Thursday, June 25, 2009

European Vacation, Days 5 and 6

DAY 5

The farewell brunch provided some much-needed sustenance, and it was nice to see how well everyone had, overall, recovered from the last night’s revelry. One nice chap at my table was still in his tuxedo, which I loved. Something to shoot for next year! My new friend Jean very kindly offered to take me to the airport in his racing green Bentley; apparently he is a car nut, which was confirmed when he (paradoxically) filled his car with the wrong fuel and we had to abandon it at the gas station and head back and complete the journey in his brown Rolls. I mean, who lives like this? It was fun to interlope in that world for a little bit. Hopefully I can drop by his restaurant when I head to Tokyo next month for my cousin Hans’s wedding. (Yes, you read that right.)

After picking up some French goodies (Veuve and foie gras) for my Scottish relatives, I got on the plane for London, which is one of my favorite cities. I (stupidly) took a cab into Central London, and it cost over £80. Unless you must take one, or you have scads of scratch, I recommend finding another way of getting into town. I was staying at the Athenaeum Club, which is right on Pall Mall in St. James’s, or what my friend Chris Patz calls “Man’s London.” Jermyn Street alone would be enough to earn it that moniker, after all. Let’s be clear; the Athenaeum has an unbeatable location: walking distance to Piccadilly, the West End, Trafalgar Square, and so forth. The rooms, however, are pretty down at heel. But for £102 a night, you can’t beat the price in the most expensive city on Earth, and it’s all the more incentive to get out and do things rather than hang out in the room, say I. A very, and necessarily, recession-friendly strategy.

I spent the afternoon planning the rest of my stay in London, had a delicious dinner (who woulda thunk?) and got some rest.

DAY 6

Today I tried to cram as much as possible into it. The day started with a full English breakfast, which results in a total food coma. It took everything I had not to go back upstairs and lie down. Of course, reading the International Herald Tribune about the trials and tribulations in Iran helped. I am so hopeful that the miscarriage of process and justice that are the most recent elections, and the justified public outcry, will start to chip away at the oppressive policies of the regime and show up the powers-that-be for what they are. I wish Obama would be less wishy-washy in his response to the situation, though. Where is the outstretched hand that he referred to in his inaugural address (which was a powerful image that I loved)? What’s this business about “continuing to bear witness”? Anemic, very.
After an unsuccessful attempt (to be followed later by equally unsuccessful attempts—you can bet Visa is going to be hearing from me) to pay for one of my Russian glasses I had snapped up at auction at Christie’s, I went to the Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum, which was also within walking distance. They do an amazing job with the museums in London. I barely realized I had spent over 2 hours there. The museum is a faithful recreation of the conditions under which Churchill and his cabinet ran the war in 1940 with an excellent and informative audio guide. You then detour into the museum devoted to Churchill the man, and in listening to excerpts of some of his speeches in the early days of the war (the fall of France, the miracle at Dunkirk, the RAF’s prevailing in the Battle of Britain), I defy anyone not to feel chills of admiration at the bravery and sacrifice of these incredible people; I’ll be honest, my eyes teared up. His speeches are incredibly stirring and pack a helluva punch; you get to see the drafting process, plus embark on a journey through various aspects of his life as a writer, journalist, up-and-coming politician, disgraced politician, neglected child, family man, painter, leader, and inspiration. While the overall tone is admiring, it is not sycophantic. If you are at all a student of history, you cannot miss this.

Next was a Patz-guided tour through Man’s London. Taylor’s for shaving cream, Trickers for awesome shoes, looking in the windows of Turnbull & Asser, Longmire for cuff links that, oh yes, one day will be mine (when I win the lottery). The Savoy is apparently closed for renovations, the Ritz is a ripoff (even if you can get a reservation), and so I tried the almost-as-venerable Brown’s Hotel for afternoon tea. (An interesting historical note is that Brown's was established by Lord Byron's butler and his wife, their maid.) They did an excellent job, and for about half the price as the Ritz, plus they were incredibly attentive, and there are bottomless scones and sandwiches. I definitely recommend it. (However, as an interesting side note, they gave me a little sample of tea to take home, which provoked comment—lucky for me, I got an inspector with a sense of humor—when going through security at Heathrow on the way home. “That’s not what I think it is, is it?” said the chap about the loose green leaves in the clear plastic bag. Just a word to the wise, people.)

After a much-needed nap, I went to my fifth-choice theater performance. The Globe was already booked, as was The Cherry Orchard, so I went to Mamma Mia! I’d half-meant to see it for a while, and so here was my chance. The way in which the ABBA principals cobbled together a plot out of their songs is actually worthy of some admiration, and their business acumen is really worthy of admiration. The singing and acting by the women was pretty good, the men less so, but it was a helluva feel-good evening, aided by a generous Pimm’s Cup at intermission and the fact that they reprised a bunch of numbers and expected and got audience participation (clapping, singing, dancing in the aisles) at the end of the show. Good times.

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