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The Pimm’s cup

Work while on sabbatical has been productive; given the time difference, I can get an entire day in before most people in the states have started, leaving me an entire other day to do things here.  I’m not sure why this doesn’t work at home, but I’ll take advantage of it now.   The hardest part has been student meetings which are inherently face to face.

Work aside, we’ve been living more like locals.  Teatime in the afternoon, cheeses, biscuits, lavender cookies, and of course, loose leaf tea, and sometimes wine.  Intermix this with the occasional pub afternoon and you have a picture of a life of leisure in the big city.  Well, a life on sabbatical, anyway.

Pubs in central London, when you get away from the tourists, are business places of sort.  In the financial district, we mingled with the local financial wizards at the New Moon in Leadenhall market (where the Leaky Cauldron of Harry Potter fame is).  Great beer, “Old Speckled Hen”, with the best fish and chips I’d ever seen, along with picking at a “pig platter” of various sausages, deep fried pork belly, and  Scotch Egg ( this is a deep fried hard boiled egg – the Scottish do love their deep fryers).

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Beer is ordered simply, go to the bar, select from 20 different kinds and the transaction goes quite smoothly.  Until, that is, someone decides to order a Pimm’s cup – apparently the national summer drink here.  But a Pimm’s cup in a bar grinds everything to a halt and produces raised eyebrows from the bartender.

Let me explain the Pimms’ cup.  A glass of ice, layered carefully with strawberries, lemons and limes and cucumber artfully arranged with maybe a cherry and some mint leaves.  Pour in Pimm’s (it’s gin-based liquor) and then top with sparkling water.  Time to create?  5 minutes.  In a busy pub, an eternity.

Thursday night we went to the PROM (OK, this is actually a concert series put on by the BBC).  Among other pieces, we heard a fantastic rendition of La Mer, at the Royal Albert Hall.  We took the bus from our apartment, arriving in plenty of time to get seated, but there’s always that temptation to run and get a quick cocktail before the show.  A long line, but moving quickly, until the man in front of me orders, you guessed it, two Pimm’s cups.  Our #3 gin and tonics went quickly; the clock is ticking 2 minutes, 1 minute, dash through the door where Lorie is seated, and the conductor walks on stage.

Royal Albert Hall Panorama

Just around the corner from us is a small faux French Bistro, Foxtrot Oscar, a Gordon Ramsay outpost.  It’s more of a neighborhood joint and we were most certainly the only Americans there.  Foxtrot Oscar are the call signs for the letters FO.  FO?  Hmm, what does that mean?  Oh, putting it together, Gordon Ramsay, FO, == F*** Off.  Sigh.

Celebrity chefs.  Yes, I see that Gordon Ramsay is an identifiable name.  As his mentor, Marco Pierre White was once quoted “if the chef is on TV, who’s cooking your food?”  So I take it as more of a level of standard, than an actual cuisine.  Still, there are definitely Scottish influences in the menu, Loch Duart Salmon with fresh English pea mash.  The peas were really wonderful, I missed out on my English pea fix this year due to laziness in planting the garden; I’ve been indulging here.  Of course, in a relaxed setting I ordered, a Pimm’s cup.  Very pretty, quite sweet, now where’s my martini?

Salmon with English Peas
Salmon with English Peas

Friday night we went to Gordon Ramsay’s flagship restaurant (which is walking distance for us).  It’s really Clare Smythe’s show, a star chef with an excellent staff.  For starters, “would you like some Grand Cru Krug? “ “Why certainly, yes we would.”  A whole flotilla of amuses came out included, scotch quail egg (there’s still some Ramsay left in the menu).  Truly the best foie gras terrine I’ve ever had with perfectly matched wine.   A wonderful roast pigeon dish.   I wonder if they ran them down in Trafalgar square?  Best not to think about it.

The Maitre ’d, a large personality, identified himself as from Dijon, where of course we spill the beans that we’re spending 6 weeks there.  “Ah, you must speak French then” and began to converse entirely in French for the rest of the evening. My mind wasn’t quite ready for this, after all, this is an English restaurant, but we began to muster our language abilities.  Lorie is quick with a response through months of French practice as Aliance Francaise.  For me, it’s like shuffling through a Rolodex to formulate sentences, “clunk clunk clunk”.  I thought about telling him that “monsieur, c’est un restaurant anglais” but that’s the sort of thing that can turn a great restaurant experience into an off restaurant experience.  Instead, “ce poisson cuisine perfect” in a good Midwestern accent came out.  If you put this last phrase into google translate, you’ll see how awful I sound.  But, By the end of the evening he invited us back into the kitchen, as always, the effort in language is appreciated.   It was very elegant for Lorie and me, walking home together from a Michelin star restaurant – really felt like the city.

Saturday night we went to the theater district to see a Noel Coward play set in the 20s.  A romping farce staring Anna Chancellor (she played the vice president in Hitchhikers guide and Duckface in Four Weddings and a Funeral) and Toby Stephens.   That last name didn’t strike home, but when I saw him on stage, I’m thinking “where have I seen him before?”  Turns out he played the villain in a Bond movie.  Who’d have thought?

Theaters in London have a really great practice, you can pre-order your intermission cocktails and they’re waiting for you.  At intermission, Lorie took off for the bar and I took off for the bar, just different bars on different floors.  In keeping with the comedy of the stage performance I ran around with two glasses and a split of champagne looking for her.  We met up after a bit, but it was a really goofy moment.  I did notice that the lines at the bar were quite long; a lot of people waiting for … Pimm’s cups.

Sunday it was Downton Abbey and Stonehenge, but that will wait for another chapter.

Bruce McMillin, Chelsea, London, August 2013

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Cheerio!

Sloan Square in Chelsea
Fountain of Venus, Sloan Square in Chelsea

What a grand first week we’ve had in London! For starters, it’s primarily been partly cloudy to mostly sunny, and we’ve only used our umbrellas twice for brief periods of light rain, which then moved on. The Londoners just duck under trees to wait it out. There’s a lot of green space in this city, so there are plenty of trees under which to keep dry. We heard a bit of a weather forecast in a cab the other night, with dire warnings of scorching heat that could reach 88 degrees fahrenheit this coming week! Recalling triple digit heat indexes all summer last year in Missouri, it’s rather comical! Currently, the weather channel predicts lovely, sunny, mid 70’s weather for the remainder of our stay. We awoke to 59 degrees this morning! Lovely!

Speaking of lovely, I’ve heard that common British phrase repeated several times here. I always think of Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral, when he says, “That would be lovely.” Hearing grown men comment that something is lovely just lifts the spirits!

Noel Coward's Private Lives
Noel Coward’s Private Lives

We had end row seats for our West End play Saturday night, which by the way, saved my extra tall husband, as his legs easily extended six inches beyond the seat in front of us, and his seat was offset, such that there was nothing in front of him! I found a site that ranks theatre leg room right down to seat numbers, so I get some serious extra points on that one! But I digress.

Before the play, we stood to allow an elderly British couple to move into interior seats, and the gentleman said to me, “Oh, Goodness, thank you so Very much, my dear, how very Kind of you!” I wanted to hug him! After they took their seats, I heard his wife say to him, “I can’t believe we’re here, to actually see a play, in London!” I thought the same thing.

We took a tour of Parliament on Thursday, and were allowed to walk through the House of Lords and the House of Commons. What a thrill! We walked through the queens robing room, and the grand hall, where she promenades once a year to take her place as figurehead for her annual speech to parliament. There were loads of red velvet chairs, and glittering gilded framed portraits of kings and queens of yore, delicate wood carvings and cupids cavorting on the ceilings, and statues of prime ministers, with a bronzed Margaret Thatcher pointing right at me, as though to say, “It’s important that one must DO Something! You cannot expect the government to support you!!” Our tour guide was very knowledgeable as one would expect, and also very enjoyable. “Right-oh, then, let’s move on!”, she repeated as we flowed from room to room.  A lady sat for a brief moment on one of the Lord’s benches, which was a no-no, and our guide quickly said, “Oh, Up my dear, or they’ll likely shoot right over our heads!”

Bruce at Royal Albert Hall, London
Bruce at Royal Albert Hall, London

After the BBC PROM’s concert at the Royal Albert Hall on Thursday evening, we ambled around Kensington station a bit, and finally settled on a little Italian place. Tables are close together here in these small spaces, so as a couple slid in beside us, the woman, speaking in a grand Scottish accent, laughingly said, “So sorry, darling, my tush just isn’t as small as it used to be!” She reminded me ever so slightly of Adele, with laughing eyes and rosy cheeks. They had also come from the concert, and both were warm, funny and engaging. They were from Scotland, near Loch Ness, but he works here in London, so they keep a small flat here. They have five children, who have all had to leave their homeland and look for work elsewhere as there is no work in Scotland. “I’m a nationalist, you know”, he said, “but one has to look for work”.

We have found ourselves in more conversations with complete strangers here than we ever are at home. My husband is an introvert on the grand Myers Briggs scale, and I’m right at that cusp. But here, we are being pulled out of our shells, time and again, and into conversations with these friendly people, although we do struggle just a bit to understand them. Reminds me of Clark Griswald in European Vacation looking through his phrase book, while Rusty says, “Dad, they’re speaking English!”

Bruce spoke with a woman last night in the train station about Viking River cruises. My husband can move through a crowd with nary a word, but here, he’s striking up jovial conversations on the fly! We had a long discussion with a family at the Battersea Park Foodie Festival on Saturday, about what to do and where to eat. They were keenly interested in all we had done so far, and made a quick list for us of what not to miss. But they also wanted to hear about America, and where we’re from, and what are the prettiest places. Everyone here dreams of going to New York City, which Bruce explained, is not like anywhere else in America. Missouri to them is just something in the middle.

Bruce, Leadenhall Market, London
Bruce, Leadenhall Market, London

The best yet was a cabbie taking us to Leadenhall Market early last week. We asked if he could recommend a pub for lunch. “Well”, he said, in a true Cockney accent, “I’m from the east side, ya know, and we don’t eat so much in those pubs there, but there’s one that’s quite pop’lar called the New Moon Tavern, an’ I ‘ear it’s quite good.” While talking, we rounded a street corner where three women dressed to the nines in tight fitting skirts were walking right in the middle of the street. He trailed them for about 15 seconds until they moved onto the sidewalk. “Well”, he says, “If you’re gonna dress like that, I guess I could go slow and follow ‘er all day, ya know! Not sure what me wife might have to say to that about that, though!”

He was such a comic, he had us cracking up the whole time, and then kindly took the time to drive us right up to where we needed to be, and pointed out the exact pub, to make sure we found the place he wanted us to find. “Cheerio, an’ have a nice day!”, he wished us, as we exited his cab.

Cheerio, indeed!

Lorie McMillin, Chelsea, London, August 2013

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A Walk Along the Thames

I love London. I realize that’s a bold statement to make five days into this adventure, but this is a remarkable, walkable, and lovable city. I say walkable because I can tell I’ve been walking, with a Capital W. This always happens when we venture out of our house and over the pond to Europe. Perhaps I should remove the word we, because Bruce walks every day. But me, well, that’s another story. I don’t know how the U.S. evolved the way it has, where we literally drive everywhere. I walked a lot as a kid, heading uptown, or to Kim’s, or just along the railroad tracks, arms out, balancing like a gymnast on a balance beam. So here I am, out of shape, again, and wanting to see it all. When you’re a quarter to a half mile from the nearest form of public transportation, mostly metros, mind you, with lots and lots of steps, and you are sans vehicle, you are Going to be Walking. It’s a shock to the legs, the feet, the shins, the calves, and even to the spirit. It’s a forced march of sorts, but it feels good.

I had images in my mind of London, naturally, which included the Queen and her entourage and her corgis, with all the palaces and grandeur, Big Ben, Parliament, the Tower Bridge, etc., etc. Mixed into that though was something from my childhood imagination and the 60’s. Something with the Beatles and mod and grunge, and perhaps a craziness that I would need to brace myself for. Certainly, these things exist in this huge city, and I may very well encounter some of it in the next several days, but to me, this city has been warm and inviting, and, well, very British. I was more shocked on my first visit to Edinburgh, Scotland, than I am here. Scotland’s mythical spirit is everywhere, in every castle, on every street, including the Royal Mile. Kids in goth with piercings and witches garb, and a bit of darkness that I’ve not seen elsewhere with the exception of New Orleans. Don’t get me wrong, I love Scotland, probably more than anywhere I’ve been, but there’s an energy there that grabs you and doesn’t let go.

We’ve landed in a garden apartment in Chelsea, a city borough which was at various times a haven to artists, musicians, poets, and writers. King Street saw the birth of mini skirts, go-go boots, and all things mod. Now, Chelsea is gentrified and monied. We’ve taken evening walks along the Thames, and Cheyne street, which, according to Wikipedia, that bastion of modern knowledge, was home to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Oscar Wilde, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, and most glorious of all, to Ralph Vaughan Williams, where he composed The Lark Ascending. When I die, there’s no need for speeches, rosaries, epithets or fanfare. Simply play The Lark Ascending, in its entirety, and then toss some rose petals about the place and be done with it.

Chelsea Sycamore

This is a great little apartment, which has green space, including a giant sycamore tree that looms above our little conservatory and enclosed garden patio. The wind whips up from the river, and keeps the branches and leaves in constant motion. It’s a thing of beauty.

The owners of this apartment have artwork throughout, and have recently re-decorated in Chinese decor. When I booked, there was more of an English feel to the furnishings, but we are accepting of our red lacquer boxes, and Chinese warriors. There is one painting in particular that we have studied and studied. It’s evolved from a man painting a woman, to three women, one being a nun with giant black wings, involved in some sort of checkers game. That’s our latest iteration, but who knows because this painting changes every single day.

Elizabeth von Arnim wrote, “The mind slips sideways in a place like this.” I can see how that’s possible, as I write this, with a little rain on my window, and a little wind in my sycamore.

Lorie McMillin, Chelsea, London, August 2013