Saturday, January 22, 2011

London 31.1.10: Quiet Places, Magic Places

Just boarding the plane in London, and as I write the date, I realize I’ll now have to accustom myself to writing 2111—if God gives me breath up to the new year.  This is another flight (this happened when we flew back from our trip to Edinburgh and the Black Forest) where we find, to our surprise, we’ve been upgraded to first-class.  That previous trip back was the first time I’ve ever flown first-class.

Actually, the person who gave us our boarding passes may have upgraded us because there was some fiddly problem with the system.  It allowed him to print boarding passes for the leg of the trip from Atlanta to Little Rock, but not from London.  And after it took forever to resolve as we waited patiently, he may have upgraded us to compensate us for our trouble—and patience.

What a horrendous class system the airlines have created.  On this trip, we noticed in the airports that they now employ a gating system that separates first-class from regular customers, even after all of the former have boarded.

They then unsnap the belt across the laneway for regular customers to board, and woe betide the traveler who tries walking down the forbidden first-class laneway to present his or her boarding pass: those passengers are castigated by the staff at the desk (which they call euphemistically and ridiculously “the podium”).

It’s all silly and insulting and very much emperor-has-no-clothesish, and like the vast majority of folks in that fable, we all meekly oblige the podium Nazis, like good sheep.

And I’m certainly not lamenting the luxuries of first-class, of which I plan to take full advantage on this flight home: above all, the opportunity to lift my travel-aching feet and lean back and, if the gods favor me, even nap some on the long flight.  But planes should be designed humanely to offer similar comforts to all flyers.


Yesterday: as my entry at Fish! suggests, we spent time at the Borough Market, which was such a grand crush of people speaking such a babble of various languages, that I couldn’t enjoy the shopping very much.   The market brought out an agoraphobia always lurking just beneath the thin skin of my psyche.  Steve did find a booth maintained by a German sausage-maker and bought several sausages, including a venison one and some blood sausage, and we—which is to say he—ate those in the evening, with bread (curiously insipid, lacking salt) we bought at Waitrose on our way back to the hotel. 

Before that, we’d scooted back up to Camden Market to revisit a booth selling pages from old books for framing.  I like to buy at least one small item—often a picture—on every long trip, to remember the trip by.  And after two weeks of shopping, I realized that the selection at this booth was good and reasonably priced.

But, alas, this booth was all shuttered and its entrances and shelves covered in blankets.  Then we took a turn around that part of the market—the Horse Tunnel Stables, I think it was called—and I spotted a very attractive little watercolor at a second-hand booth.

It was reasonably priced and already framed (and well-framed), and I liked it.  So I bought it.  It’s an unidentified and rather generic impressionistic landscape, perhaps in France, where a sticker on the back says it was framed, with blues and yellows predominating.  And the artist’s name, C. L’Empereur, also suggests a French provenance.

And as I look at it, it, I’ll always remember this trip and Gertrude Saucier, who once said to me, haughtily, when I told her I find the combination of blue and yellow cheerful, “That’s something you’d expect in a backwoods Mississippi kitchen.  Where they dip water from a branch beside the house and strain the pollywogs out of it.”

This was intended to cut me, since my grandfather was raised in Mississippi, like the husband (who was truly backwoods) whom Gertrude married to cheek her lace-curtain Irish New Orleans family.

And so our past and our present merge in memory, as Augustine (and Proust and Faulkner, the latter raised very close to my grandfather’s home in Mississippi) never tire of pointing out.  And when I see this pretty-looking little watercolor in future, I’ll think of London, but also of Gertrude Saucier, God rest her soul.  And New Orleans.  And the fatuous insular conviction of some residents of that beautiful, very parochial city that all their neighbors in the rest of the South are not quite up to the cultured standards of old New Orleans families.


Over the Atlantic: thinking that this travelogue is curiously colorless, devoid of anything that those writers called local colorists (Sarah Orne Jewett is the single name that pops into my head, from my long-ago 10th-grade American lit book) would recognize as local color.  I’ve recorded here, for the most part, snippets of conversation overheard, vignettes observed, but little about London itself.

Why is that, I wonder?  I can’t help thinking it’s because London in no way seems unfamiliar or mysterious or exotic.  And that may be because I’ve inherited the culture of the nation for which this city is the capital—an oblique inheritance, perhaps, and one that has gone through many doors of change on my side of the Atlantic.  But a cultural inheritance nonetheless.

One that makes visiting London in some ways like visiting a version of home—albeit, a culturally spectacular version of home, with the cultural riches of the globe gathered within its limits.

And there’s not that significant reminder of the daily negotiation of difference in which one must engage in a “foreign” city in which the lingua franca is not one’s mother tongue—though I did frequently think on this trip, as I listened to the polyglot conversations on the tube, in streets and markets, that it will be an interesting experience to return home and hear English spoken again.

Still, English is the taken-for-granted means of communication in shops, restaurants, museums.  It’s what one hears on television and radio and reads in the newspaper.  So to an English speaker, London has a prefab familiarity that blunts the edge of difference of many other cities around the world, for those who speak English.

And there’s certainly also the fact that my own specific cultural roots—my family ones—are far and away more English than anything else, and when not English, then Scottish, Irish, or Welsh, and so connected to London in a particular way, too.  Countless of my ancestors spent time in London, lived and died there, though after 400 years, the ties to specific places in London have become so tenuous I’d have to scramble to locate that information—if locating it is even possible, given the lack of good records specifying the origin of most English colonists of Virginia and Maryland.

What stands out as I review the past two weeks?  The peaceful little close on the locks within the Camden Market, with its wonderful, well-stocked second-hand bookshop and inviting coffee shop overlooking the locks.  That was a wonderful refuge on a very cold pre-Christmas day, where we sat happily an hour or so watching the dark water, munching a mince pie, sipping coffee, writing in our journals.

And the food and Christmas market at Covent Garden, which we discovered entirely by accident the evening we went to see “Oliver.”  As Steve said, it rivaled and even surpassed the Christmas markets we’ve been to in Germany, though I don’t think the Covent Garden market was set up specifically for Christmas.

But how magical to walk from one alluring stall to another a day or so before Christmas, under the soft colored lights—handmade soaps richly scented with rose, Polish sausages grilling and waiting to be wedged into rolls and eaten on the spot, displays of beautiful pies and handcrafted candies sparkling with many colors.  It was a wonderful evening, the one we spent there as we waited for the performance to begin. 

I also loved the walk through the streets around the Tate Britain, with their soft red-brick buildings, little parks, trees, and hush in the middle of the city.  A perfect setting for a distinguished museum with a stellar collection of British art.

Quiet places, places designed for or conducive to reflection: I suddenly realize as I record these impressions that these draw me in a crowded large city like London—as the Frick museum does in New York, or the Isabella Gardner in Boston, with that marvelous interior courtyard.

And magical places one doesn’t seek out or expect to find, but on which one happens by chance—as with the Covent Garden market, which may well have struck me as tired or even tawdry by day, but at night, in the cold, several days before Christmas, was such a gracious gift.  A delight.

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