, tones; or with another sign—OBER—held up by Carol’s genial cousin Douglas who stood in the remarkable crowd of greeters and awaiters lining the gates outside the Customs queue.

But the best beginning of the many beginnings was emerging after an hour and a half on the underground (Piccadilly Line [Mind the gap!] to Jubilee Line to Metropolitan Line) from Marylebone station, through an archway, into a neighbourhood of Regency buildings and black saloon taxis that might as well have been in a Conan Doyle setting of hansom cabs with horses clopping on cobblestones, as Carol and I grinned at each other like travelers in novels do: London, finally!


The second big image after Marylebone (there are four big ones so far, and a thousand smaller ones) was just a glance out of a restaurant window yesterday, over scrambled eggs, to see a red double-decker bus go rumbling by. Another “Wow, we’re really here” moment, and part of that indulgence in naivet√© about everyday things. More details: Matthew photographing every mews entrance we passed on a walk around Belsize Park to see Carol’s old flat; more signs: Shield your PIN; Neighbourhood Watch (a group of meerkats on alert); a sign for the Notting Hill Carnival showing a pigeon changing into a macaw costume; and the inevitable to-ing and fro-ing on the Tube to get to our main destination for yesterday, and the third big image: the River Thames.

We took a circle cruise from the Embankment Pier to St. Katharine’s Pier (the Tower of London!), got off for a bit of lunch and people-watching (half the world), then back downriver to the towers of Westminster, disembarking precisely at 16:00, in time for Big Ben’s venerable bongs. (Big Ben being the bell, I learned. The edifice is St. Stephen’s Tower.) Plenty of other details I scribbled down in my brown journal: a scow named Felonious Mongoose, the cheerful August clouds, my benchmate, a stout lady from Tasmania who was pleasantly surprised when I asked, showing off, “Do you live in Hobart?” (she did). And of course the passing landmarks along the shore, from the old Billingsgate fish market to the Eye, the unbelievably big Ferris wheel (forty stories high) hard by Westminster Bridge. All of which made the Thames the closest thing to a river I often dream about, lined with fantastic, important buildings. (You’d think I’d never been to London before, while the fact is I lived here for five months in 1968-69, but I was a student then, disdainful of touristy destinations, so I held the misperception until yesterday that the Tower of London was one or both of those structures on the Tower Bridge.)

Carol will be back from her walk in 20 minutes, and Matt and I will be fighting over the shower if I don’t wrap this up soon, so I’ve got to get to the fourth big thing, which was the view from Primrose Hill (above), not far from our hotel, just at sunset yesterday, overlooking the aviary in Regent’s Park, and a magnanimous swath of London stretching all the way back to the Eye. Some things you see, and others you behold. This was in the latter category. More to come on Primrose Hill, I daresay.

Finally, attention must be paid to a wonderful plate of shashlik (chicken kababs and kasha) at a Russian restaurant called Trojka.

More dispatches as time and technology allow!


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