Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Breathless But Blissful Last Day in London

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Breathless But Blissful Last Day in London
            And so it arrived finally—as all good things must—the end, that is, of my near-perfect month in London. On the one hand, as I look back, it seems to have flown in a heartbeat. And, yet, on the other, when I consider how much I crammed into 30 days, it seems as if I have spent a lifetime here.
            Alas, the clock chimes of St. Paul’s failed to wake me up at the crack of dawn—7. 30 am was more like it. I used the time whilst the rest of the household snoozed, to pack my bags carefully. By 9 am, Cynthia was up and preparing breakfast—we had cold cereal (muesli), lovely toast made with fig and hazelnut bread, marmalade and tea, and then I continued doing the odds and ends that must be accomplished in preparation for a long flight across the pond. By the end of the day, even I am shocked by the ground I covered and the astute management of time that permitted me to complete almost all of the items on my To-Do List--not just for the day but indeed for the trip.

Quick Nip into the Tate Modern Museum:
            By 11. 30 am, with my packing under control and my mind in a relatively peaceful state, I crossed Wobbly Bridge on foot and headed to the Tate Modern Gallery. It was the one major museum I had not yet peeked into—I was keen to see the Roy Lichtenstein canvas called Wham that introduced the techniques of comic books into contemporary art. Alas, I was informed that the Lichtenstein exhibition had ended two weeks ago and the canvas was no longer on display. Fortunately, I had seen it many years ago—so I felt less badly about missing the opportunity.
            Since I was in the Tate, I took a round of its newest installations and then made my way up to the 3rd floor—the café level—for stunning views across the Thames to the dome and spires of St. Paul’s. It is astonishing how much London’s skyline has changed since I lived in it. Then, only the Gherkin had dominated the landscape—today, there is the towering Shard and still in a state of construction, the Cheese Grater and the Walkie-Talkie! Ever imaginative, Londoners are perceiving these new icons with their characteristic dry humor.
            Although my visit was short, it was lovely to take in old favorites—the Picassos and Miros, the Braques and the Legers. But time was running fast and I had much catching up to do…
An Errand at the Globe Theatre:
            My next port of call was next door at Shakespeare’s beautiful Globe Theater that I had also not visited during my entire extended stay. A desire to carry back home some brochures proclaiming the offerings of the new Sam Wannamaker Theater for my colleague Karen who will be teaching a course to coincide with the 450th anniversary of the publication of the First Folio, I stepped into the lobby where Tours of the Theater commence. With my brochures safe in hand, I sauntered into the shop and was much humored by the witty aprons, oven mitts, note pads, coasters, key chains, etc. that bear Shakespearean quotes. I did not buy anything, however, and with my errand accomplished, I crossed Wobbly Bridge again, fighting hordes at every step before returning to Amen Court for a quick chicken sandwich lunch.

Time to Say Goodbye:
            Cynthia and Michael, mine hosts, were off to the famed Glyndebourne Festival—a major musical event--and I waited until they left at 1.00 pm, so as to bid them goodbye. They were not expected back home until past midnight, by which time I would be fast asleep. I did not expect to burst into tears as I hugged and thanked them; but sob I did! This foursome (which includes their sons) is like my family in London and I always get tearful when leaving them; but this time, my departure was made more poignant by the fact that I will never live with them in this glorious Christopher Wren home again as they will be moving shortly into a much more compact space where they will no longer be able to offer me the luxury of a room of my own with a separate bath. Although I know that I will see them again, the thought that it will be in a different location and in different circumstances, made me very nostalgic indeed for the many stays I have enjoyed in their warm, loving and hospitable home.
Off to Paddington:
            With Cynthia and Michael gone and my last day in London yawning gapingly ahead of me, I was delighted that their lawyer son Edward, who had a free Saturday at his disposal, volunteered to keep me company by spending the day in whatever way I wished. Thrilled to have his company, I mentally reorganized my day and off we went.
            Our first errand was in Paddington at Sussex Gardens, just near the famous St. Mary’s Hospital where Prince George was born three weeks ago. I had meant to present a small gift to my friend Bande Hassan at dinner last night. But I had clean forgotten to carry the present with me. I promised him that I would drop it off with his concierge and that was what Edward and I first did on having taken the Tube to Paddington.  Ten minutes later, we were dropping the bag off and leaving his building and looking for transport to take us our next location.

Antiquing on Portobello Road:
            Well, for a lover of antiques and vintage bricabrac, I suppose it is sacrilegious to spend an entire month in London and not find the time to browse amongst the Saturday morning stalls on Portobello Road. So, wanting to tick that box too, we took a bus to Notting Hill and began the long and painfully slow walk to the spot where the make-shift Saturday market sprouts up. It has been my recent unfailing experience that nothing but garbage is now to be found on the streets—cheap Chinese remakes of famous English porcelain patterns (the Redoute roses for instance on bone china mugs). Anything halfway decent is now in the shops that line both sides of the street but with much heavier price tags. There is plenty of “hotel silver” to be found now, mainly in the form of teapots, creamers and sugars and numerous salt and pepper shakers. But there wasn’t anything really portable and after a quick circle around the stalls, we retraced our steps and disappeared down the Tube stairwell at Notting Hill.

Whee! The Exciting Emirates Cable Car Ride!
            The Central (Red) Line took us directly to Stratford which was virtually the end of the line. This was the area that had buzzed last year at this time during the Olympic Games, From the Tube platform, we followed signs to the DLR (Dockland Light Railway) with the idea of getting off at Royal Victoria. About ten minutes later, we were able to see the capsules of the Cable Car and another ten minutes later, we had tickets in hand for the very pricey cost of 3. 20 pounds! Indeed, it was a steal and our excitement mounted as we mounted the platform to the embarkation area for a ride on the Emirates Air Line as the Cable Car Ride is called.
            Named for its sponsor, Emirates Airlines of Dubai, this newest London attraction (that is fast rivaling the Shard and the London Eye because it is so reasonably priced) has loads of offer. Not just is the cable car ride thrilling, soaring—as it does—high above the Thames, but its proximity to the Millennium Dome (the O2) on the other side, means one can then explore that exciting venue with its restaurants, cinemas, games arcades, etc. and its own newest attraction—the ability to scour the curve of it on the outside. Furthermore, the Cable Car ride offers fantastic views—from the Anish Kapoor sculpture in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park near Stratford to the Thames Flood Barrier, from the towering heights of Canary Wharf to the bend in the Thames as it snakes towards the sea--you can take it all in. And it is deeply exciting! Very similar to the ski lift rides that are common at skiing resorts all over the world, the capsules move slowly to allow boarding and disembarkation. Ten people can be accommodated in as single capsule, so one is often clubbed in with a bunch of strangers, but it can be a very amusing experience overall. Edward and I enjoyed it enormously and would heartily recommend it to visitors to the capital.
            Upon disembarking, we walked towards the Millennium Dome and the Jubilee Line Tube Station at North Greenwich and twenty minutes later, we were at London Bridge to see another one of London’s new attractions, up close and personal, the Shard.

Circumnavigating the Shard:
            The reason the Shard is not as popular as it was predicted to be was its sky-high ticket to the Observation Deck. It is supposedly Europe’s tallest building, although even an assessment of its height from its base does not quite impress. It is a very interesting architectural design and chances are the top will always appear unfinished; but with the 30 pound ticket cost to ascend its dizzying heights, it is unlikely there will be many takers.
            I wasn’t interested in reaching the top—all I wanted to do was walk in its base and to circumnavigate its environs. This turned out to be far from impressive too. Indeed, there is really nothing much about which the Shard can boast—other than its height. Still, I was content that I ticked off yet another item on my Visit Wish List.

A Walk in Southwark and the South Bank:
            Realizing that we were very close to Southwark Cathedral, we decided to stroll along the South Bank of the Thames to take in its Saturday evening energy. Since Borough Market was wide open, in we went looking for end-of-business-day samples (or what the British call ‘tasters’) but there was nothing to be found as salesmen washed out their platforms and packed up for the day. Past Vinopolis we went and The Anchor pub and on past the many eateries that have mushroomed quay-side. We crossed Wobbly Bridge again and looking for sustenance, entered Le Pain Quotidien opposite St. Paul’s Cathedral where we sipped Americanos and hot chocolate and enjoyed pavlovas and chocolate tarts as we both badly needed a sit-down.

A Walk at the Inns of Courts at Chancery:
            Edward excused himself at this point, as he had an errand to run in Vauxhall. We decided to meet up again for dinner at Carluccio’s at Smithfield Market and off we went on the Tube.
            I took a bus down Fleet Street and got off at Chancery Lane in order to begin the last of my DK Eyewitness Guide tours as are to be found in the book. The walking tour wound through the back of the Royal Courts of Justice with their brick and granite work. I noticed, for the first time perched high on the corner of a building, the sculpture of Sir (and Saint) Thomas More, Chancellor of the Exchequer under Henry VIII, the Reformation’s most famous martyr. This is Holborn, heart of legal London, filled with grand buildings whose architecture never fails to lift my spirits.  On weekend evenings, the place simmers down to a whisper—only a few boisterous boozers can be heard at the few pubs that dot the warren of lanes.
            On Carey and Searle Streets I walked until, off Portugal Street, I arrived at The Old Curiosity Shop about which Dickens wrote a novel. It is definitely a 17th century structure that survived the Great Fire of London as is evident by its sagging roof and its overhung upper storey—typical of Tudor housing. Today, a shoe store takes occupancy within but tourists do come in their numbers to take photos of a very interesting corner of this part of the city.
            Lincoln’s Inn, one of the four Inns that comprise the Court of Chancery, is a magnificent Tudor structure with banks of characteristic fancy brick work, tall chimney pots, stone gargoyles and an impressive gate house. It is said that the playwright Ben Jonson laid some of the bricks of these buildings in the reign of Elizabeth I. Although I have wandered at will through the many nooks and crannies of this venue, I was unable to enter today as the area is closed to visitors during the month of August as a result of some construction activity within.
            No harm, no foul. I left and made my way towards Sir John Soane’s Museum which is also heavily scaffolded—due to refurbishment. It was closed, in any case, and having visited it on many occasions, I had no intentions of going inside to peruse the impact of Soane’s obsessive collecting of architectural fragments from around the world. On another side of the Square in which prisoners were once executed (it is rumored that the screams of their ghosts can still be heard on certain nights in the area) is the grand Neo-Classical façade of the Royal College of Surgeons that hides yet another little-known museum in its bowels—the Hunterian Museum (which I have also visited a few years ago).    
            And then, on another side, was the van with free food with hordes of homeless men clustered around it to claim their evening meal. Within half an hour, it was all gone and I found myself on Kingsway looking for the Church of St. Anselm and Sr. Cecilia as I wished to pay a visit since I would be missing Sunday mass tomorrow. That too was closed as the Saturday evening mass had ended about a half hour previously. My walk had accomplished a great deal—it had taken me through parts of London that I love because of my close familiarity with them, but it had also introduced me to certain facts of which I had remained ignorant.
            There was nothing left to do except enter Little Waitrose on High Holborn to buy myself some breakfast sandwiches for my early morning departure tomorrow. I did so and walked towards the bus stop at Brownlow Street to hop into a bus to Smithfield. By 7. 45, I was at Carluccio’s and awaiting the arrival of Edward.

Last Meal in London:
            Carluccio’s is one of my favorite London Italian chains—introduced to the city by Antonio Carluccio. I was introduced to it by my former neighbors Tim and Barbara, who often ate there on a Sunday evening. Edward arrived a few minutes later and we decided to have the 2 course prix fixe meal both of us choosing a penne pasta with sausage in a tomato sauce as our main dish and finishing off with Tiramisu which we washed down with red wine and Peroni beer respectively. We chatted about Bollywood movies of which, I discovered, Edward is a big fan. But by 10.10 pm, we had to call it a day and walking into the coolness of a summer’s night, we headed back to Amen Court where I finished the last bits and bobs of my packing. Edward very chivalrously took my cases downstairs in readiness for the cab driver who would be coming to pick me up at 4.00 am!
            And thus, quite suddenly, my time in London came to a grinding halt. I set two alarms to be on the safe side and to the chimes of St. Paul’s clock, tried to get to sleep. But tension made sleep elusive and when Cynthia and Michael returned after midnight, I was still awake and able to spend a few more minutes chatting with them before bidding them goodbye again. I continued to remain wide awake right through the night and at 3.30 am, woke up to start the long drive into the lightening dawn to begin my journey from Gatwick Airport and away from London.
            Yes, I will have to admit that tears blurred my eyes as they ate in the familiar landmarks of the city for I have no idea when I will return…but I live in the confidence that return I will. For when you have as much passion for a city as I do for T’Smoke, you never need much of an excuse to come back.

Parting Shot:
            So there you have it: My Month in Blighty. If I were to sum up its fruitfulness in terms of goals accomplished, I would say I did not do too badly. I researched, wrote, and worked with the editors to complete a commissioned essay on Paradoxes of Anglo-Indian Identity. I made contact with the Images Department of the National Portrait Gallery to obtain rights and permission for the use of pictures I intend to include in my forthcoming book. I  met with sociologists and anthropologists at The School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London to gain insights into the manner in which the manuscript of my book can be improved for publication. I had fruitful meetings with faculty colleagues and staff at NYU-London who worked hard to support my work in the computer labs. I used the British Library for checking footnotes and cross-referencing sources in my bibliography. 
           I completed every single one of DK Eye Witness Guides walks through London. On an average, I walked 6 miles per day or about 12, 000 steps. And I broke my own personal walking record by walking 12 miles or approximately 25,000 steps in a single day when in Oxford.
           Outside of Central London, I visited Hampstead and Greenwich, Oxford and Leeds Castle. 
           One of the most fulfilling of my many excursions was visiting my infirm friend Stan Fuller at the Madeley Estate Home for the Aged in Witney, near Oxford.
           The most exciting part of being in London this summer was my presence in the city during the birth of the heir to the throne. I participated actively, as any die-hard Anglophile would, by making my way to the gates of Buckingham Palace to photograph the easel that announced the birth to the world. 
            I met many old friends and made new ones. They provided company, meals, long chats and insights into the British way of life. I also unexpectedly met and spent time with my old friend from Bombay, Firdaus, who was visiting London at the same time.
           I made my home in four different parts of the city and I enjoyed them all--Holborn, St. John's Wood, Battersea and Ludgate Hill. St. John's Wood and Battersea were new to me but I enjoyed discovering them. 
          I saw five great plays and my first opera at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. I also saw the Bolshoi Ballet perform Tchaikowsky's Sleeping Beauty at Covent Garden.
          I think I can say that I packed more into my month than most visitors to London do in a year. I am always grateful for the opportunities that bring me to this, my favorite city--which is why I am almost manic in my consumption of its many pleasures. 

          Please stand by now for my last and final post—on my dramatic return to the US.

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