but we're having trouble reading the menu, and are carrying more meds...
11.09.2010 - 18.09.2010
It all starts with an email from Donna in June 2010.
Jamie has a conference in London in September, could we all meet them there for a week of fun?
God Bless Mercer.
Saturday, September 11th, 2010 very early in the morning.
Jamie and Donna fly VA from BOS to LHR, arriving around 7:30am. They are picked up by their taxi-driving friend, Terry, and head to their hotel near the Tower of London.
Tom flies UA from LAX to LHR arriving around the same time and waits for Drew.
Andrew, flying Delta and showing his love of air travel, flies from BWI to DET to LHR reminding us all that sometimes we must go backward to go forward. My flight (VA from SFO to LHR) is the straggler, and the boys hang out at Heathrow until I land, which is around 11:30am. I am grateful for this welcoming crew. It is so good to see their smiling faces. We are all a little tired, a little rumpled, and a little giddy that we are pulling off a 30 year London reunion!
We make our way through the rabbit warren of Terminal 3 hallways to the Heathrow Express platform and buy our tickets to Paddington.
Once on the train, the antics begin. Drew finds a rather old fashioned folded up wheelie chair device stuck behind his seat. After suggesting that he leave it where it is because it's rather old and nasty and there's a rotten apple core stuck inside, he decides that the contraption must be liberated from its hiding place. We can't figure out if someone has left it here (from some bygone era) or if it is BritRail property. The question is important because we are thinking of taking it with us.
Ahhh, out in the London air! We pop out of Paddington and make our way down across Sussex Gardens toward Bayswater, passing the scaffolded 13-15 Westbourne Street building, nodding to the four red phone booths, the Lancaster Gate Tube Station. We pass The Swan, a fetching looking pub, and find our way to 49 Lancaster Gate. It's a stately white Victorian, in a stately Victorian square, and our home for the week.
Dorothy, the house manager, meets us at the door and gives us tricky keys to the building and to our flat. We are staying in #6, which is on the top floor. THE TOP FLOOR. It sounded great when Tom and I were googling for rentals. There is a lift. But the lift ends at the second floor and then there are a few steps down from the lift to a landing leading to the next flights of stairs. So we go down to go up. And, perversely, there is a stairmaster machine that stands vigil on the landing.
Let's just say that the climb is a bit of a lung-buster. Drew thinks we are all going to be super cardiovascularly fit by the end of the week and Tom and I do hope so, but it's a haul. Especially while hauling things, like suitcases and water, and scones, lemon curd, and McVities.
And to make matters more interesting, the lights function on a timer. So if we are climbing leisurely, the lights are bound to go out on us. There is a switch on every floor, and this works to our advantage as it gives us an excuse to lean against the wall and catch a few breaths.
The flat really is lovely. Nicely appointed. Two baths, a kitchen, two bedrooms, dining room and living room with big screen TV. We are pondering the absence of dish towels and toilet paper when a young housekeeper knocks on the door with both. She also helps us convert the leather sofa into a bed in the living room, which is where Drew is going to sleep.
Turns out Donna and Jamie are unable to check into their hotel room for awhile, so they are on their way over to Lancaster Gate. We meet them at the Tube and proceed directly to The Swan, our Viking Room for the week. Stella and Guiness all around, with fish and chips and chicken Caesar salads as chasers.
Despite libations and scintillating conversation, we are all beginning to fade fast.
Back to the flat to rest and enjoy how punchy we're all getting. Drew shares his Darwin Lodge journal with us and that just about puts Donna over the edge.
We make some plans for Sunday; the Thames Festival!
Donna and Jamie head back to their hotel and Tom, Andrew and I attempt to re-energize ourselves by walking with them towards Paddington. We are also in search of some groceries for the morning. Drew runs the goods back to the flat and then we walk towards Queensway taking the backroads through Porchester Gardens. Queensway is hopping; the sidewalks are crowded with people and it's energizing to walk through the throngs. Such a melting pot of eateries and ethnicities.
We find a small kebab/hookah house on Leinster Terrace where we order food and sit at a table outside. Such a great people watching city.
So many languages walking past, many of which we can't begin to identify. The food is wonderful and we even get a little smorgasbord of sweets at the end.
Back at the flat, Drew asks us how many nights we've been in London.
A pint costs 3.80 pounds.
Sunday, September 12th The Thames Festival
We're up around 9:30ish and have a quick brekkie in the flat (toast with lemon curd, coffee and tea).
The boys need to get their Oyster Cards up and running so we're off to the Tube. There is a huge crowd at Lancaster Gate, we can't even get in the door, let alone the manned ticket booth, so we detour to Paddington. Once we are all armed with transport passes we hop the Tube to Tower Bridge. It's a gorgeous day, clear and warm. Donna and Jamie meet us at their Tube stop and we cross the street to Jamie's office to see if a) we can use it as a viewing station for tonight's fireworks, and b) if MI-5 is housed there. We are foiled on both counts at the door. Jamie won't be cleared by security until his official business begins in a few days.
Off to cross Tower Bridge and join in the Thames Festivities!
From the Bridge, we can see the entire embankment walkway lined with stalls. There are stalls selling food and drink, crafts from developing countries, booths distributing info about green products and projects. There's music, and dancing, and children's entertainers. We grab beers and Pimms, jerk chicken, paella and curries and watch the hoola hoopers.
We cross back over the Thames at Waterloo Bridge and scope out the balconies at Somerset House that overlook the river. We figure it's about the right location to catch the parade and fireworks. We also discover that Somerset House is getting all gussied up for London Fashion Week. So much going on!
We're off to Leicester Square to see if we can score theater tix for Monday night. Foiled again! The Half Price Ticket Booth closed 10 minutes before we get there, but we peruse the boards to get an idea of what might be available, and vow to come back in the morning.
We buy postcards, find a glorious pub called The Sussex and hunker down to write to our loved ones over pints.
Back to Somerset House. The parade route begins in front of us, so we eyeball the revelers as they line up in formation. We have somekinda Afro-Caribbean costumage going on, and an Australian Oompah band (we think) and some Vegas chorus girly action. The parade doesn't actually begin for awhile, so Donna, James and Andrew go on the hunt for some food. They bring back Pizza Express (still surprisingly good) which we gobble while we watch the parade.
While waiting for the firework show to begin, Jamie, Donna and I buy chocolate and McVities. Which is the perfect firework watching food.
The show is worth the wait.
Milk chocolate McVities edges out Dark Chocolate McVities by a narrow margin.
Monday, September 13th Wake Me Up Before You Go Go
It's mid-morning before I even open my eyes. And we're supposed to meet up with Donna and Jamie soon.
I creep out of my room and it's like I'm back at the Darwin. Drew and Tom are faasst asleep. What to do.
I have that horrid out-of-body-foggy-jet-laggy feeling in my head and I'd kinda like to flop back into bed. But D and J are probably on their way to Leicester Square! So I roust Drew, who gets a pot of coffee going, and Tom wanders out, equally sleepy and bed-longing. We all had a terrible night. Tom has a Blackberry, thank goodness (I know! I harp at Karl all the livelong day about being glued to his Blackberry, but it's a godsend here) and contacts the Harpers to let them know we're slugs.
Three showers later, we're Tubing it to the Square and score tickets to see Chicago at the Cambridge Theater tonight. We're hungry, so we head to The Cafe in the Crypt under St. Martin's in the Field for some grub. Jamie takes a conference call while Tom, Donna, Drew and I find a Post Office and buy stamps for our postcards. Twice.
The weather is a tad overcast so we don't feel too badly spending the afternoon viewing the Courtauld Collection at Somerset House. Wonderful gallery.
We take a leisurely stroll after the gallery, look for the muffin man on Drury Lane, walk through the Seven Dial's area, Neal's Yard, grab a pint at The Crown and Anchor.
Donna googles local eateries and gets us into Moti Mahal on Great Queen Street. A magnificent meal. We are ruined for Indian food henceforth.
Our production of Chicago was terrific. Great voices, great bodies (down, boys!), great orchestra. It's jazz hands all the way home.
D and J head east to their hotel.
Me and the boys return to Lancaster Gate.
We missed last call at The Swan.
And the shop next door doesn't have an off-license license.
It's an Ambien night for everyone.
Tuesday, September 14th A Proper London Day
It's raining! We break out the umbrellas and slickers!
We meet Donna on the steps of the National Gallery. We've lost Jamie to corporate shenanigans. Meetings and such.
We do a very decent job of going through the museum at a thoughtful pace. At some point, Tom and Drew become fixated by depictions of Baby Jesus, indeed, by renderings of babies and cherubs (cherubim?) in paintings in general. More specifically, we are confounded by the ugliness of these infants. Even the great masters seem to have alarming difficulty with small facial proportions. There's a masters thesis here somewhere.
We have a late lunch at the museum's cafe, finish up the last few galleries and head out. We start walking down The Mall towards Buckingham Palace but the skies start to open up. We scurry over to SoHo and Tom introduces us to The Friendly Society in the basement of 49 Wardour Street. Intriguingly kitchy decor; Barbie bodies and Troll torsos glued to the ceilings. Gnome tables. Oversize goldfish bowls,
stunning bar. Great drinks. A nice refuge. Once we're liquored up, we are on the prowl for dinner and find it at The Four Seasons restaurant in Chinatown. The place is packed, tables pushed close to one another, plates of yum passing by at a quick place. We suck down hot and sour soup, steamed veg, sweet and sour pork, spicy chicken. Life is good.
And getting better. Our entertainment for tonight is The 39 Steps at the Criterion, a spoofy rendition of the book and Hitchcock film. The hilarious cast of four keeps us in stitches. Donna bought her ticket after Tom purchased ours; she is sitting separate from us, which is fortuitous because her seat is two rows in front of...wait for it....KEITH RICHARDS.
After the show, Donna heads back to the Tower, we three head back to the Swan before last call.
We breathed the same air as Keith Richards tonight.
Wednesday, September 15th KEW dA-Eh!
Surprise! We are up early this morning and feel bright and shiny.
We meet Donna at the Tube and proceed to The Phone Booths for photos. Enough said.
Back to The Swan for breakfast. A full English breakfast is a thing of wonder and should be served with a side of Lipitor.
Bacon, sausages, fried eggs (2), tomato, beans, toast, butter, jam, tea. We eat in honor of Jamie whom we have failed to spring from his business suit. Donna shows restraint and has toast and eggs. Tom, Andrew and I dig in because who the heck knows when we'll eat again? We do show some restraint since none of us orders a pint with which to wash down the whole mess.
We waddle to the Tube and make our way to Kew Gardens. We are venturing off our Tube map now, into Zone 3!
Kew is a picturesque English village, right out of a book. Lovely shops surround the train platform, the short walk to the Gardens is along a charming street with quaint, well cared for houses that we'd all like to buy. It's just perfect.
The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew holds the largest collection of living plants on the planet. It's been around since the mid-1700's and there are plants that old still growing there.
It's nice to be outside surrounded by all the green things. Very peaceful and magnificent. We look at cacti and orchids and algae and all manner of tree and bush and vine. Ferns, bulbs, seeds, grass, moss. Elaborate and showy flowers. Butterflies. We climb to a treetop walkway (eek!). Donna, Tom and I are happy to be here, but Drew is rapturous. He'd like to strap on a pair of overalls and pick up a spade.
He gets is dA-Eh on and frightens some visitors.
Back to London. Tom has a dinner scheduled tonight with some business client/friends. At a bowling alley. Which happens to be right around the corner from our flat! Who knew? So Tom tubes back to Lancaster Gate, and Donna, Drew and I take the tube back to Covent Garden. Donna finds Wahaca in her guidebook and we head to 66 Chandos Place for dinner. Delicious Mexican tapas. We snarf chicken mole tacos, grilled cactus, ceviche, broad bean and feta quesas and probably other stuff I'm forgetting. Topped the meal off with an excellent flan.
Ah, food, glorious food.
To the Drury Lane Theater for Oliver! A very fun production, the full on spectacle. Our cast was terrific. The littlest boy in the company was eminently watchable. This kid was tiny and he had bit parts in the chorus from the poorhouse to Fagin's house, but he had all the moves down. One day soon, he'll make a terrific Dodger. We came out singing after this performance.
Covent Garden was PACKED. Couldn't get near the Tube station so we walked to Leicester Square, where we parted ways with Donna.
Drew and I stop in at The Swan a few minutes before 11:00 to see if Tom is there.
He's not, so we opt to skip the pints and head to the flat and see if Tom is there.
He's not, but he comes in shortly thereafter, all smiles because the Wisconsin boy whipped everyone at the lanes! Yeah, baby.
This bowling thing is hot in London. The place where Tom bowled is a six laner, booked for private parties. The beer selections, menu offerings and music playlists are all American. It sounded like great fun and we would have had a blast but it's a good thing we sent in our ringer. Drew and I would have been an embarrassment. We would have insisted on bumpers.
Zach Efron in town to promote Charley St. Cloud.
Thursday September 16th We're walking. we're walking
Up early! Woohoo! Tom, Drew and I stroll through Kensington Garden this lovely morning. The entrance to the park is directly across from our flat, enticing us every day. It's good to finally cross Bayswater and get into the green serenity. We walk to South Kensington and hit the Whole Foods there so Drew can stock up on his fiber fruit. Catch the #9 bus and immediately get caught in traffic, hop off and hoof it over to Leicester Square, where we practically live these days. We've kept Donna waiting at the box office, and we find her keeping warm with a cup of coffee. She buys tickets to The Jersey Boys for her and Jamie for tonight. Yep, Jamie will be done with official business this afternoon! We have plans to meet up with him for dinner before their show.
The four of us head to the Borough Market in Southwark, where we feast our eyes before we buy cheese, olives, chicken curry, bread, salads, figs, apples and cider. It's a tasty lunch on the sidewalk facing the cathedral and its confusing bell chimes.
Before leaving the market, we take another pass through the stalls and buy scones and pastry. For the road. Because you never know when you'll eat again with this group.
To the Tate Modern. We're walking, we're walking. At a clip.
We walk across the Millenium Bridge which frames St. Paul's so nicely.
We duck behind St. Paul's in search of Siena's Postman's Park. Which turns out to be well hidden and quietly lovely.
We contemplate visiting St. Paul's but balk at the entrance fee! Twelve pounds?!
We try to get into the Old Bailey to watch some criminal trials (hey. It's free and we're hoping the barristers wear wigs) but are thwarted at the door. No backpacks, no cell phones, no cameras are allowed and there is no place to leave anything. Dang. Sounded like cheap fun.
Donna finds a shop and buys her mom a Longchamps bag.
We're getting tired of walking, we want a pub. And we know we're having dinner tonight at North Sea Fish near St. Pancras so the new plan is to make haste in that direction, wait for Jamie, have a pint and then off to dinner.
Which is what we do. The St. Pancras station is huge and formidable, an institution out of Dickens. But we find an accomodating pub and all is right in the world.
The fish and chips restaurant is kind of quirky, but the meal is delish.
Donna and Jamie off to the theater.
Andrew, Tom and I head to SoHo and settle in at Rupert Street, which is a bar as well as a physical location. Very cool vibe. And they have Czech Staropramen on tap so I'm a happy camper. Drew briefly contemplates using the communal circular industrial hand washing basin near the lavatories as a urinal but common sense overtakes him. I'll cut him some slack. He is flying home in the morning so his judgment may have been clouded by his distress over leaving us.
We repair to The Swan for a final pint. And a hamburger.
Andrew is now packing.
Big girls don't cry.
Friday, September 17th Let's Do This Again, Shall We?
No alarm clock in the flat so Tom sets his Blackberry alarm for 0 dark thirty. Which means that Tom has to get up to get Drew up.
And he's such a gentleman that he actually does get up to roust Drew. I may have employed a shoe to do the same as I have a clear shot from my room to the living room.
After a bracing cup of coffee (instant), a shower and final pack, Drew is ready. Tom and I wave as he makes his way down the stairs and out to Paddington. We are half expecting to here one last dA-Eh from the lobby.
Then we both go back to bed.
Up around 9:30 for real. There is some last minute stuff to do today. Donna and Jamie have shopping to do for their family. They have a dinner with Donna's cousin tonight so we want to meet up later in the day. I want to take a spin down Portobello Road and find an internet cafe so I can print out my boarding pass for tomorrow. Tom, the sweetheart, is off to that ticket booth yet again in hopes of scoring seats to The Habit of Art for tonight for us. He ends up having to go over to the National Theater box office and gets great center seats at the Lyttelton Theater for 7:30.
So we are all off on our separate journeys during the day. I manage to get an aisle seat on the flight home, print out by pass, and stroll down Portobello, hunting for Victoria Sponge. No luck. I do find a gunslinging panda sweatshirt for son Andrew, and resist the temptation to purchase an old wooden Guiness pub sign at Alice's.
Tom and I regroup at the flat and, while waiting for Donna and Jamie, watch BBC News and have a cuppa. The Pope is in town, whining about the lack of Christianity in modern culture. Whaaaa?
There is no sugar left in the flat, so Tom and I suck on Thornton's toffee whilst sipping our tea. Which is rather brilliant of us really.
Donna and Jamie are finished buying out Lillywhite's and come over to meet us at...The Swan! It's mid-afternoon and we are happily ensconced at a table. We are so comfortable that Tom and I decide to order dinner here instead of finding a place nearer to the National Theater. Donna and Jamie hang out with us until it's time for them to return to their hotel and get dressed up for their fancy dinner, and Tom and I to start making our way to the south bank. We say goodbye to Donna and Jamie under the pub sign.
Here's the thing about London. There is always something going on. And not in a newspaper listing, "Here's What's On Tap Tonight" kind of way, more in a "You Just Have to Get Out There And Be a Part of It" kind of way.
There is a brass band playing on the Thames. There is a troupe of trampoline performers bouncing in front of an awed crowd. There are hooligans (okay, just young people) tearing it up in a skate park. The cafes are full. The bridges are crowded and there are throngs of people walking along the Embankment. I feel completely safe here. If you stop to let someone pass, they smile and say "Thank you very much indeed".
As Tom and I make our way to the Lyttelton, I am at peace and a bit melancholy. This has been a terrific week.
The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett is making its debut in London. It's a thoughtful play ostensibly about the relationship between poet, WH Auden, and composer, Benjamin Britten as told by biographer Humphrey Carpenter. Crafted as a play within a play, the words of these three men are voiced through a playwright so there is much opportunity for banter about the interpretation/motivations of each character. Very well done.
The Tube is packed, Tokyo-style. There's a fashion model on board, still in her runway makeup. No one bats an eye.
I am packing. In the morning I'll hug Tom goodbye and make my way to Paddington and catch the Heathrow Express. A dozen or so hours after that I'll be home in Los Altos unpacking, and will hopefully be ready to deal with the emotional baggage that's been on the backburner for a few weeks.
Tom, Drew, Donna and Jamie, thank you very much indeed.