I’m back from 5 states in the US with family and friends. I’m not sure if it was a vacation or marathon, but it was wonderful. In Austin, I lured my friend Peg out at midnight to hear son Pat and The Stingers play in Sixth Street’s funky Black Cat. We were not murdered or robbed. I golfed, lunched, and visited. In DC I shopped, read to grandchildren (one of my favorite things), and babysat. I attended a Pokeman sixth birthday for Tim--did face painting and decorated a cake à la Pokeman--and in Rochester I visited Mom and attended a niece’s nursing graduation party. I left Austin six months ago all teary, because I love that city. Our house there now looks less loved and needs TLC. In Atlanta, I met up with Mike, who was named the newest Fellow in the American Acoustical Society; our son Ted, in Atlanta with CDC, joined us for the hotel awards dinner. Mike felt very honored.
Art gallery docent friends from home came for lunch, then we walked to the Wallace Collection, right behind Selfridge's enormous department store. Afterwards, we shopped and I bought makeup from a pretty young Muslim in a white kerchief over a white dress, then bought greeting cards next to two young women wearing black kerchiefs, elaborately edged in beading and black stones, over long black dresses. This is a multicultural city, as this month’s National Geographic article on London notes! My visiting friend Peg and I had a middle eastern dinner at nearby Safa, off Edgware Road. Flat bread dough is rolled, then tossed onto the side of a silver pipe stove, where it sticks ‘til cooked, then is unpeeled and served hot, with dishes of dips. Delicious!
The next day, I met another docent friend at the brand new Tate Modern, a converted brick power station on the Thames. It was just two days old. It will hold modern art; “old” Tate Britain across the river will continue exhibiting vast selections of historic art, including many Turners. We both disliked the museum sign placement: it was hard to associate words with art, and signs were too far away, requiring leaning, squinting,and bending! An enormous black mtal spider sculpture by Louise Burgeois hulked over us and the vast concrete entry hall. In a dark room, large B&W films of jumping and wrestling naked men (envision jiggly body parts) sent a group of young schoolboys collapsing with laughter upon leaving, perhaps from amazement more than amusement. Through the windows we saw workmen outside furiously working to complete a silvery walking bridge spanning the Thames, due to open to the public the next day and first trod upon by Her Majesty. On the other side, magnificent St. Paul’s domes loomed over boats navigating the busy river.
That evening we girls met at the Savoy Hotel for dinner, joined by my neighbor Sue. Then we viewed a fantastic performance by Maggie Smith in The Lady in the Van. The script and cast could not have been better: wit, finesse, perfect staging--and great seats. An old woman becomes part of a neighborhood as her van moves down the street, finally stopping at the irritated playwright’s door. (He is played by two actors, his ego and alter ego.) Maggie Smith is a legend, and her awesome voice reverberates inside the entire theater. We met Mike at home, newly back from the states —again— for a nightcap on our cool roof terrace to end a humid but wonderful day.
Mike and I walked to the old Victory Service Club in Bayswater, set up to house WWII servicemen. Mike wore his tux and I my Neiman Marcus “Last Call” purchase: a black sequined top, originally $855, bought for $124. (How I miss that store and its sales!) In the frayed but serviceable hotel, after the band played national anthems of the US and Britain, we began celebrating the 100th birthday of U.S. Submarines by lighting a candle for each ship lost, and blessing the 3600 men on Eternal Patrol. As usual, the youngest and oldest members participated. (Mike determined that his gold submarine dolphins were the oldest in the room, which was immaterial, since he wasn’t on active duty but he wears them still in his lapel.)
We were wined and dined while Admiral Terpstra, an old Charleston friend, gave the address. Afterwards, we danced to a DJ, and marveled at some fast moves of modern sailors before a quiet walk home and lots of reminiscing. We met officer children of our old friends, and learned that once Mike’s vocabulary sent stymied men to dictionaries, and Eileen was the secret love of lieutenants. It was great fun, and we were delighted to be a part of such a meaningful celebration, especially so far from home. It seems a lifetime ago that Mike spent nearly ten years under the sea. (They say a Navy marriage is happy half the time: you pick which half.) Today there are even e-mail systems for communicating, unlike our once-a-month 15 word familygrams. First word was his name, last word yours, and no visibly sexy stuff! We wives loved the challenge, and all the fleet read and shared the good ones. In case of a birth or death, we got an extra familygram. The men stayed underwater. FBM patrols, two a year, were 105 days each, and fast attack ships varied, sometimes gone for months on end, sometimes at the pier for overhauls.
Saturday morning early we left for the Trooping of the Colors at Whitehall. Our top row bleacher seats were in the shade at Horseguard Parade on a postcard-perfect sunny day, after we passed through metal detectors. Spectators wore elegant “smart dress” as instructed on tickets. We heard music strains from afar before each military band marched in, leading troops, row after row. All the queen’s horses and all the queen’s men gathered in the sunshine, in a pinpoint review that lasted for 2 1/2 hours. Metal helmets, brass buttons, gold and silver braid and swords gleamed, plaid kilts and solid capes flowed in the breeze, and shiny black boots strode back and forth in perfect synchronization. There was no false step, with precision shouted commands ringing out, sometimes echoed, and complex marching maneuvers. The horses were matched for color, lines of spirited black strutters carrying one regiment, other high stepping groups pulling carriages, all massed in brown or white.
Afterwards we headed to Green Park, lured by loud booms. The parade cannons on horse-drawn caissons had been pulled into a clearing, and after each roaring explosion, there floated a huge rising cloud of white smoke with the acrid smell of gunpowder. Echoes reverberated after each, through green leafy trees. One riderless horse wildly bolted amidst hundreds of spectators on the lawns. I sent for tickets to this event months earlier.
Saturday evening, six of us had drinks at home before walking to an excellent dinner at Al San Vincenzo. We ended the evening on our breezy roof under a half moon and stars. Sunday morning, we walked through Hyde Park with guests to the lengthy Pentecost mass at the Oratory, then brunch at busy, noisy, delicious Patisserie Valerie across Brompton Road from the church. We walked home past skaters and bikers whizzing past Prince Albert and Kensington Palace, and took in the Sunday art show hanging on metal bars of the Hyde Park fence on Bayswater Road. Each artist has a numbered space, painted on the pavement; many appear rain or shine, sometimes hovering under plastic sheets or huddled in nearby cars. Then the boys went to Mike’s office.
That evening we crossed the park again to visit an Austin friend, her daughter and clever granddaughter, who not only played the piano but reviewed the 7 layers of the atmosphere from third grade science! Since they would soon move back home, we chose a TV and plants to take away, and were feted with a fantastic dinner of roast lamb: our hostess bought no beef because of mad cow disease! Mike successfully rewired her lamp from the Greenwich market stalls, assisted by little Chelsea, handing him tools like a nurse to a surgeon. Monday at dawn we sleepily left for Paris--more about that trip in another chapter. The chunnel trip was calm, and we got a snack and glass of wine. I like trains: luggage can’t get lost, because it’s with you.
Mike went to Washington, but here, we endured an intense but short heat wave and oppressive humidity before blessed rain cooled us. The news was filled with Britain’s shaming by drunken hooligans at the Euro 2000 football (soccer) matches. Countries nearby yank British passports, denying hooligans and yobs the opportunity to terrorize opponents. This week I am getting carpet cleaned, shirts laundered, groceries bought, bills paid, and enjoying a rare real break. We’ve had mostly chilly windy days, and today when I closed our upstairs window, the sash cord broke. It looks like clothesline: How old is it? Our building dates from the 1850’s.
Under very dark clouds buffeted by strong wind, I played 9 holes of golf at Duke’s Meadows, with Mary, an Austrian choral music teacher and director. She has a car and lived here when young; now she’s an attractive widow, new to golf. We walked, as everyone does, with pull carts, though many carry their bags. I wore a windbreaker and wished I’d worn a hat rather than a visor, to protect my head from damp winds. The public course is a pretty par three with some water and a few vicious bunkers. It’s tucked away in greenery on the western side of town, down a lane just off the Chiswick (“CHIZ-ik”) main road.
There is hardly a block in London not covered someplace with scaffolding. Because of the Heathrow Express success, our Paddington area is converting the gigantic railway hotel. Work is scheduled for completion in a year by Hilton, but since we arrived, the it’s been sheathed in metal scaffolding, pipes, and white plastic, and the street below is filled with messy skips (dumpsters) and hard hatted workers. There are numerous shops and restaurants in the vast train station, including Dixon’s for electronics and WHSmith for books and papers, plus the Paddington Bear kiosk, since in the story, he was originally found there, stowed away “from darkest Peru.” I stopped in Sainsbury’s for groceries on the way back from the post office next door—all this in my ‘hood. Real estate values have risen 35%, more than other areas of town, though our prices don’t come close to those of Mayfair and Belgravia. Here, the average 2 bedroom flat can be had for £330,000, about $530,000. In Knightsbridge, they’re half a million pounds. Homes are higher, as are mews homes. (When falconry was fashionable, mewing birds were kept in a mews—with the horses, we presume.) Restaurants, hotels, and homes everywhere are painting, now that the weather, theoretically, is good. House painters here are “decorators.” Students here don’t take math, but maths. They don’t study; they revise. That’s what Prince Wills did this week when he missed his 18th birthday party at Granny Elizabeth’s. The party also marked Aunt Margaret’s 70th and Great Granny Mum’s 100th. Camilla was not invited, but her ex-husband was. However, she and Charles were seen together officially for the second time.
I have registered for the NHS, the National Health Service. It’s daily flamed in the news because of shortages of medicines and long waiting lists for surgical operations. (A doctor’s office is called the surgery.) I filled out a couple of forms and saw a nurse, who took history, blood pressure, and weight data. This all is determined by where I live. At my beauty salon a few days ago, I’d mentioned I hadn’t yet signed up. The beautician indicated a new office just across the street, but I was refused there because I lived a district over. My doctor’s surgery is in Connaught Square, a Georgian block near me. White brick attached homes with elegant doorways surround an iron-fenced formal garden. The address is often mentioned in books I’ve been reading. There is no way to indicate the office is not a private home: just a small brass plaque on the door reads Dr. Ruth O’Hare. The entry hall holds a window to the records room, and other rooms are individual doctors’ offices.
Today, son Ted is 37. It seems I was just 37, when I sold real estate in Charleston! The years fly by, faster and faster. Today was also a red letter day on Edgware Road. Wooly’s (Woolworth’s) redesign had a grand opening, marked by clowns on stilts and a rousing Dixieland band out front. Bunches of big red helium balloons were given away on both sides of the busy gritty road. Only a few flew skyward. Wooly’s has the largest candy department of any store I’ve seen!
This has been the most wonderful week of catching up—at last I can see the desk. I haven’t painted. It’s been cool, easy to stay inside. I came here February 6, about 4 1/2 months ago. With 4 1/2 weeks in the states and 3 weeks out of town, my actual time here has been only 3 months, but I feel settled in. Friday, I rewarded myself for working by joining friends at the Regents Park Flower Show. Tents and colorful plant arrangements covered acres, but there were bee keepers and rhubarb forcers and gas heaters and more to coo over, aside from brilliant orchids and vast numbers of ferns, roses, trees, bedding plants and exotica. We lunched at Patisserie Valerie on Marleybone High St. before walking home.
Mike returned and on Sunday we attended St. Paul’s Cathedral, Christopher Wren’s huge legacy. A church to St. Paul has stood there since 604. Wren built in 1675 after an original huge Norman stone edifice burnt in the Great Fire of London in 1666, in a place of worship used even before the Romans. The job took thirty five years. Wren had himself hoisted into the high domes even at the end of his life to oversee building. He was also an astronomer, a scientist, and mathematician, who invented a machine to knit nine pairs of stockings simultaneously. He died at 91 in 1723.
The domes are the world’s largest after St. Peter’s, but inside, most are unadorned gray stone except for the golden mosaic domes in the choir from Victoria’s time. The organ is the third largest in the UK with over 7000 pipes, and the offertory hymn was Eternal Father, which undid me! I can’t dissociate it from solemn Navy services, especially funerals. After mass, with music by a fine visiting choir, we walked through the church, marveling at all the monuments and statues in the side aisles. Besides royals, there were many to soldiers and statesmen, who often died young in battles for Queen and country. Nelson and Wellington memorials are there, as are John Donne, a cathedral dean and poet, JMW Turner, Capt. Robert Scott, Alexander Fleming, Joshua Reynolds, and more. Downstairs is the grand tomb of Arthur, Duke of Wellington, along with many other graves and monuments, including one to George Washington, and we stopped for lunch at the Crypt Café there, near the shop. Delicious!
We were happy to welcome longtime Navy friends for dinner. The last time we saw their daughter, she was a tot, visiting San Diego and in awe of our scottie Rhoda. (She doesn’t remember.) Now she’s a tall high schooler with two younger brothers. As we walked through Hyde Park in the evening, visiting Prince Albert for a photo, we heard plans for a millennium trip to France and Germany. We’ve known Art since his Charleston Navy bachelor days, hosting boisterous parties where you could wear only two articles of clothing. (Gene S.: “Eileen, put on your shoes!”) Another party required removal of an article of clothing per drink. Forewarned, girls wore many hair decorations. When was the last wedding you attended where the boys gatored—on their backs on the floor? Art taught me The Bump: Navy bachelors knew the latest dances.
We close the month with a visit from a Methodist pastor, here with his family for an exchange summer with a British pastor. They’re all packed into our guest bedroom for a week. Methodists, like Anglicans, suffer massive attendance drops here and are discussing rejoining C of E, the church John Wesley left, deeming it papist. They’ve managed to get four tickets for Whistle on the Wind and Lion King. It looks like a busy summer, and Mike claims his long trips are over until fall.
Hyde Park has multiple buildings in among the lakes, lawns, and trees. Spring blooms abound!
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