A proper Christmas dinner in London requires crackers and pudding. The former come in brightly wrapped cardboard tubes, toilet roll size, and at dinner, cross your arms to reach your neighbors’ crackers on either side and pull a flat heavy strip concealed in the end. A mighty yank simultaneously brings a big "POP!” revealing your colored tissue-paper crown to wear through the meal. It probably has fallen into your lap, since those on either side of you have yanked your cracker too. This year my prize was a nail clipper but I got others at luncheon events preceding Christmas. Crackers are sold in boxes of 6 and 12. At a party where everyone isn’t well acquainted, they’re a delightful ice breaker for children of all ages. I like them a lot!
“Pudding” is dessert, no matter if it’s pie, torte, ice cream, or jello, but Christmas pud is special, and every store stocks displays of rounded tins. The traditional brown half-dome pudding is filled with fruits and nuts, not unlike a fruitcake. It’s steamed for about 45 minutes, and we poured brandy over ours, flamed it, and brought it into a darkened dining room with a sprig of holly stuck in the top. Huzzahs are appropriate. It’s served with a sauce that can be made with whipped butter and brandy or bought readymade. I also made little mince pies and decorated them with dough holly, bells, and stars. Individual mince pies and white fairy lights are ubiquitous here at Christmas, but not hard candies.
On Christmas eve afternoon, Mike and I walked down Oxford Street through crowds that were dense, but not as impenetrable as they’d been a couple of weeks earlier. Every store was hanging window signs shouting “SALE!” as we passed, and the giant department store Selfridges’s had already brown-papered over its elaborate Christmas windows, which disappointed me. Our goal was Hamley’s, the local version of FAO Schwartz. It was a scene of bedlam, with parents and children crowding escalators to all five floors of toys, from giant stuffed camels and Barbie princesses to infinite numbers of trains sets and beeping electronic games. Magicians, face painters, and airplane flyers demonstrated wares as we passed their counters; mercifully the karaoke display was unmanned. The harried staff good naturedly fielded questions, probably counting the minutes ‘til closing. It was fun. We walked home under Christmas lights over Regent and Oxford Streets, as a stiff breeze rearranged some urban detritus: McDonald’s cups, newspapers, and cigarette packs.
That night, we hosted friends for champagne and Mike’s fish stew, then walked to midnight mass through the park to the Farm Street church, near the Embassy. The Jesuits’ Latin high mass put us home by 2AM. Smoky incense and gleaming gold vestments on the five elderly celebrants inspired thoughts on what museum-piece worship this might seem for much of today’s world. The church was full, with few standees, but in another generation, will there be any priests, or any congregations? For the first time in 400 years, there is no new entrant into the Jesuit congregation here. The Times says 42% of Protestant congregations consist of retired people; average age of churchgoers is over 70. Average age of priests must be higher. I like going to church in other places, no matter the religion. Sometimes I feel like I'm an interested tourist. (Here, I am!)
For Christmas Dinner we slept in, then hosted friends: fun. The next day, Boxing Day, is a quiet holiday, and we rested, as servants once did after the holiday hubbub they’d endured. They got boxes of gifts. British families visit, and most stores are closed, as well as tubes and some trains. Streets are eerily silent. TV programming all week is reruns of old movies: Some Like it Hot, Bridge Over the River Kwai, and the like. I spent a lot of time in my bathrobe. Mike made beef stew for friends and we went “down th’ pub” for Sunday night singing.
I'd visited grandkids in MD, GA and OH for a few days and even saw New York’s funereal Ground Zero site on an overnight trip with Ellen’s family. We stayed at the Iroquois Hotel, next to the famed Algonquin, where I peeked in on Dorothy Parker’s famous round table, and I took photos of three year old Katie determinedly flagging cabs from the curb. We saw Music Man, which was perfect, and the enchanting Rockettes Christmas show, which I had never seen, courtesy of Ellen and Scott. New York looked great, full of flags and bright lights recovering from disaster. American flags hung from every building and bridge.
I spoke about England to grandson Timmy’s second grade, bringing props of black cabs, red phone booths, and sterling pound notes to Maryland, and watched Amanda’s Christmas pageant in Georgia. Mike was in the US too, in different places. Five US students we never met used our London house from Florence while we traveled. We met back here, hurriedly festooned Christmas decorations, had drinks at Inge’s before she left for Denmark, and welcomed a new friend Angelina for a night. She had a 5:30 AM flight to Sicily and needed to be near Paddington! We have proven a handy location for many guests.
Mama Mia has been the hottest ticket in town for a long time, and we got great seats long ago for Dec. 26. It was excellent, packed with Abba songs; the setting on a Greek Island dealt with a planned wedding and rekindled past romance. Many people have seen it often; by the end, people stood, swayed and clapped to the music. When I marveled at the show’s popularity, a friend pointed out that after the Beatles, Abba was Europe’s biggest group. I give it a very good, not great, rating. We paid about $50, but the half price ticket booth in Leicester Square works too, with few tourists presently here.
I have much stronger feelings about the blockbuster movie Lord of the Rings: interminable! We also saw Spy Games, with Redford and Pitt, which was gripping and excellent.
Our neighborhood shops again sponsored a Christmas Faire, each one decorated with blinking lights and many trees, even some of the restaurants with Arabic writing on the windowpanes. A brass band played carols when members weren’t sampling tiny mince pies and mulled wines in the shops. A juggler in a red derby hat that matched his socks twirled tenpins high in the air and under his knees. Santa and a scarecrow visited, while children jumping in two rubber inflated rooms shrieked nonstop; the street was closed to fit those giant toys. The pasta shop ladled minestrone in the crispy evening air, and the coffee shop offered sweet Italian bread with coffee. The new pasta shop’s owner is a German girl who broke up with a boyfriend in South Africa and moved here. I visited the kitchen store, several art galleries, the new Ritva Westnius formal clothing shop (veddy deah, dollings, next to Jimmy Choo’s and Ritva’s bridal shop). The clock shop was closed, but the Duke of Kendal pub had June at the piano, and a charity collection was taken in big buckets. I sampled mulled wines, nibbled spicy pies, and came home to finish packing for the US.
My birthday before Christmas found us at the elegant Connaught Hotel near the Embassy. It’s wood paneled, fresh-flowered, fireplace-blazing elegant, and world famous from 1897. The small parlors with sofas and round tables were mostly deserted, but the dining room filled before we left, tended by a phalanx of tuxedoed waiters. (Nobody in Europe dines before 8.) We watched a waiter carve a duck that flew to the ground in mid stroke, smoothly retrieved by an underling. He placidly served the blonde at an adjacent table. French chef Marcel Bourdin will retire this year after 25 years. The voiture de tranche (voiture is cart or car, as in auto; tranche is slice, cut) was resplendent under a sliding silver-domed cover. Finely carved wood on a wheeled base, it may log more miles than Lance Armstrong. The silver is really silver, with hallmarks. Walking home we passed Christmas tree lights, mostly in second--first--story drawing room windows. British town homes are tall and narrow, with lots of stairs.
Mike took down our small Christmas tree and we left town. Afterward we began a raw, windy new year with a chilly walk through the park to Picadilly, and stopped near crowds at the elegant Ritz Hotel to view the New Year’s Day parade. Every coffee shop en route was full, some with queues trailing onto the pavement. There seemed to be more British units marching this year than last, but Atlanta, Dallas, Richmond, and many other American cities marched, as last year. I’m sure some worried schools cancelled because of post Sept. 11 fears, but the mood was jovial. It was frosty: our teeth chattered as the sun shone. Bands alternated with giant bobbing balloons of Garfield or Bart Simpson, narrowly avoiding building corners and lightposts, and floats carried Little Miss Whatsername and her wannabe sisters from various towns. Most seriously lacked Rose Bowl potential, but enthused parents and siblings lined the streets. It used to be easy to spot American tourists, but now that Gap, Nike, and Benetton are worldwide style-setters, it’s harder. There is still a healthy, pony-tailed American girl look, but it’s harder to tell the boys, all of whom may be in a Yankees ball cap, backwards.
After an hour or two with bands and majorettes, we crossed the street and walked through the elaborate iron gateway for tea at the Royal Academy as much to get warm as to see the Japanese prints, advertised by huge flags on the façade. Inside, a tiny gray mouse darted from under a fat sofa in the members’ room as we nibbled; he nibbled too. Prints of ancient Edo’s theater and pleasure districts, the “floating world,” ukiyo-e, came from the Boston Museum of Art, spread over hundreds of years and displaying various styles and signatures. Few were as x-rated as some I’ve seen. When xenophobic Japan was opened by U.S. Adm. Perry in 1853, westerners went crazy over these prints.
Sophisticated artists had to amass a collection, and the hard edge, flat color, and unusual angles influenced Van Gogh, Lautrec, Degas and their enthusiastic cohorts. Two days later we were walking in Barcelona, delighted to see a palm tree again, but news of that in other chapters.
It’s official: England spends more time in traffic than anyone else in Europe. Spain has new roads built by EU millions, and France prides itself that trains are almost never late. Here the problems continue to mount: splitting tracks and misshapen wheels create danger and delays that Labor hasn’t remedied even after five years in office.
I’m amazed that Harry Potter, which has millions of children reading, has been “Americanized” so that the word jumper becomes sweater or biscuit becomes cookie. The word smart is usually used with clothing, rather than school performance. Even the titles are changed. How will American kids learn other words? Why not an English version with a page of vocabulary explanations? Newspapers here are full of wonderful words and verbiage. International news is well covered, as in US elections or Enron’s fall, but Dan Rather reported recently that US TV news programs devote less than six per cent to international news. No wonder nobody knows geography! It is hard to keep up with American sports here, however: even the Times is full of Beckham in football (soccer) and the latest cricket test match (impenetrable!), but nada on American baseball or football. The tabloids will never relinquish bosoms on page 3.
The Beatles lost another: George Harrison died in the US of cancer. He was written about in all the papers, his music was played, and there was a turnout in Liverpool one bitter cold night, but his death had none of the impact of John Lennon’s bizarre murder. A memorial service is in the future for the “baby Beatle”.
Concerning deaths of whales due to noises in the ocean made by Navy testing, Mike has worked on several acoustic studies concerning this most sensitive issue and has headed a Navy study. Noise can travel hundreds of miles in the seas and sea mammals are as subject to surprises as the rest of us. Cheers, dears, and Happy New Year, which surely must be better than this last one.