Posted tagged ‘London’

Heaven And Earth

November 19, 2014

IMG_8647It’s probably not at the top of everyone’s list of what to do in London, but my personal dream was to watch Parliament in session. I’d heard that the queues were long and that I might not get in, especially as there was a Question Session with the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. But in the event I just walked right in, happy as a clam, until I saw all the steps leading up to the Gallery where one may watch from behind (presumably bulletproof) glass. As soon as I asked for a lift and explained my predicament, I got a personal escort up in one lift, who stayed with me through the Speaker’s Procession where the Speaker of the House, the Sarjeant at Arms, and a doorkeeper process past the waiting crowd and a police officer yells, quite loudly Hats Off, Strangers! My escort then took me up in another lift to the gallery, where I happily installed myself to watch the wheels of government turn. You’re not allowed to take any pictures inside Parliament, in fact, they take your camera and phone away from you, so all I have is pictures of the outside.

IMG_8651IMG_8657It’s quite spiffy though, inside and out. But I wasn’t in it for the beauty, I wanted to see the famously rowdy House of Commons strut their stuff. But while there was a little jeering, mainly it seemed that Members were earnestly trying to get their work done. The Speaker did offer this rather singular reproach “Will the Honorable Member please turn around, as we do not wish to see the back of his coat but rather the front of his face,” and the Deputy Prime Minister did actually use the phrase “suck up to” in disgusted response to one question, but all in all it was tamer than I’d expected. Although, come to think of it, if Joe Biden said in public that he wouldn’t suck up to some Senator we’d absolutely never hear the end of it.

IMG_8663After that very down to earth couple of hours I went across the street to Westminster Abbey, another place where you may not take photographs inside, which is probably a good thing because it’s so overwhelmingly filled with beautiful things that no one would ever stop snapping pictures and the gridlock would be unbearable.

The list of people buried there is staggering – basically all the kings and queens of England from 1066 through Elizabeth I, Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Geoffrey Chaucer, Oliver Cromwell, Henry Purcell, George Frederic Handel, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, the list goes on and on. Not to mention the fact that most of England’s monarchs were crowned there, and many significant weddings also took place under the superbly vaulted ceilings. I could hardly breathe. The sense of history is palpable there, and I had to sit down several times just to remind myself that I was walking in a place that had been central to the whole story of England since 1066.

IMG_8679Lots of the time you’re even walking over the graves, although the most important people have huge monuments. After seeing the tomb of Queen Elizabeth I had to ask one of the staff whether the current Queen would also be buried there. “Oh no,” he said “we’re full. There hasn’t been a burial here in 100 years.”

As I was leaving, the light on the outer, photographable, parts of the abbey was gorgeous. Here’s your dose of beauty for the day.

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Dining Alone In London

November 18, 2014

IMG_0224-001No, I promise, I did not eat a Starbucks Marmite and Cheese sandwich! I just want to show you that it exists, it’s a thing. Not my thing, but a thing. However, I did go into a Starbucks and get a coffee, when I didn’t seem to have time for lunch, and it gave me a great idea.

Before coming by myself to London my greatest anxiety was about eating dinner alone every night. That, amazingly, has turned out to be a piece of cake. Skipping lunch is part of the key, and the magic of Kindle is the other.

My hotel feeds me a copious breakfast every day, included with the room. In fact, their fried eggs are so perfectly cooked, so much better than any fried eggs I’ve ever made myself, that this morning I asked to go into the kitchen and talk to the cook about how she makes them. So that gets me off to a great start, and not eating lunch is pretty easy. The hotel also happens to be in a neighborhood chock full of little, and not so little, ethnic restaurants, places where I can have a whole dinner, with wine, for about the price of a main dish in a posher place. So all in all, I’ve figured out the secret to solo dining happiness, and I’ll share it with you.

I walk into one of these places early, 6:00 or 6:30, before it’s busy. Restaurants aren’t empty, though, at that hour, and eating early means that when I’m ready to leave and walk back to my hotel in the dark the streets are still teeming with people. I get a glass of wine, open my Kindle to something fun, and then try to befriend the server. I happened on this strategy accidentally. In an Argentine restaurant I commented that the fish reminded me of moqueca, and it turned out that was pretty much the local dish from the server’s hometown. Then the guy who brings around all the meats offered me beef and I asked for chicken hearts. “Ok, she knows moqueca and likes chicken hearts!” (which were indeed fabulous), from then on they were being super nice to me for the rest of my visit.

In an Indian restaurant the food wasn’t spicy enough (Brit tastes, I guess) and when I asked for a dish of chilis the server, formerly quite formal and distant as Indian servers often are, lit up. He took the most solicitous care of me for the rest of the evening, spent a lot of time explaining to me how the restaurant had been named for a warrior princess “so beautiful, so brave,” and I didn’t feel alone at all.

Tonight, in a Greek place, the server was perturbed by my request for three starters instead of a main course, and even shook her head at me a little. But when I lamented when she told me that they were out of retsina, because her boss thinks that people don’t like it, I told her that it seems normal to drink Greek wine with Greek food and besides I like retsina, and she beamed. Shortly thereafter she brought me a bowl of beautiful fruit “on the house, on the house,” and when I explained why I don’t eat fruit, or pita, or rice, she told me “I understand, but I offer it to you from my heart.”

Talk about food, which is the cross-cultural, universal language, and the kindness of those who spend their lives serving the food of their homelands to itinerant foreigners: they’re saving me on this trip from the potential awkwardness and loneliness of eating out alone. I don’t know why I worried.