04 January 2007

Greetings from the Queen

Z and I have just returned from a whirlwind three days in London. And while we didn't actually see the Queen (she was a little busy, as I understand . . .), we did make the most of our time with a fairly busy schedule and plenty of opportunities to visit with Z's brother, Th, and his girlfriend Iz.

First, I have to comment on how easy it is to travel from Belgium to England. Coming from the states as I do, it is sometimes difficult for me to comprehend just how convenient international travel can be in Europe. I booked our tickets for a journey on the Eurostar about three weeks in advance. On the morning of our departure we walked to the train station in Leuven (15 min.), traveled by express train to Brussel Zuid (28 min.), picked up our tickets and pushed through security at the Eurostar terminal (15 min.), were served at customs by a truly disgruntled English officer (10-but-felt-more-like-100 min.), boarded the train--with our luggage, mind you--and traveled to Waterloo Station in London (2 1/2 hours) with only two stops in Lille and Ashford. And had we not hesitated in Waterloo (in other words, had I not gawked at the blessedly-large cups of coffee being served in the blessedly-numerous espresso shops), we would have made our train to meet Th and Iz in Mortlake, a mere 20 more minutes. So in only about five hours door-to-door we were happily situated in wonderful everyone-speaks-my-language England!

Much of the first day was spent visiting with Th, getting to know Iz, and recovering from a lack of sleep the night before by taking a long nap, a long shower, and starving ourselves sufficiently in anticipation of a New Year’s Eve full of food and good English ale. We attended a lovely dinner party hosted by friends of Iz and made known our status as “Americans” by asking after the royal family and recanting favorite Saturday Night Live skits. Soon after dinner the bottles of wine were replaced with cans of Fosters, and we wisely left before the evening descended into something reminiscent of our undergrad fraternity parties. We rang in the New Year by playing cards, a family tradition, and wondering aloud if Dick Clark would make it through New York’s “Rockin’ New Year’s Eve” celebration without his jaw falling off his face. And Iz expertly withstood the onslaught of two slaphappy, competitive brothers!

Monday and Tuesday we “did” London. The weather on Monday was in our favor—sunny and mild—so we bravely set off without umbrellas (more on that later, of course) and hit the city. London at night, experienced around 4:00 in the winter, is beautiful. Th, Z and I wandered from Waterloo down to the Tate Modern Museum along the Thames pathway and took in such lovely, lit-up sights as Westminster and Big Ben, Saint Paul’s, and the famous London “eye.” The Tate was wonderful, though we all three agreed we shouldn’t have rushed straight to the ultra-modern urinal-on-the-wall types of sculpture and left more time for Monet, Picasso, and Kandinsky. But we did see a fascinating video collage involving four screens simultaneously playing musical moments in movies. It was raining when we left the Tate and decided that, rather than pay the outrageous £3 tube fee we would walk to our meeting point for dinner. Using a map that was clearly NOT to scale we hiked across the Thames, past Saint Paul’s, and along deserted streets of the financial district, pausing only briefly to pay homage to signs stating things like “Near this spot stood the home of Margaret Tuftswood, author of [insert name of little known English novel] and seventeenth president of the Wee Tea Cup Club” and other mildly interesting bits of information. Drenched and chilly, we met up with Iz and her friend to seek out Indian food along Brick Lane, London’s premiere curry district. Tired of being wet and a little discouraged at being hounded by the looming hosts with offers such as “free bottle of wine” and “25% off your first entrée,” we dashed into the first reasonable place we saw. Though the décor was a little bland and the service disappointing, the food was quite good. We capped off the evening with a visit to a local pub in Richmond and a couple of beers before the pub closed at . . . 10:30. Well, at least we had time for more cards!

The sun returned on Tuesday, and Z and I headed in for a full day in London. We were determined to see a show and set out to find the booth on Leicester Square that sells same-day, half-price tickets. I had, unfortunately, forgotten to check which tube stop would take us there and had to make a guess: Picadilly Square. Lucky for us the guess was good, especially since on January 2 the price of a single ride on the tube had gone up to £4! We purchased our tickets (Chicago!!!), and headed to lunch with friends of mine at another excellent Indian restaurant. After lunch it was a quick trip to the National Portrait Gallery where, among some famous Tudor portraits we also stumbled upon a wonderful portrait of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. The painter had perfectly captured the essence of Vaughan Williams in his final years: he sat slouched in a stuffed chair, white hair messed up, hearing aid dangling from one ear, a baton loosely held in his hand and a piece of music lightly sitting on his lap. This is how I have always imagined him, composing slowly, without any urgency, and always ready for his smoking pipe, a cup of tea, and probably a piece of dry toast with marmite.

Z left for a quick return to Richmond to practice his trumpet, and I headed down to Westminster Abbey. I had been before but had honestly forgotten just how wonderful it is. For only £7, a relatively small sum considering the high cost of EVERYTHING is London (need I mention again the tube?), you can see the tombs of most of England’s kings and queens dating back almost 800 years, the original coronation chair, and a place called Poet’s Corner where famous artists are either buried (Chaucer, T.S. Eliot, and G. F. Handel among them) or memorialized. I was lucky to be one of the last in before closing and enjoyed a peaceful walk through the Abbey’s many chapels. I decided that rather than rush down to the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square I would stay for Evensong. I thought it might be good to get a little church in my day before exposing myself to a tale of murder and deception at the theater that night. And speaking of, Chicago was, to say it as the Brits do, brilliant! London’s theaters are like those on Broadway, small and a little run-down but full of wonderful atmosphere. It was a great way to end our holiday. And a HUGE thank you to Th and Iz for such a wonderful visit and for being such excellent hosts!

I really love London. It is a huge city with a lot to see and do, a diverse population, and a fascinating history. But after living on the Continent for a few months now, I am struck by how un-European London actually seemed. I had asked Iz what it is that the young British see as their interests and concerns, and her first comment was that they would like to see Great Britain become more European and less American. I thought this was a very interesting and accurate statement, especially since I had heard my Belgian friends say that exact same thing about Great Britain. Perhaps it’s the proliferation of Starbucks—you know, the same ones I was pining after in September—or the insular nature of Britain, both geographic and social. But I couldn’t believe it, I found myself thinking like a, well, like a Belgian! The cars are too big. The people wear too many colors. And, I never thought I’d say this, but I thought that the beer was a bit . . . *gasp* . . . watery. Maybe Belgium has spoiled me forever. All I know is that the next time I see my Belgian friends they will greet me with a glass of cold, crisp Belgian beer and big “I told you so.”

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