The weather finally changed enough to store our winter duvet and use our rooftop garden terrace. It’s wonderful sitting under the stars with a glass of wine, and we’ve also been harvesting our tomato crop. It’s quiet and cool at night below the five story white rowhouses surrounding our mews. We peer through their windows at glowing chandeliers, dark woodwork, and high ceilings. Our flowers are spreading and the hanging baskets cascade petunias and pansies. About a hundred years ago, New England women built widow’s walks atop their high roofs and spent hours gazing over gray seas searching for a glimpse of the mast that delivered their loved ones. Electronically, I search like them, peering into my monitor screen for emails, as we stay in touch with the click of a button. Lord Rutherford thought that everything had already been invented a century ago, but he was wrong.
In Maryland I welcomed new baby Jack, a healthy little brother for Tim and Katie. Ellen and I explored the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History for a submarine exhibition. There were the noises (diving alarm), clothes (velcro’d blue one-piece poopy suits) and family films (hugs and tears) I remember so well. Yet missing was the smell: closed spaces, smoke, oil, lots of bodies-- it’s unmistakable. Today, instead of familygrams, emails tell young dads who has a tooth, a birthday, or graduation. The museum was packed, and several visitors had clearly served in subs. It’s amazing now to think that, as a young family, we sent Mike off for over 9 total years under the ocean. One year, with patrol and PCO (Prospective Commanding Officer) school, he was gone 11 months. FBM patrols were 105 days: the worst began before Thanksgiving and ended after Valentine’s Day. Navy wives are a good humored lot!
In summer, London hosts the Proms, a series of informal concerts in Albert Hall, a classical round brick building across the road from Albert’s gleaming statue in Hyde Park. Standees may buy tickets for £3 at the door, and live performances are broadcast on the Beeb, BBC radio. From the balcony we heard the BBC orchestra play a florid Sibelius piece from 1891, then a harsh atonal Berio piece for trombone, to celebrate his 75th birthday in 1999. After intermission came Tchaikovsky’s 6th, Pathetique, from 1893. Never once did the conductor slip into cliché in the many “familiar parts.” As the last note died, maestro Saraste’s hands froze, and there was a full moment of absolute silence throughout that vast hall, almost a deep sigh. Then came roars of audience approval and four explosive curtain calls. Our notes said it may be Tchaikovsky’s metaphoric acceptance of death, his great fear: only days after the Muscovite music professor conducted its premiere, he was dead, possibly a suicide. Sometimes Russian orchestras reverse the last two movements when they perform it, to end on a happier note. During the concert, the recent ALS death of our friend Mary came to mind, and I was particularly moved by the music.
Georgianna, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman tells of a tall beautiful dutchess in a loveless teen marriage who becomes a major Whig power behind the scenes, with a fatal weakness for gambling. She was pursued by Prinny, the Prince of Wales who became George IV, and also by the Whig prime minister Fox, whose supporters wore blue and beige, and foxtails. Foreman speculates that some of Lord Bryon’s poetry may actually be hers. Georgianna’s life was one of enormous social and financial privilege. She wrote copiously, set styles, like Princess Di, and had an illegitimate child by Charles, the second Earl Grey, whose portrait is on the Twinings Earl Grey tea canister. His portrait is also in the National Portrait Gallery, as is hers, and today’s earl is the sixth, still making the press occasionally. Illegitimate children were often born out of the country, so Georgianna fled to France despite the revolution. A wife’s duty was to choose a mate once she’d been properly presented at court, consult the family in this choice, deliver a legitimate male heir for your husband and then do as you pleased, perhaps even fall in love. One of Georgianna’s hairdos piled her hair as high as possible using coils and additions, then decorated it with birdcages, or even a three-masted ship with sails flying. The disadvantage of that style was that women had to sit on the floor of a carriage in order to fit everything in!
On a midmonth Sunday morn, our friend Renee came by for my watercolor of her mews to take home to Rhode Island. (She loved it!) We had already bid farewell over beer, moules and frites at Belgo’s, a famous noisy Covent Garden Belgian restaurant. Mike and I then attended a noon service at St. Martin in the Fields at Trafalgar Square: all female clergy, a good homily but a spare crowd. In the ancient basement the brass rubbing area and gift shop were hopping, and we had a great bargain lunch in the café. We crossed the street to the National Portrait Gallery for the annual BP (British Petroleum) show. The prize winner was a large double oil of two very hefty, bored lesbians in white underwear, which was beautifully painted; vigorous brushstrokes and deep blues and violets against lively rich flesh colors. Another winner was a small, stylized yellow face, done in a flat Japanese print style. The show’s styles and subject matter vary greatly. One small jewel was painted as finely as an old Flemish court piece: a little old woman knitting, pulling yarn from her huge hair (think Ann Richards on steroids) which on inspection was a white sheep, with a surprised little head protruding, little white legs with tiny black feet. There were several self portraits. Some pieces were ugly, some majestic, and about 750 were submitted for the 52 culled for the show. It’s always an interesting display, and critics always disagree with judges’ choices. We wandered through the building for the rest of the day, viewing Elizabeths I and II, their famrilies, inventors, artists, and warriors. The top floor Portrait Restaurant boasts one of the best London views in town, including Big Ben, Lord Nelson, and the London Eye ferris wheel. We watched a hot air balloon float over the gray cloudy city as we paused for tea.
Later in the week, London area wives affiliated with Mike’s office gathered in our flat for coffee—some called our little place large! About 20 of us, with strollers and kiddies, sauntered to Hyde Park for a summer picnic under a huge tree and then a rowboat ride. We had a perfect summer day, with blue skies, soft breezes, and huge white clouds. Boaters on the Serpentine are not noted for naval skills but it was fun. Cost is £5 an hour per adult, £2 for children. My boating companions were 2 and 4, with their mom, and we rowed instead of waiting for paddleboats to be free. As usual, the park was filled with roller bladers, bikers, horseback riders, and strollers. The restaurants and ice cream trolleys were busy. Many Moslem women in the park wear kerchiefs, and some wear black chadors and burkas, even in the hot sun. They look like nuns in masks.
You’re leaving your house, and a polite well dressed young man approaches you. He’s just left a neighbor’s, who you know is not in. He explains that he’s locked out of his flat, has an examination in a couple of hours, and the locksmith costs £60 but he only has £40. Do you give him the money after he shows you a very disgusting looking passport with Indian writing that you can’t read? PT Barnum would have loved it. I will never be repaid.
For the last week of the month, Wales was our vacation goal, our hotel traded for our faraway ski timeshare in Utah. We arranged six months ago to get a small one-bedroom stucco house because it was the only thing available. Our goal was to do as much of nothing as possible, and Wales is so close we didn’t have to book plane tickets. However, even a few miles takes a long time when you’re constantly pulling off narrow lanes into a tiny lay-by whilst another car passes. (Everyone says whilst!) Or backing up to let someone pass, on a hill, with the side mirror scraping into tall impenetrable hedgerows—in a stick shift rental, driving on the wrong side of the road. In the rain. And the numerous roundabout signs are in Welch before English, so it’s important to learn quickly that toileddu means toilets and not 'no right turn.' Croeso y Cymru means welcome to Wales, a country that makes do without vowels. Ta da is a Welch goodbye—or just Ta. Mike deserves a medal for all the driving while I “helped” from the passenger side, often loudly: when he rented, I wasn’t on the contract, so I couldn’t drive. The man has the patience of a saint.
We managed a fine time, since Wales is filled with stunning rocky coastlines and raw craggy green mountains. They punch skyward, dotted with thousands of white sheep like confetti scattered over green cake. It’s quiet except for screaming gulls and constant low baah-ing. Miles of wide exposed sandy beaches are riven with ever-changing waves. Boats heel over on acres of bare sand as the sea seeps away, but float serenely hours later, as monster tides sweep back in, visiting the harbors for a few more hours. Skies are constantly changing and enormous cloud banks offered majestic shows by daily turning apricot, violet, and pink, fading into night and bathing the grasses and seas in color. After marvelous sunsets, the stars seemed brighter than anywhere!
We visited castles, beaches, old churchyards, climbed a few hills, and marveled at wild vistas. We passed thousands of white aluminum “caravans,” trailers grouped together cheek by jowl, in fields or along shorelines in caravan parks. Teenagers had surfboards and sometimes wetsuits, moms had strollers and baby backpacks, and dads had toddlers hanging from their shoulders, plus fishing poles and sandpails. There is practically no litter on roads or beaches despite all the Wall’s ice cream stands. There are no billboards. Welsh restaurants are like a trip back to the 50’s, but the food is fresh, hearty and very reasonable, especially after London’s stratospheric prices. Service is unsophisticated and there is no decaf to be had in the land. Wales has no currency of its own, unlike Scotland and Ireland, and only now is building its own parliament in Cardiff, the capitol. Everywhere, the Welsh red dragon fluttered on a green and white flag. He was summoned by Merlin to slay a white dragon, representing the enemy.
Our little southwest town of Laugharne, pronounced r-less “Lon” by the natives and “Larn” by us, is where Dylan Thomas wrote much of his poetry, and where he lived with Caitlin and their 3 children in a small house on a sea cliff. It’s a museum now, bought for him by an actress friend. He rented a place for his parents nearby, visiting mornings before writing afternoons in a little shack near the house in Pembrokeshire. He died at 39 in New York, where he’d given poetry readings in his rich accent, after drinking 18 whiskies. His grave in Laugharne is the new section of an exceptionally beautiful churchyard, next to Caitlin, who died only a few years ago. Dylan was born in nearby Swansea in 1914, younger than my father. We checked out his favorite pub, Brown’s, but it was very rough. There is also a Norman 17th century castle nearby, open for visitors, and not far beyond is pretty Victorian Tenby, clean and bustling, with a beautiful harbor and hordes of vacationers. On a hill overlooking the harbor sits a statue of Prince Albert. Tour boats visit the nearby island and monastery. Tenby is different from some tawdrier beach towns; it’s lacking taffy stands, cheap souvenir shops, crowded smoky pubs, and fierce wind.
We drove north as far as Portmerion, a Disneyesque group of buildings and gardens set in beautiful coastal surroundings. The place had overly cute shops at every turn, selling Welsh carved wooden spoons, dishes, film, and dragon tea towels, but our choice of the garden and sea walk made the trip worthwhile. We drove past Snowdownia Park and Cambrian mountains, marveling at steep hills and deep valleys. At St. David’s, we revisited a wonderful hotel, Warpool Court, that we’d seen eleven years before with our daughter. A medieval bishop’s palace sits next to the stone cathedral honoring Dewi Sant (St. David, patron of Wales), repeatedly stormed by marauding Norsemen. Some ruins are restored, and the cathedral was preparing for concerts to showcase an expensively refurbished organ. Roadies carried in huge lights and miles of electric cord. St David’s is reportedly where Patrick departed for Ireland.
Mike managed some golf, but I stayed home to read, still dealing with my Swedish cough. The Hours is a fairly short lyrical work by Michael Cunningham, a Pulitzer prize winner voted by the NY Times as best book of 1998. It’s excellent. Our place had an indoor pool, but it was too small to share with fat men and noisy children. Wales is filled with stone churches and graveyards, but towns are tiny and mostly gray, with homes and shops built up to the edge of narrow streets, and not a tree visible, even in this wooded land proud once to provide fleets of tall royal ships with their masts. There are a few hanging baskets and flower beds, but not the profusion of flowers seen in English summers. We stopped to buy flowers and compost at the B&Q, a local Home Depot type, en route home. (“Don’t just do it; B and Q it!”) It was exciting to load bulky parcels into our rental car, with no worry about lugging home heavy or bulky packages. We do miss having a car sometimes!
We spied a little Welch bird, singing beautifully on a tree branch, and stopped for a better look. He was smaller than a robin or mockingbird, larger than a sparrow, with a sharp pointed bill and an orange bib on a round gray body. We had not seen one before. “Do you know what this is?” we asked a hiker. “A robin, I think. “ “Oh no!” I said. “A robin is bigger, with a fuller, redder breast and darker feathers.” This scene was repeated several times with other walkers, and we wondered what this strange little bird could be after we saw another. A bookstore offered the answer: who knew British and American robins were so different? And girls are still called “birds” in the UK.