Friday, March 29, 2013

Yesss! March 2013. Varied First Day in London Again!

Saturday, March 16, 2013:
London’s Varied Delights

The prospect of spending a week in London never fails to fill me with delight. This time round, however, I must admit I was not quite so enthusiastic. The weather this winter-spring has been terrible, going by reports on my Twitter feed from my British Tweeps. Still, since I intended to spend time mainly with friends rather than traipsing the countryside, perhaps I ought not to have felt quite so disheartened when I touched down to chilly temperatures and leaden skies.

I arrived again in London in middle March 2013 at the end of a wonderful week spent touring Portugal. I boarded a British Airways flight to London’s Heathrow airport at 7. 00 pm. at Lisbon airport. My flight was delayed by half an hour and I arrived at London not at 9 pm as expected but more like 10 pm. I hopped quite easily onto the Piccadilly Tube Tube line, got off at Holborn, hopped into a cab for the last ten minute ride to St. Paul’s where I would spend the next week with my dear friends Cynthia and Michael Colclough.
 who had stayed up to greet me although it was close to midnight and who offered a soothing English cuppa as soon as I stepped through their door (last night).

Cynthia and Michael Colclough also spoiled me daily with huge oatmeal breakfasts made from scratch with slow stirring over a stove—what the English call Porridge—jazzed up with the addition of honey, ground cinnamon, dried cranberries and raisins. It is rather a meal in itself and keeps me going quite easily until lunch time pangs.

My days in London begin with Cynthia at Mass at 8 am at St. Paul’s Cathedral where Michael is the Canon-Pastor. Perhaps the most evocative part of my home stays with them are the hourly tolling of the Cathedral bells—those deep sonorous bongs that never fails to charm me—which I hear from my room which is only seconds away from St. Paul’s imposing steps and dome. As always, the Baroque interiors of Sir Christopher Wren’s ecclesiastical architectural masterpiece excites my heart and soothes my soul and it is partly for these reasons that I look forward to daily mass when I am with the Colcloughs in London.

Outlet Shopping Spree in the East End:
My first mission, after breakfast, was to buy a weekly bus pass at the Underground Station at St. Paul’s. For under 20 pounds, I had an Oyster Card that would allow unlimited use of the red buses that I simply adore in London and whose use I have mastered.

We set out at 9 am, because it was raining and we knew our mission would take longer, Cynthia (who wished to accompany me on my first major shopping spree) and I caught bus No. 242 to get to the East End—to Hackney where is concealed one of London’s lesser-known secrets—a series of designer outlet stores where bargains might be had all year round. I had purchased a Burberry classic khaki trench coat from the Burberry outlet three years ago and it was to this store that I returned—this time, to purchase a classic black quilted riding jacket with the characteristic Burberry signature tartan detail on the collar and upturned cuffs. How thrilled I was to find that the store had undergone a major facelift since the last time I was there—it is now huge, cavernous, well-organized and holds a treasure trove of clothing items from amongst which I easily found the jacket I had come to buy—in my size and in the exact style I fancied. As for the price, well, what can I say? It was less than half the price I’d pay in retail and I was simply delighted. And what’s more, I would recover VAT tax on it at Heathrow airport on my departure—which made it an even better deal! My visit to London had gotten off to a fabulous start and I was excited.

Cynthia and I stepped back into the downpour, stopped off briefly at Acquascutum and Pringle which also have outlet stores in the same area and then took the bus back home.

Exciting Chance Encounter with the New Archbishop of Canterbury:
Now I ask you, what are the odds that I would run slap bang right into the new Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby the very week of his installation as the Church of England’s highest prelate? But that was quite simply what happened to me. Now Michael had mentioned that the Archbishop would be arriving at the Cathedral that morning for a prayer service and I had half a mind to attend it. But then, since it would interfere with the rest of my carefully drawn up schedule of the day, I dropped the idea and set off on my shopping spree.

Well, guess what? Just as Cynthia and I were crossing Paternoster Square to get to her home at Amen Corner with our buys, who should I see walking directly towards us but His Eminence himself in the company of a small coterie of faithful laity. Cynthia slunk of quickly and said goodbye but I joined the small handful of people to get some really good pictures of the cheerful priest and then accepted his invitation to join him in prayer in that significant square—right by the sculpture of the Good Shepherd (Pater Noster) where he raised his voice and prayed in the annoying persistent drizzle. I have to say that it was an extremely stirring sight—to be there, just a few feet away from this eminent man whose very modesty and rejection of pomp and splendor has already endeared him to millions was a very moving experience and I am so glad I had that opportunity. Of course, I took several pictures of him and of Richard Chartres who is the current Bishop of London and who was also in his entourage.

On Portobello Road:
I stashed my buys at Amen Corner and said goodbye to Cynthia as I made my way to Portobello Road on yet another mission. A pair of vintage diamante and pearl ear-rings that I had bought from a vintage jewelry dealer in Fairfield had been pilfered from my baggage, a year ago, when I had flown to London afrom Kennedy airport nd I was keen to find replacements. If anyone would carry a pair similar to the ones I had stolen from me, this little vintage jewelry store on Portobello Road would.

Persistent rain did not deter vast armies of people—mainly young folk—who converged upon Notting Hill for a jaunt through the faux-antique stalls of the Saturday Portobello market which I have myself frequented through the years. However, this time round, as I was on a mission, I made a beeline for the jewelry shop, had a long trawl through their offerings and was both disappointed to find the pair I was seeking unavailable and well as appalled bv the prices—for vintage jewelry definitely costs at least double in the UK compared to prices in the US. Naturally, I left the shop empty-handed, looked for a bus and hurried off to the next appointment on my agenda.

Matinee Theater Date (Quartermaine’s Terms) with a Former NYU Student:
Kent Lui and I go back a long way—he had taken my courses over a decade ago at NYU and had repeatedly used me as a reference for the jobs and the graduate studies he pursued at Oxford after NYU. Currently employed by Lloyd’s Bank in London, he is a suave, cool man about town, originally from Hongkong, but so well-traveled that he is now a Global citizen. Kent and I had made plans to meet at the Wyndmar Theater on Charing Cross to watch the 2. 30 pm matinee show of Quatermaine’s Terms, a drama starring the one and only Rowan Atkinson (of Mr. Bean fame) who has successfully made the transition from playing child-like characters on TV to serious theater (I had seen him three years ago playing Fagin in Oliver at the Drury Lane Theater in London).

I arrived a few minutes before Kent did, picked up the tickets from the box office that I had ordered online and looked for a loo. It was still raining and Kent arrived looking bedraggled after his journey from Bayswater. After an affectionate reunion, we settled down in our fabulous seats to enjoy quality drama. Quartermaine’s Terms does not boast much by way of a plot but the performances were sterling, starting with Atkinson who did a stellar job holding the dialog together—for the play is simply about a single, ageing, lonely English Language school teacher in Cambridge whose future stretches out painfully ahead of him with little to punctuate its monotony. The complex lives of his colleagues contrasts with his and in their minor dramas, he sees reflected the emptiness of his own uneventful life. I was pleased that Kent enjoyed it as much as I did as we left the theater to walk briskly in the rain to the next venue.

Afternoon Tea at The Oxford and Cambridge Club:
One of the delights to which I looked forward on this trip to London was my ability to become a member of the famed Oxford and Cambridge Club where as a Senior Associate Member of St. Anthony’s College, Oxford, I am entitled to join. Kent, who graduated from the Said School of Business in Oxford, was already a member and it was his endorsement plus that of his classmate that enabled me to acquire membership. Naturally, I was thrilled and eager to explore this hallowed institution and Kent gave me the marvelous Grand Tour of the many impressive libraries, the snooker room, the several dining halls, the well-appointed lobbies and the basement squash and sauna rooms. Membership also entitles one to use of the many rooms with en suite bathrooms but because those were occupied, we could not explore them. Being suitably impressed by my grand surroundings, I expressed my gratitude to Kent for having accomplished the paper work on my behalf and we settled down for a pot of tea on what was still a wet and depressing afternoon. However, we could not linger too long as I needed to get back to Amen Court, the Colclough residence, to change for dinner.

Dinner with my Former English Neighbors at the Babylon Roof Gardens, Kensington:
One of my great pleasures in returning to London is looking up my former neighbors at Holborn, Barbara and Tim, who are now good friends and who invariably host a memorable dinner for me in their spacious flat which is just next door to the one I had occupied when I lived in London. As Tim was once a West End chef whose skills have only sharpened with time, meals at their home are astonishing; this time round, however, he wished to introduce us to one of his favorite London restaurants—the Babylon Roof Gardens at Kensington run by the Virgin Atlantic Group and owned by its flamboyant CEO Richard Branson.

As the Colcloughs were also included in this special invitation, Tim and Barbara arrived at Amen Court where the car that they had ordered for the evening followed. We piled in and I was afforded a wonderful tour of the city by night albeit under dark and soggy skies. An elevator zipped us up to the restaurant which, for some inexplicable reason, was filled to the rafters with hordes of single women dressed to kill . After we settled down with glasses of chilled Bolinger, we ordered, having made the decision to go with a main dish and “pudding” (no apps). My choice: Grilled Cod with a Bacon and Mussels Casserole served with fingerling potatoes—and it was wonderful. But dessert truly stole the show: it was a Chocolate Praline Mousse with Lemon Sorbet. After the rather spartan meals I had eaten all week by myself in Portugal, it made a welcome change to indulge in so sophisticated a repast and to wash it down with the excellent red wine and the dessert wine called Tokkai that followed—all thanks to Tim’s gastronomic genius. Conversation flowed easily around the table as we caught up, enjoyed the stunning view from over the roof garden of London’s well-illuminated landmark buildings and felt thoroughly pampered by the personalized service that Tim’s intimacy with the restaurant wait staff brought us. Indeed, we felt thoroughly spoiled by the end of the evening.

The taxi dropped our generous hosts to their building in High Holborn before leaving us at our own doorstep at the end of what had been a truly packed and very productive first day in London for me.

So was I glad to be back in my favorite city in the world? You Bet!!!

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