Londoners don’t move: they “move house.” My oversize Texas kitchen with travertine floors and high sunny windows over a black granite island was traded for our new Bayswater "one-butt" kitchen, I could reach everything with barely a step. Mike has a new job with the Office of Naval Research outside the USA.
We’ve traded a wooded acre for a small white-brick flat in a long narrow brick mews, once an alleyway filled with carriages, tack, hay, and clip-clop of horses from Hyde Park. (A mews also held falcons, mewing during molting season.) We hauled and sweated for two rainy days, attacking mountains of stuff cascading from boxes amid miles of wrinkled paper. Where were bathroom towels? Bathing suits? My God, wasn[t most of our stuff in storage in Austin? We kept working.
We found sheets and hung pictures where we found leftover nails, but how any non-electrical engineer figures out appliances is beyond me! Mike cuts off ends of our American 110 volt lamp cords and converts them to British 220 current with new plugs, or inserts plugs into big black metal boxes, bought and borrowed ’transformers,’ so our lamps work. We need all new bulbs: one reading bulb set us back$15! Bulb styles and types vary; many are bayonet style, not screw-in. Kitchen appliances offer more mystery, since all buttons are icons, and reading instructions on usage seem to require starting with The History of Electricity. Somewhere we have manuals, perhaps hidden with a tangled box of keys, string, and dog-eared paper tags from the letting agency— aka the rental agency, the estate office—nearby at the end of our brick mews.
Cool gray rain greeted us, but left by the time we prepared to unload the truck (lorry) and then resumed. We couldn't yet know this was to be the rainiest year of 256, breaking all records. On our first night we walked to our closest pub, the Duke of Kendal, too exhausted to cook, and learned that for 50 pence, we could join in on the quiz next Tuesday. It was approximately 25 questions, read over the mic by Rose, the publican’s wife. Who was the only heavyweight champ never KO’d? Other questions dealt with politicians, movie stars, and plants, mostly from the UK. The pub décor is dark reds and greens for walls and carpets, and low tin repoussé ceilings, with a cozy fireplace that, before central heating, must have appealed as much as the bank of ales on tap. Mike asked about the food; our proprietress assured him it was “lovely.” It’s likely that 90% of British responses are “lovely,” “brilliant,” or “well done!” Fish and chips, shepherd’s pie, half a chicken—all are £4.95, about $8, and the cigarette smoke doesn’t grow too dense until later in the evening. Although it seems everybody smokes here, the percentages are not much different from those in America. It’s just that there aren’t many non-smoking areas, although most civic buildings are now going smoke-free.
Throughout the day, we hear sharp horses’ hooves down our brick lane, passing our window from nearby Hyde Park, soon to become our own local wilderness refuge and ‘front yard’! We crossed it Sunday for the treasure-filled Victoria and Albert Museum on the other side, passing stone fountains, playgrounds, and grassy playing fields before crossing over the Serpentine on a low arched brick-and-stone 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—to safeguard birds and small creatures—passing trees majestic and stark in winter. The horses use Rotten Row, a park perimeter path covered with deep coarse sand, once used by Henry VIII. The Serpentine’s boat hire area was closed for winter, but a few remotely operated sailboats were racing.
Cheery green garden squares doggedly persist in adding color bursts amid the dull grays of dense urban stone: bright yellow and violet pansies, pink cyclamen, chartreuse green vines, and trees grow everywhere, even though the deciduous trees aren’t yet wearing spring leaves. Prince Albert’s gleaming golden statue commands a corner of the park, surrounded by sedate white stone matrons and carved animals on the monument’s four corners, representing the continents. Albert is newly regilded as a millennium project, and radiates like a gleaming gold Apollo at a cost of millions of pounds, but looks splendid, high on his perch. Albert was only 43 when he died; Victoria continued to have his nightclothes 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. The 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 untangle and iron wrinkled bedskirts with our donated iron from Mary Jo, my sister who just left London after five years in fashionable Sloane Square.In an incredably luck star alignment, we came to town to inherit all her appliances as she returns to Texas! 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 phone calls from our kids: Pat is off to Seattle with the band, awaiting their new CD release. Ellen related a granddaughter tale: Katie said a bat flew in and wet her bed! Ellen’s baby boy in utero is doing well. We commiserate about the lack of a nearby Home Depot! Ted chatted about the Center for Disease Control. We hope Mike calls too from New Jersey.
We entertained our first guests! Our American next-door neighbors Bob and Beth came by 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 the three shops available in our Connaught area—and stopped at the Duke of Kendal pub again. Over wine, the bartender told us where to find the closest post box. Mail can only be dropped off 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 in the box today 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.
The cherry tree outside our big kitchen window has large buds ready to burst, and underneath it, rhododendrons, daffodils and forsythia. They will be beautiful soon: we spied a few early cherry blossoms forming a pink hazy veil on a nearby tree. Tonight the 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, said we needed special lines. (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 private 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 large number of dailies, then pays for 26 weeks in advance with a credit card, after which the paper sends a packet of perforated vouchers by mail. When those arrive in a week, 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 the old e-mail addresses. AOL’s support staff is in Dublin, but it was a long distance call to the US to close the other system. Now for email 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.
We strolled across Hyde Park in cool 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 a Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama, who later became a great fave of mine. In New York in the 60’s she had relationships with Joseph Cornell and Donald Judd. She is interested in 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 input and consumption, or a dinner log including “jewels worn” with your guest and wine lists? Bring money! I stayed up ‘til 3 AM sorting papers and mail that have been gathering since before we left Austin. 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 last 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, 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 pass good for 2 days anywhere on the tube is not much more than the price of a single. We stuffed our pull cart (an Austin departure gift from friend Carol) and 2 roomy canvas bags from Austin’s Central Market to carry things home, and since the tube stop had no escalator or lift, 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 Atche”) 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, had died. She had gone to Africa with Phillip as a princess, and returned a queen. It’s easy to see why the early American colonists termed these soldiers “lobsterbacks.”
A wonderful 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 those I’d seen. Since a mews has no yards, (they were once stables for London’s quarter million horses), potted plants in front of the homes green up our long rows of cobblestone and brick. However, bay trees were £85 each, plus pots, so I bought one 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 geometry of TV antennas. On our orange tiled roof terrace are two big pots left from previous tenants, I planted herbs, hoping not to disturb anything that’s still alive deep in the bare dirt.
Anyone delivering or visiting during the day must beware the 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 are in streets nearby, if you can find a place. We could probably rent our garage in a minute--when we finally clear out the brown mountain of packing boxes. It's wonderful for storage. Trash is Tuesday and Friday, recycling Wednesday. Much of our trash comes from circulars inserted all day long into our mail slot, mostly on restaurants with delivery or airport cab companies. Letting companies also leave countless booklets advertising flats, with photos. On the opposite side of the house from the mews, at the kitchen window, the city of Westminster raked under our cherry tree (3 men noisily jabbering, with little raking) and the daffodils are ready to bloom. I nabbed some free ivy and geranium cuttings from a yard on a walk home, to add to our roof pots.
When my sister Mary Jo visited, we scored a 3rd place at the pub contest, mostly because she recognized politicians, movie stars, and Pamela Anderson and Boy George photos in a xeroxed quiz section. Her aging Shar-pei Sissy was delivered from a country dogsitter, and behaved nicely. Soon dogs will no longer have to be quarantined for six months, as Sissy was, if they have a microchip and required shots. MJ is an expert on which pubs permit pets, since Sissy is like her baby, petted even by Prime Minister John Major on many London walks!
We also entertained a group of scientists from the UK, Belgium, Italy and the US for drinks before going to Safa, on Edgware Road, 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 beside the doorway. 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, and hookahs are grouped in the corner of restaurants for an after dinner smoke of fragrant tobacco. The streets are full at night, just as in the Middle East after sunset. We walked past the Saudi Arabian Airlines office and the 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 disintegrate in time.
The Seymour Leisure (rhymes with ‘pleasure’) Center will be my new gym, and I need to get a “res card” stating that I’m a Westminster resident to get reduced rates, but so far I’m paying as I go. Yesterday the desk girl was one of a quartet from Connecticut, recent graduates from the University of New Hampshire, working for 6 months before graduate school. I suggested they look at Texas, then inserted a 20p coin into my locker to change for swimming. The ladies’ locker room is a bare, cavernous, light-green tiled hall, with a long worn wooden coat rack and bench down the middle, open warm showers at one end, no doors, quite public, and a shelf with hair dryers on the side wall opposite lockers. School children often troop though in noisy groups, discarding myriad boots, scarves, hats and ‘brollies as they chatter before swim class. The pool is large and deep, and there are 3 wide roped lanes: slow, medium and fast, which encourages both Olympians and snails. I’d feared it would be freezing, but the temperature is pleasant. Swimming on lunch hour is like Grand Central with lemmings; users provide their own towel, soap, and shampoo. It’s a lot to lug around and is about a 15 minute walk from our flat, but there are lots of bike racks at the front door too. For Seymour’s yoga class, there is a long narrow room with perhaps 20 smelly light blue mats on a side, a foot or two apart. Our hands and legs touch if we don’t “mind the gap” between ourselves. The leader has no mic and speaks very softly as she ‘treads’ past us, but it’s a good basic class. The building probably dates from the 30’s or 40’s and looks its age.
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, nearly 40, and I will go out for supper with Sam, 6 months. Beth’s at no. 4, and at no. 3 is a newly widowed lady who usually lives in the country. On the other side of us are Kathy and Paul, who live in the country during the week, and next to them a Shakespeare theater director, Michael, who travels extensively. Across the way is an American young woman married to a Brit next door to an Italian married to a Brit. Next is a tall white-haired widow, Inge Mitchell, a lively Danish knight and the 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, I’m told, who's divorced. Everybody seems nice enough 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!
We took a taxi to the British Museum and ate a “full English” breakfast before exploring treasure-packed halls. I love and revere that magical place! There is still construction going on amid gray trailers, wooden fences, and busy workmen. I bought books on Crete, since I hope to go soon to teach, and Mike on radiocarbon dating. From neighbors we entertained for drinks, we learned that our roof garden is unique, since the local Council often refuses permission for them. Inge lectures on shipping in the City. She had just been involved with the Danish queen’s visit here, and stays in touch with many of her countrymen. After they left, since Kathy and Paul had 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 Station to get the airport train for a Japan trip, and I strolled to the 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, again 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.) The British clergy is having the same problem with HIV rates that American priests suffer, according to the latest statistics. I believe 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, courgetes 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 drugstore, 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."
This sounds best when read aloud. Try for a British accent.
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!
British telephone booth.
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