Londoners don’t move: they “move house.” In January 2000,the millennium year, our oversize Austin kitchen with high sunny windows was traded for our tiny Bayswater "one-butt" kitchen. I could reach everything with barely a step! Mike has a new job representing the Office of Naval Research outside the USA and though we've traveled widely, we've never lived abroad. We're excited.
These chapters are assembled from monthly letters I sent to family and a few friends, but they blossomed and were sent to more and more people worldwide. Many will be in largely chronological order, but not all..
We traded a wooded acre for a small white brick flat in a mews. Before autos, our alleyway was filled with carriages, leather and brass tack, and sharp clip-clop of horses leaving Hyde Park as if heading home from a foxhunt--recently outlawed here, by the way. (Our ttwo-story mews had also held falcons, mewing during molting season.) We hauled and sweated for two rainy days, attacking mountains of boxes amid cascades of wrinkled paper. Where were bathroom towels? Bathing suits? My God, wasn't most of our stuff in storage in Austin? We kept working and were optimistic.
We found sheets and hung pictures on leftover nails in white plaster walls, but how any non-electrical engineer figures out appliances is beyond me! Mike cut off ends of our American 110 volt lamp cords and converted them to British 220 current with new plugs, or inserted plugs into big black metal boxes, bought and borrowed ’transformers.' We need new bulbs: one bulb set us back $15! Bulb styles vary: some are bayonet, some screw-in. Kitchen appliances offer more mystery, since buttons are icons, and instructions on usage seem to require starting with History of Electricity. Somewhere are manuals, perhaps hidden in a worn box of tangled keys, string, and dog-eared paper tags from the letting agency--the rental agency, the estate office—at the end of our mews. Cool gray rain greeted us, left by the time we unloaded the truck (lorry), then resumed. We couldn't yet know this was the rainiest year of 256, smashing all records.
All day, sharp horses’ hooves echo down our brick lane, passing through from nearby Hyde Park as if it were a century ago. The park became our own wilderness refuge and ‘front yard’! We crossed it Sunday for treasure-filled Victoria and Albert Museum on the other side, passing strollers, bikers, stone fountains, playgrounds, and grassy playing fields before crossing over the Serpentine on a low arched bridge. Below were a heron, swans, geese, and ducks. The Serpentine (rhymes with line) Art Gallery is nearby, and many bike paths cleave unmown fields—grasses to safeguard birds and small creatures—passing ancient trees majestic and stark in winter. Riders use Rotten Row, a park perimeter path of deep coarse sand, once used for hunting by Henry VIII. The Serpentine’s boat hire area was closed for winter, but a few remotely operated sailboats zipped across frosty waters.
Cheery green garden squares doggedly add color bursts amid dull gray urban stone: bright yellow and violet pansies, pink cyclamen, chartreuse green vines, and trees grow everywhere, even though deciduous trees aren’t yet wearing spring leaves. Prince Albert’s gleaming golden statue commands a corner of the park nearby, surrounded by sedate carved matrons and animals on the monument’s four corners, representing continents. Albert's new regildeding as a millennium project cost millions of pounds; he radiates like a gleaming golden Apollo high on his perch. Albert was only 43 when he died; Victoria continued to have his night clothes laid out for the rest of her long life.
Another notable park marker is a modern red and yellow gate, commissioned by public offerings, to honor Queen Mum’s ninetieth birthday. Red lion and yellow unicorn are cheery and festive like a child’s drawing, surrounded by light and swirly silver scrolls and flowers. It’s quite a change from the heavy black iron gates so ubiquitous. The lion symbolizes England, the unicorn, Scotland. A red dragon is Wales, and the harp, Ireland. The Tudor red rose, thistle, leek, and shamrock also symbolize those countries, respectively.
I’ll iron wrinkled bedskirts with a donated iron from Mary Jo, my sister who just left London after five years in fashionable Sloane Square. In an incredibly lucky star alignment, we came to town to inherit all her appliances as she returns to Houston! Next we’ll arrange for an online connection, a newspaper, cable TV, and greet the glazier who’ll finish repairing the crack in our front window. Its double glazing provides important armor (armour) against British weather. The kitchen window is single pane, and the draft – draught -- is evident! Kitchen windows are required to have a circular hole and fan to vent gasses, lest we asphyxiate ourselves.
We’ve had wonderful calls from our kids: Pat is off to Seattle with the band, awaiting a new CD release. Ellen related a granddaughter tale: Katie said a bat flew in and wet her bed! We commiserate about the lack of a nearby Home Depot! Ted chatted about the Center for Disease Control. We hope Mike calls from New Jersey.
We entertained our first guests! Our American next-door neighbors Bob and Beth came for a drink with their smiling baby, Sam—still unable to crawl. Beth had brought us fragrant stargazer lilies when we moved in, and milk. She moved from Sweden. We did our first laundry in the kitchen washer, then walked to Edgware Road and Argos, a catalogue store, to buy a wheeled chair for my computer desk. Mike tried carrying the big box, but we ended up hailing a “black cab”—which was red, but they’re all called black. Many are multicolored, with ads painted on the sides.
We went to a patisserie to sample croissants— testing three shops nearby in our Connaught area—and stopped at the Duke of Kendal pub. Over wine, the publican told us where to find the closest post box. Mail may only be dropped at the red Royal Mail boxes or at the Post Office, never left at the door. There are two morning deliveries daily, six days a week, and about 5 pickups daily from each post box. Mail dropped is usually at its local destination in a day. We hung more pictures, worked on the tiny upstairs studio, and the house is now user-friendly.
A cherry tree outside our big kitchen window holds large buds impatient to burst, and underneath, rhododendrons, daffodils and forsythia. They will be beautiful soon: we spied a few early cherry blossoms forming a pink hazy veil nearby. Tonight a half moon shines high overhead, clearly viewed from our breezy rooftop garden amid barren pots of dirt. On the US holiday for President’s Day, Mike has off, but went in for a noon appointment. We tried to set up our security system, but it’s complex and expensive, the engineer Kevin explained. (Every repair man is either “the engin-EE-ah” or “the BUILD-ah.”) Police can be notified of a security breach, but neighbors must be available within 20 minutes after any alarm, since police won’t enter homes. Monthly and startup fees are awful, and a police investigation costs a great deal extra, so we will do without.
One doesn’t merely call to order a newspaper: first, one selects a paper from a number of dailies, then pays for 26 weeks in advance by credit card, after which the paper mails a packet of perforated vouchers. When those arrive, they’re taken to the shop of a local newsagent, who tears off one a day and delivers daily—and not all do: we asked at several. Delivery is not included with vouchers, and adds about £2 weekly—$3 plus. You may stop the paper for up to 2 weeks within that period, if you’re away. Otherwise, you could walk to the newsagent each day for a paper. We opted for the London Times, delivered by a teenager on his bike.
As for TV, don’t watch before first visiting the Post Office to pay about $165 for a license, good for a year. The money goes to the BBC to write and produce all those specials we saw in the US on PBS. Note how many have half the voice-overs in a British accent, half in American. The appliances continue their challenge: the washer/dryer combo under the kitchen counter has various letters to start and stop each cycle. Do you fancy 60 or 90 degree water or presoak? Compute the differences between Fahrenheit and Celsius. A, B, up to K are available; the drier cycle in the same machine works by convection, which gathers water. The machine needs regular emptying or it automatically shuts off--a lesson learned the hard way. How many kilograms does your clothing weigh? (I was reminded of Woody Allen’s comment that he and his appliances “were as two.”)
One improvement we made immediately was replacing marble-sized ice cube trays with commodious Woolworth’s specials. Thank heavens Wooly’s is close by! Nobody but Americans use much ice. I’m annoyed that I had to change my US AOL name: it’s been a computer changeover hassle, and I lost all e-mail addresses. AOL’s support staff is in Dublin, but it's a long distance call to the US to close the other system. Now I hear a jolly “You’ve got post!” The support system for British Telephone is in Scotland, and I haven’t yet decided which vigorous accents are more confusing.
I must mention the washday wonders of our Zanussi Turbodry aka “The Great Wrinkler” under our kitchen counter! Pull open a circular door and put in clothes. Anything more than 4 socks and a hanky fills the small drum, but dare to stuff in a few more items. Punch in the "wash and dry" cycle, then select the wash temperature (many, in celsius), the drying temp (two), and set the drier time for 80 minutes. Pull out the little drawer for "washing powder" and partially fill the middle section. Push the on/off switch. The wash cycle will swoosh and swirl noisily, eventually filling and washing the clothes. (Watch through the glass door..) Eighty minutes after they're washed, pull out your clothes, note they're drenched, and set drying time once again. Several jobs, later, check again. When done, attempt in vain to dewrinkle your stiff clean clothes. Damn the fact that there is no gradual heat wash and wear cycle. Wear clothing and repeat. As I write, our flannel king-size sheet is in its third eighty minute cycle! The alternative: take the clothing from the drier while it’s damp, and strew it over every piece of furniture. Leave till the next day. Our garbage disposal has died and we are waiting for Terry ("the Builder”) to replace it, but on a holiday weekend, we must wait a week. At home, Mike would be off to Home Depot.
We strolled across Hyde Park in cool winter sunshine, past animated children shrieking on the playgrounds (“nurseries”), riders cantering on horseback, rollerbladers and bikers sharing separately lined lanes, pram pushers, romping dogs and their walkers. Just past some kite fliers, a film crew forced us to halt near a riding ring as they snapped two very smartly dressed young girls—tweed jackets, brown boots and high domed hats on a large and small pony, respectively. They could have been classic sculptures! There is a ring on each side of the park and frequently we stop to lean on the wooden fence and watch lessons given to aspiring equestrians.
We stopped at the Serpentine Gallery to view sculptures and installations by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, soon to became a great fave of mine. New York 60’s boyfriends included Joseph Cornell and Donald Judd. She explores food, sex, and polka dots, and her work often is filled with a quiet nebula of small marks. An all-white kitchen installation scene used lace, glued onto white furniture, to accent a grouping of dotted nude female mannequins arranged on a macaroni-covered floor. Fun! The gallery shows only modern art. We continued to Knightsbridge--but only Burberry and Harvey Nichols, since Harrod’s is closed Sundays. We eyed $200 pashmina scarves and various stylish plaids at the former, and upscale clothing, cosmetics and foods at the latter. How about a leather-bound trip log for one’s yacht, a log of one’s wine cellar supply and consumption, or a dinner log including “jewels worn” with your guest and wine lists? Bring money!
I stayed up till 3 AM sorting papers and mail piling up since before we moved. Most US mail comes to Mike’s office, and because he’s working with the Navy, our mail comes here via the FPO in New York, thereby saving very steep international postage.
One Saturday we took our red Central Line tube from nearby Lancaster Gate on Bayswater Road to West Ruislip, the farthest western stop, and visited the small RAF base where the US is a tenant. We could save money if we shopped at that commissary, where American foods were stocked,like peanut butter and chocolate chips, but the fare out and back adds so much that it isn’t always practical. We live in zone 1, the inner city, and went west to zone 6, although a weekend 2 day pass anywhere on the tube isn't much more than a single. We stuffed our pull cart (an Austin departure gift from friend Carol) and 2 roomy canvas bags transported from Austin’s Central Market to carry things home. Since the tube stop had no escalator or lift, we carried the pull cart for 2 flights of stairs. However, the Chanel eau de toilette that I bought at the base for $35 cost £39 at Harvey Nicks! (A pound sterling is about $1.60.) I also got a personal Nokia mobile phone, with BT (British Telephone) service. American cell phones don’t work here. It’s “MOE-biles,” rhymes with smiles, not “cell phones” in London.
Famous for shopping is Oxford Street, a continuation of Bayswater Road. We walk just past the Marble Arch (“Mobble Atch”) where the street name changes. I scored half-price hiking boots at the Bally store on my first rainy day. The food courts of nearby Selfridge’s and Marks and Spencer department stores offer any combination of wines and readymade delectables and bring joy to our table. Our local Safeway (no relation to the US chain) is boring, messy and crowded, but offers a large choice of foods “from A to Zed” even including fajitas! It also sells liquor—an aisle full. Now, if we just figure out which way to look when crossing the streets! Walking home, I heard strange noises and followed them to see about 50 matched brown horses in rows, ridden by stunning crimson-coated soldiers, with 2 buglers and several gleaming cannon on caissons. They were returning from a salute in Hyde Park to mark the Queen’s Accession--the day Elizabeth learned that her father George VI died. She arrived in Africa with Phillip a princess and returned as queen. It’s easy to see why early American colonists termed these soldiers “lobsterbacks.”
A wonderful hidden plant nursery on Clifton Street is tucked in behind a row of white 4-story homes. It holds every kind of indoor and outdoor plant since Eden, and I wanted two bay trees to put on either side of our front door like others I’d seen. A mews has no yards nor green grass and once served as stables for London’s quarter million horses; they probably were messy and stinky. Potted plants in front of homes liven our stark cobblestone and brick. However, bay trees were £85 each, plus pots, so I settled for a castor bean plant and a couple of brilliant pink and yellow periwinkles for one side of our entry. The next day, a nursery deliveryman came by, and grunted beneath a shoulderful of plants and six 40 pound bags of compost as he climbed up three flights to the roof--thorough living room, past bedrooms, and on up. I realized how important home delivery is to Londoners! Our roof view offers hundreds of chimney pots and a couple of steeples, in an ever-changing backdrop of clouds and sky above gray slate, punctuated by geometric TV antennas. Atop our orange tile roof are two bare pots from previous tenants. I planted herbs, hoping not to disturb anything deep in the dirt.
Anyone delivering or visiting during the day must beware mysterious parking police on foot: a young officer in glasses and a blue uniform appears bearing his little pad, writes £60 tickets ($96), and poof!--vanishes. Those police near us seem to be African or West Indian. There is no daytime parking in the mews, but pay-and-display meters fill streets nearby, if you can even find a place. We could probably rent our tiny garage in a minute--when we finally clear the mountain of packing boxes. It's wonderful for storage. Trash is Tuesday and Friday, recycling Wednesday. Much trash comes from circulars inserted daily into our mail slot, mostly on restaurants with delivery or airport cabs. 'Letting companies' also leave countless booklets advertising flats to rent, with photos. At the kitchen window, the city of Westminster raked under our cherry tree (3 men jabbering, little raking) and daffodils are ready to burst. I nicked some free ivy and geranium cuttings from a yard nearby to add to our roof pots.
We also entertained a group of scientists from the UK, Belgium, Italy and the US for drinks before going to nearby Safa for Turkish and Iranian food. I love their homemade bread: fresh dough rolled out into a big flat circle and flung onto the sides of a big tin stove. Edgware Road must be as close to home as any middle easterner could hope for: many chadors, burkas, and veils wander beneath Arabic and Halal signs; hookahs are grouped in corners of restaurants for after dinner smokes of fragrant tobacco. Streets are full after sunset, just as in the Middle East. We walk past a Saudi Arabian Airlines office and banks of Bahrain and Dubai. The area is messier than some, with papers, cigarette butts, and bottles tossed into the street as if it were the desert where all would naturally disintegrate.
I've waited for a sunny day to photograph our street. And waited! I know there'll be sun one of these days! Tonight neighbor Beth and I will go out for supper with Sam, 6 months. Beth’s at no. 4, and at no. 3 is a new widow who usually lives in the country. On the other side are Kathy and Paul, in the country during the week, and next to them a Shakespeare theater director, Michael, who travels. Across the way an American is married to a Brit next door to an Italian married to a Brit. Next is tall white-haired Inge Mitchell, a lively Danish knight and widowed second wife of Leslie, the Walter Cronkite of his day who interviewed the great and the good, including PM Anthony Eden. Also across is a one-time runner from the Moscow Olympics. Everybody seems friendly and I’m still waiting for the blooms of flowers and trees in front of everybody's doors, except for Beth’s. Hers were stolen at night recently, along with their two huge pots. No wonder people chain pots to their houses!
The month ended with a taxi to the British Museum and a “full English” breakfast before we explored treasure-packed halls. I love and revere that magical place! There is still construction going on amid gray trailers, wooden fences, and busy workmen finishing covering the open ceiling with glass. I bought books on Crete, since I hope to go soon to teach, and Mike on radiocarbon dating. From neighbors we'd entertained for drinks, we learned our roof garden is unique: the local Council often refuses permission. Inge lectures on shipping in The City. She'd been involved with the Danish queen’s visit here, and stays in touch. After Kathy and Paul left for a movie in Mayfair, Mike and I walked to Zorba’s, near Queensway, for Greek food and retsina, a great way to end a great day.
Sunday morning, Mike trudged off to Paddington to get the airport train for a Japan trip, and I strolled to a nearby Anglican church for high mass with a fabulous choir, and coffee afterwards in the narthex. I don’t know if it’s good not to have a congregational choir, but they sang as well as any a cappella choir I’ve heard, and I learned many were paid music students. Communion is distributed in a big circle gathered around the altar. The congregation is sparse and older, but I did get a Hook ‘em Horns from Robert, a UT Chem.E. who is retiring here and does printmaking. I returned later for a beautiful evensong with about 25 in attendance, mostly older folks. Who keeps these churches going? They are large buildings with small congregations. (Later, I learned that steady income comes from renting a portion of once-large churchyards for high rise apartments.) British clergy have the same problem with HIV rates as American priests, according to the latest statistics. Perhaps married clergy or a lady pope would change that, at least for Roman Catholics!
The end of my first month in London brought forth an ode, because we’re “two nations separated by a common language.” Also, Brits use a lot of French. Elevenses means a coffee break, biscuits are cookies, courgettes and aubergines are zucchini and eggplant, gammon’s ham, gateau is cake, and the hob is the kitchen stovetop. The ironmonger’s the hardware store, the chemist’s the drutgstore, a torch a flashlight, C of E is the Church of England, and the rest you probably know. Nappies, napkins, are often baby diapers or sanitary napkins, so cloth dinner napkins are ‘serviettes."
The presiding person at a mass is called the president. Don’t use the term “fanny” for your bottom (your bum, your bot) because it means vagina. (“If you’re stuffed, your fanny is full!”) If you’re pissed, you’re drunk; gobsmacked, astonished. Gone potty over, gone missing? Raving or absent. Popped your clogs? Rest in peace. A slap-up dinner is a fine one, and if something’s naff, it’s meaningless. If you’re gazumped, have you engaged in peculiar sex? Hardly! Rather, your landlord accepted a higher offer, and you are now in the cold. Happens often in this property-mad city. A trilby hat is one of many descriptions I’ve puzzled over. It’s felt, with a dent and a brim, taking its name from a play of the same title in which it was worn. The papers routinely editorialize and colorfully describe. Today’s “currant-eyed, whey-faced” woman in parliament was mentioned, as opposed to another who sprang up to speak ”as smooth as a spring tulip.” I miss the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzles, and haven’t yet mastered the British puzzles, but I’m making progress.
This sounds best when read aloud. Try for a British accent and ignore the r's.
Ode of the British Newcomer
One enquires about cricket and toasts to the queen,
And asks as a greeting, “Old chap, how’ve you been?”
Straightaway it’s 10:30, or half ten, you see.
Wait a bit for elevenses: biscuits and tea!
One buys by the kilo for pounds and for pence.
“Perhaps aubergines or courgettes today, gents?”
Buy the nappies at chemists, ride up on a lift,
Face queues in the tube, which is old, but it’s swift.
Marks & Spencer sells bits and bobs, undies galore,
But their ready-made dinners are what cooks adore!
They buy joints, gammon, gateau, en route from their job:
A full trolley means fewer hours at the hob.
Buy a torch at the ironmonger’s, just write a checque.
And don’t tip at pubs – well, a bit, what the hecque!
And if today’s Times is found wanting or thin,
Just chuck it out in the skip or the bin.
One chunnels to France wearing trousers, not pants,
Your ticket’s “return,” which is bought in advance.
You visit for leisure which here rhymes with pleasure.
On the road, fill your boot, not your bonnet, with treasure.
One’s bath is en suite when the boudoir’s connected;
You’ll be “in hospital” should you get infected.
A playground’s a nursery, a nursery’s a crèche
And the pram-pushing nanny’s straight from Bangladesh.
C of E are debating what constitutes sin.
On BBC Sport, Twickenham have a win.
Stately black bowlers are missing, I fear,
But the brollies and tellies and wellies are here.
Shall I ring? Or send post? Book for one or for two?
And say, do you fancy a trip to the loo?
If you think we share English far over the sea
Mind the gap! There is definite discrepancy!