Monday, June 19, 2017

Back in Blighty! Yes, Again!

Back in Blighty! Yes! Again! 
Monday, June 18, 2017

It was a painless departure from home—practically speaking, I mean—not emotionally. I dearly wish I could have had Llew accompanying me…but it was painless in the sense that the Prime Time shuttle driver picked me up very easily at 1. 30 pm on Sunday afternoon (Father’s Day) on schedule and by 3. 30 pm (also on schedule) we were at the American Airlines Terminal at Kennedy airport.  Flight was on time, check in and security were a breeze with my Pre TSA status and I was at the gate in good time to board. I had a window seat, but taxi-ing for takeoff took forever as we were twenty in line. Although our flight left the gate on time at 6.15, it was 7.30 pm before we got off the ground—and this time I mean literally! This brought us about 15 minutes late into Heathrow, but Immigration took only 20 minutes—by far the fastest it has ever gone.

The worst part of my journey was getting to my hotel.  I got into line at the airport for London’s traditional black cabs, entered one within seconds, but from there on, it was all downhill. The journey into Central London took us about two hours. I boarded the cab at 8.15 am and I reached my hotel in Holborn at 9.50 am! We took the most convoluted journey I have known—from Heathrow to Chiswick to Hammersmith and Fulham and then to Kensington and then to Paddington! Why we did not take the Westway Highway to get us to Edgeware and from there to Marylebon Road, I have no idea. But from Paddington, we eventually reached Edgeware. I was dozing through most of the ride as I had slept fitfully on the flight. I think the cab driver took me for a royal ride just to enhance his fare. It was only when I questioned him at Paddington that he realized I know my way around London really well. And from the time I questioned him, we took a straight enough route and finally, I was there.

In the Hotel at Holborn:
This is not so much a hotel as a building converted into serviced apartments—it is right on High Holborn, just a few steps from Holborn Tube Station and, if you can believe it, just a few meters from the building in which I had lived for a year, not too long ago. So, in other words, I am back in my former stomping ground and I feel as happy as a pig in a….well, you get the idea! This neighborhood is like my second home and after I unpacked, had a quick coffee from the complimentary machine down in the lobby, I was off.
London is sweltering and Londoners are melting in the heat as they are so unaccustomed to these temps and have no air-conditioning except in their offices. I changed from shoes to sandals, put on my sunglasses and baseball cap and was out the door at 11.30 am. And I did not get back to my room until 6.30 pm—already having walked a little too much today!

Exploring Seven Dials and Beyond:
I began my gadabout today with a walk along High Holborn towards Shaftesbury Avenue as I followed some interesting locations in my Key London Red Book. First spot was Monmouth Coffee Co. which, apparently, has the best coffee in London. I did not put this claim to the test as I had just finished a coffee in the hotel. Not too far away was the Donmar Warehouse which does really off-beat theater. I have never attended a performance here, but I decided to check out the premises. Right now Lenny Henry (of Chef fame) is in a show here, but I did not feel any desire to see it. I passed by the theater showing the world’s longest-running play—Agatha Christie’s The Mouse Trap, and walked ahead past Cambridge Theater (showing Mathila) to a theater right near Leicester Square where the big attraction is Audra McDonald, one of Broadway’s biggest stars, in a show called ‘Lady Day at Emerson Bar and Grill’. I found out that 20 pound day tickets are available at 10.00 am daily from Tuesday-Saturday. I shall try to get my friend Shahnaz to arrive at the theater by 9. 45 am to pick up tickets for the two of us on Wednesday when I will be at my seminar at NYU. Tomorrow is out as I have dinner with my NYU colleagues at Hubbard and Bell near Holborn.

Still walking and using my Red Key Book Map, I arrived at the Church of Our Lady of Notre Dame of France on Leicester Place. It turned out that Mass was just about to begin and, naturally, I stayed for it. It is a very small, rather hidden church with a sculpture of Our Lady at the entrance and a lovely mosaic on the main altar of Our Lady amidst a garden of flowers. There were about two dozen people inside and as a French priest said the Mass, there was a lot of Parisian charm to the entire service. It was over by 12. 45 pm which left me just enough time to make it to the next item on my agenda—a free musical recital at the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields at Trafalgar Square. By this time, I was feeling rather peckish as a very light brekkie and coffee in the hotel were all I had consumed; but there was no time to waste.

Recital by Students of the Purcell School of Music:
One of my favorite things to do in London is attending the free concerts at the gorgeous Anglican churches that hold them several times a week at 1.00pm. St. Martin’s is beautifully located and attracts loads of visitors as they carve the time for the event in-between nipping in and out of the National Gallery or the National Portrait Gallery or before catching a matinee somewhere in the theater district.

So, there I was—in a seat right at the front and sitting parallel to the piano keyboard. It was a delightful concert with students who astonished with their virtuosity. About 18 years old, they have the potential to be stars—no doubt. What was wonderful was the variety they offered: Gayatri Nair was a vocalist of Indian parentage who was marvelous. The cellist who played ‘The Flight of the Bumblebee’ was awesome and the piano sonata by Chopin was outstanding. Not that the saxophonist and the violinist were any less. They were all simply astounding. Only in London can one breeze into an 18th century church filled with attractive stained glass and rococo plastered gilding and be stunned by a musical performance for which you would pay a handsome price in a concert hall. Little wonder that such a show is always on the cards for my visits to London.

Highlights Tour at the National Gallery:
Of course, I cannot be close to the National Gallery and not pop in for a Highlights Tour. These are given at 11.30 am and 2. 30 pm daily and I never fail to catch one—this too is entirely free! I used the 40 minute break to sit in the Sainsbury Wing to eat a granola bar and an apple and to take a look at the special 12th century tempera paintings on wood by the Italian artist Giovanni de Rimini which is the featured painting of the moment. Then I raced back for the start of the tour that was given by a guide named Lauren Bauman.
It was a very good tour but for me the most disappointing part is that too much time is spent on each painting—as much as 25 minutes in one case—so that, the viewers see no more than 4 canvasses—we ended up seeing the following and getting a mini-dissertation on each of them:
  1. The Arnolfini Marriage by Jan Van Eyck.
  2. Allegory of Venus and Cupid by Bronzino.
  3. The Toilette of Venus (or the Rokeby Venus) by Diego Velasquez.
And that was it!!! I seriously wish we could have seen at least six of them. But there was a lot we learned and I enjoyed the tour (except for the fact that occasionally I dozed off as I seriously needed to catch up on my sleep). However, I wasn’t about to take a break.
The tour ended in exactly an hour. At 2. 30 pm, I hurried out to a city that had become blistering. If you stood on the verandah of the National Gallery and looked towards Whitehall past the sculpture of Nelson on his pedestal, you would be amazed at how empty it looked! Everyone was indoors. People had wimped out. There was no way they were braving that dreadful heat. This meant that the streets were almost deserted as I made my way to the bus stop opposite Trafalgar Studios with the intention of taking the No. 11 bus for a joy ride through the main tourist venues.

A Bus Ride to Chelsea:   
This is yet another favorite thing to do in London—for me, that is. I board the No. 11 bus which is the cheapest tour you can get of the city of London. Of course, I go upstairs and take a seat up front and center and allow my inner kid to kick in as I settle down to watch London go by. I sailed down the military sculptures of Whitehall and the guards at the Parade Grounds, I passed by 10 Downing Street (poor beleaguered Teresa—you cannot help but feel sorry for her right now!), viewed Charles Barry’s beautiful Houses of Parliament from a height, saw Westminster Abbey and Cathedral along Victoria Road and arrived at Victoria. These roads too were almost entirely empty as people stayed put in their air-conditioned offices.

Scouring the Thrift Stores (read Charity Shops) for Bargains:
I jumped off my bus on the King’s Road at Chelsea and got into the next item on my agenda: scouring the charity shops for DVDs (as I have steadily been building a collection of British films and TV shows) and the thrift shops are the best places to find these. I have my favorite places in Chelsea, Fulham, Kensington and Richmond and I delved to them with a plan! Little wonder that after looking at 5 such shops, I found 4 DVDs—a far bigger haul than I expected. I also nipped into Marks and Sparks to buy some of the goodies to which I have become addicted—eg. chocolate eclairs filled with real whipped cream (not the custard you find in the US).

When I reached the end of the King’s Road, I took a bus to Sloan Street with the idea of picking up my London phone from my friends Michael and Cynthia who are on a cruise right now. They made arrangements for their porter to hand it over to me but when I got there, he was out.

Having walked already for what seemed like miles, I made it briskly to Knightsbridge Tube station and suffered through the sauna that was the Tube! Twenty minutes later, I was in my air-conditioned room and awaiting the arrival of my friend Shahnaz as she was due to land at Heathrow from Bombay at 6.00 pm local time.

Awaiting Shahnaz’s Arrival:
While awaiting Shahnaz’s arrival, I sorted through my shopping, put things away, had a cup of coffee, took a lovely refreshing shower and sat to write this blog. Shahnaz arrived at 8.45 pm. And after spending about an hour just gabbing away (we were meeting after six months), we decided to get a bite to eat.

A Drink and Dinner on our First Night:
By the time we left our hotel to get a bite, it was about 9.30 pm.  We were headed to My Old Dutch, a pancake house in Holborn that I have wanted to try forever.  Never having company, I never ended up eating there. To make things really enticing today, the chain has an offer they call Monday Madness—where a variety of pancakes—crepes really—with the most delicious fillings are half price. We were headed there with enthusiasm, when we spied the Princess Louise pub right across the road and decided to head there for a drink. Two swift half pints later, we were in great spirits and ready to attack a Dutch dinner. And what a fab dinner it was too! We chose the Smoked Salmon Pancake stuffed with a mushroom sauce for our savory course and a pear and cinnamon pancake for dessert.  The place closed at 10. 30 pm and we walked in at 10.25pm—but the staff were kind enough to seat us and serve us at top speed. An hour later, we had tucked into an enormous meal and had taken pictures to mark the ticking of another item from my To-Do List.

And so it was that my first day in London came to a close. I had to pinch myself a couple of times while on the bus to believe that I was back again so soon—in fact, it seems as if I have never left. It is now 12.30 pm and I am now still full of beans. Hopefully, I will fall asleep just as soon as I hit the pillow.

Until tomorrow, cheerio…

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