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 of you and pull on flat strips of heavy paper concealed in the ends. Give a mighty pull, simultaneously, and hear a big “POP!” before unfolding 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 here, no matter if it’s pie, torte, ice cream, or jello, but Christmas pud is special, and every store stocks displays of the 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 covered its beautiful 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 their 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.
For Christmas Dinner we slept in, then hosted friends: fun. The next day, Boxing Day, is a 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 quiet. 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.
Earlier, I visited grandkids in MD, GA and OH for a few days and even saw New York’s 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 all 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 class, bringing props of black cabs, red phone booths, and 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.
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 say 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. The juggler, in a red derby hat that matched his socks, twirled tenpins high into 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 found us at the elegant Connaught Hotel near the Embassy. It’s very wood paneled, fresh-flowered, fireplace-blazing elegant, and world famous, built in 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.
The Dulwich Picture Gallery (“Dull’-ich”) requires a short train ride from London’s Victoria Station, and then about a ten minute walk down Gallery Street in a pretty college town. It’s the oldest public gallery in Britain, all one story, and has just been refurbished. There are English paintings by Lely, Britain’s most famous seventeenth century portrait painter, Turner, and Gainsborough. The collection includes Rubens and Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Poussin, Canaletto, Watteau (Flemish, not French, I learned!), Teipolo, Veronese, Raphael, and Guercino. These were all collected privately, and finally donated to the gallery. Popes and kings are shown, and mythology and religion. A couple of huge Renis hang at the end of a long gallery in natural light from a glass ceiling. After a lecture from a docent named Wendy, four of our tour group ate lunch in a paneled town pub with a garden, although there is a gallery restaurant and a small shop.
Mike and I visited the Courtauld Gallery along the river to see “Art on the Line,” a well reviewed show, which hangs nearly 300 paintings as they would have been shown at exhibitions years ago, arranged floor to ceiling. The Royal Academy jury’s favorites were hung “on the line” at the wooden molding strip on eye level. This influenced buyers, and pleased or enraged painters, including Joshua Reynolds, its first president, and Thomas Gainsborough. Usually, small paintings were placed lower, including portraits, but large full length portraits hung higher. The paintings represented over 300 Royal Academy shows that formerly used the exhibition space. There were many mythological references and some incredible frames. The gallery offers bins of plastic binoculars to better peer at the topmost “skied” paintings. The Royal Academy was founded in 1768, backed by George III.
Outside, ice skaters glided around a rather watery rink where the dancing fountains play in warmer months. (This has been the second warmest year on record.) It’s Somerset House, not Rockefeller Center, and only in its second year of ice-making, but it’s great fun watching skaters in the courtyard of the magnificent palace that houses the gallery. A soft blue floodlight bathes the scene theatrically. There’s a restaurant and busy outdoor tables alongside. The buildings also contain the Gilbert Collection and the Hermitage Rooms, full of objects d’art.
Texas football was rated number three nationally against Colorado in the Big XII championship game, favored to win over a team they had previously beaten. Our UT Saturday game tape arrived Sunday evening, straight from the airport, and a huge noisy crowd was already assembled at the White Hart when I arrived. That pub is always smoky. Someone kindly found me a chair after I picked up a half of bitter at the bar. The bartender wore a Texas shirt. I came from a wonderful Indian dinner at Zaika, a trendy place in Kensington, and expected a victory for dessert—uh, pudding. The game didn’t go well even with a replacement QB: some days lemonade, some days lemons, and a futile turnaround attempt left us short by 2 points. In the pub, it’s impossible to hear over the racket, so my tactic is to sit near some guy who knows football and shout, “What’s that about?” when I’m stymied. Although on Sunday nights last call is at 10:30, the game didn’t end ‘til nearly midnight, and the pub was dark except for our sad group, glimmering by TV lighting. I walked home, about a mile.
New Year’s Eve early was spent at the White Hart for one last look at Texas in the Holiday Bowl against Washington before the pub is torn down to be replaced with a bank of flats. We gathered at four and because of the “vow of silence,” I knew only that it was a really exciting game. We watched Major Applewhite (that’s the quarterback’s name) overcome a big halftime deficit to determinedly lead his team to an exciting victory and pass for the most yardage of any TX bowl game. He’s a senior; it was his last game, his first start in 16 games, and he was named MVP. He speaks well, shares team credit, is a class act and looks like a 14 year old Opie. (He may never have to buy his own beer in Texas again!) Go Longhorns! We all stood in the pub and with our fingers raised in a “Hook ‘em,” we sang The Eyes of Texas at the top of our lungs.
Afterwards, we showered to lose the stinky pub smell and speedily glamorized so we could enjoy a quiet, absolutely perfect elegant dinner ending the year with Sylvia and Joe, Luz and Guy, at Sylvia’s beautiful Belgravia flat. Trafalgar Square offered hundreds of thousands of people and bursting fireworks in the chilly night, but we had warmth and tranquility. (Joe and Mike had attended the same high school in Rochester, Aquinas Institute! It’s a small world!) The streets were filled with cars and cabs as we rode home, surprisingly. The next morning we braved the cold and watched thousands of American kids in the New Year’s Day parade: band members, cheerleaders, majorettes, from all over the US, and a big red fire engine from Richmond Va. We had tea to warm our freezing fingers and visited the Royal Academy’s show of Japanese prints before a walk home. Mike’s taking down our small Christmas tree as I write, since we’re about to leave town.
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.
It’s amazing that this was our second Christmas here--time has sped. We leave soon for Barcelona, and will spend euros, not pesatas. At this time of the year, a special pleasure is hearing from family and friends, which I’m grateful for daily. Cheers, dears, and Happy New Year, which surely must be better than this last one.
Many seasonal Christmas meals include wearing our colorful paper crowns pulled from crackers!
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