Tag Archives: London

Signs and Wonders

Before I leave England for Scotland, I want to share a few favorite signs and sights that made me wonder.

Like this one, on the back of the toilet stall door at the Waterman’s Arms.  The Clansman function room?  I know it’s clansman with a “c” and I realize it’s probably something to do with a Scottish clan, but still.  In the US there would be protests over this sign.  I guess the word clan just doesn’t have the same association with the KKK as it would in the states.

Speaking of bathroom signs, I always got a kick out of this one at the leisure centre.  Probably some fool had ignored the first sign, which just had words, and they needed to literally paint a picture.

Walking home from the leisure centre, I would pass this sign.  It was tempting to hang a right to find out if there would be liquor barrels bigger than a man.  But the path led to a deserted-looking industrial area and I was always in a hurry, so I will never know.

At home, I kept glancing at the cover of the teacher’s union magazine that arrived in the mail.  The cover story was an important one.  Teachers need to be aware of the effects on children of being involved or even just hearing about traumatic events like the inferno at Grenfell Tower or the mass shooting in Manchester at the Ariana Grande concert.

But I also smirked at the acronym for the organization, and its placement, with rendered the title “The Teacher NUT.”  It seems a bit inappropriate, but it is memorable.  In the US, we have several bland acronyms: NEA—National Education Association and AFT, American Federal of Teachers.  I think I would prefer to be a member of the NUT.

Out on my walks, I would often pass this van.

It could be worse.  It could be Farter & Son.

At the playground in Windsor.  What an optimistic sign.

In the Eton Museum of Natural History.

Do a lot of contractors wander in off the street to use the toilet at the Natural History Museum?  Are contractors considered an inferior type of person, not worthy to piss in the same toilet as others?  Did some contractor create a situation in here, and no one is brave enough to confront him in person so they put up this sign?  I was careful not to make a mess in case there might be a sign “This Toilet is NOT to be Used by Americans” upon my return.

I passed this ominous poster in Windsor, stood a while taking photos of it, then realized I was right outside a military installation and moved along.  I’m sure it doesn’t appear ominous to the target audience—young men with lots of testosterone.

It’s a recruiting poster for the Coldstream Guards, the oldest regiment in the British army.  There is probably a recruiting office here because these are the “guards” as in “the changing of the guards” at Windsor Castle, which is just a few blocks away.  In this role, they wear what’s in your mind right now—the tall black furry helmets and red uniforms with brass buttons.

And this, in London, didn’t make me wonder. It made me feel admiration for a country which had only decriminalized “homosexual acts” in 1967.  Fifty years.  That’s not so long.  Maybe in 50 years’ time we in the US will have decriminalized immigrants.

Julie and I treated ourselves to a couple nights in a room above The George. The only room left was the top floor suite. Julie chose the master bedroom with a spectacular view of the Thames bridge and Windsor Castle.

Unfortunately this room turned out to be the one beneath which smokers congregated and drunks hung out at closing time.  I was in a nook off to the side and with ear plugs I didn’t hear a thing.  I slept fine in my narrow bed except that the floor in the 270-year-old pub was so slanted that every time I rolled over I kept rolling, into the wall.

This was our last supper, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding in the back garden.

Last Hurrahs

It had cooled down, with highs in the low 70s (low 20s Celsius). I checked the weather in Scotland daily and that gave me impetus to get outside as much as possible.

This was late July, for the town in Scotland I was destined for shortly.  Fifty-five Fahrenheit is 12 Celsius.

There were signs advertising something called a Brocas Fun Fair all over Eton. One afternoon after editing a proposal which described torture and the use of mass rape as a weapon of war, I thought, “Now is the time to visit a Fun Fair.”

I was still experiencing vertigo and my Restless Legs Syndrome was getting worse.  Poor sleep combined with vertigo added up to a continuous feeling of physical disorientation, which may have enhanced my Fun Fair experience.

It was a Thursday afternoon, so the place wasn’t doing much business and many of the stalls were closed.  A couple of 10 year olds who were probably skipping school climbed onto a ride and a carnie yelled at them to bugger off, instead of directing them to the ticket booth and inviting them to come back.

In case you thought Americans were the only ones obsessed with guns, there were three booths with shooting themes.

Another depicted what someone must have imagined was a “real American road scene,” complete with truckers and maybe a Harley rider, with skyscrapers and the Statue of Liberty thrown in for good measure.  Then there’s the toy-like boat in the foreground … I’m sure this would all feel magical to a five year old.

I was surprised the political-correctness police hadn’t demanded that this be redesigned—whatever it was.

Wandering back slowly through Eton—the college—I got a laugh from more finger-wagging signs.

I could just hear the Pink Floyd song The Wall playing in my head.

Wrong, Do it again!
If you don’t eat yer meat, you can’t have any pudding.
How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat yer meat?
You! Yes, you behind the bikesheds, stand still laddy!

I read this one three times, then gave up understanding it and walked on.

I spent a day shopping with Julie in Windsor.  She especially enjoyed the grocery stores.  We went to an upscale one, Waitrose, and a tiny local one called Budgeons.  At first glance, a grocery store in the UK looks the same as one in the US.  But if you look closely; if you pay attention to every item individually as though it is a meditative exercise, you will see many things that make you go hmm ….

Or in my case, shudder at the words, “With Jelly.”

For all I know, my local grocery may sell tubs of pork drippings with jelly.  However when I shop at home it is like a military strike—hurry in, grab the same items I buy every time, get out as fast as possible.

We had lunch at the Waterman’s Arms.  Fish and chips for Julie, lamb and mash and a half pint of cloudy local cider for me.

We visited a card shop near the flat.

Part of my new-employee orientation at Oxfam had been to read the communications style manual, which included a directive to “avoid creeping Americanisms.”  By contrast, we have many, many “creeping Britishisms” in America and we love and embrace them.  I could write a whole post about this.

There was a series of cards that mimic illustrations from beloved children’s books combined with adult themes:

Other cards in the series include “The Acid Trip,” “The 12 Step Programme,” “The Halfway House,” and “Bouncing Back.”

I took Julie to Daniel, the department store.  Here she is in the toy section.

I went in to London one last time, dropping in to the Victoria and Albert Museum only long enough to buy my son a tote bag and other Pink Floyd-branded items.  The line for the exhibit itself was a mile long.

I searched Hamley’s, the gigantic toy store on  Oxford Street, for Sylvanian families badger figures for my nephews.  I was distressed that, like Daniel, they were out of badgers so I had to settle for a pizza-delivering hedgehog and a mouse dentist.

 

 

Flights and Boats and Ships

As my month in Eton and Windsor drew to a close I stepped up my sightseeing.  If you’re a traveler, you know that tension between, “I want to see it all; I may never be here again!” and “I want to savor and enjoy my moments here; I may never be here again.”  This was a time for the former.

My friend Julie had never been to England, hadn’t traveled internationally in years, and that had mostly been on tours.  I figured she’d be nervous arriving at Heathrow—jet lagged, disoriented, tired, and excited—I always am.

So I met her there, in the “Love Actually” arrivals hall.

Ingrid had met me at Schiphol in May.  Maki had met me in Addis Ababa in June.  Lynn was there when I arrived at Heathrow from Ethiopia. It’s nice to see a familiar face at the airport.  I don’t mind traveling alone, for the most part, but it feels a little sad to arrive and have no one waving to greet me.

Julie’s flight was delayed so I watched people arriving—scanning the waiting crowd for a familiar face, then lighting up with a smile when they spotted their spouse or friend or business associate—waving, then shaking hands or kissing and hugging.  It was an endorphin boost, just watching.

Julie’s arrival gave me a push to re-see some old favorites.  We spent a day at the Tower of London.  I hadn’t been there for 30 years.  Based on binge watching The Tudors and reading Phillipa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, I knew just enough to probably misinform Julie so she would possibly be laughed at if she quoted me.

Afterwards, we did one of my favorite London activities, the boat ride to Greenwich.  It’s a cheap way to see the city from the river; we left from Tower Hill but you can start at Westminster or even further beyond for all I know.  It had been raining all day so the thought of sitting inside under a clear Plexiglas canopy appealed.  It only costs £10 for the round trip, and there are so many boats plying the Thames that it’s not necessary to book in advance for a specific time.

We waited in line with a couple Tajikistan who were honeymooning.  They had flown in via Moscow that day.  They were spending two days in London, taking a day trip to Oxford, then flying to Edinburgh for two days, from whence they would work their way back home via Paris and Prague.  Good thing they were young and had lots of stamina.

It takes less than an hour to get to Greenwich.  We passed under bridge after bridge and stopped at multiple piers on either side to let people board or disembark.  I always look forward to gliding under Tower Bridge, splendid even in the rain.

There’s a lot to see in Greenwich, but I always tack my visit onto the end of a day so everything is closed when I arrive.

There is the Cutty Sark, which is not just a brand of whisky.  The original 147-year-old ship can be toured but I’ve never done so.  It’s the last surviving clipper ship in the world.

Greenwich is home to the Royal Observatory, home of Greenwich Mean Time, or GMT, still used as the standard time zone reference.  If you have ever planned a trip somewhere outside of your own time zone, you have likely seen “GMT + 4” or whatever to indicate the local time.

There is also the Royal Naval Museum which I’m sure is fascinating but which I’ve never seen, and a wonderful covered market which is always just closing down when I arrive.

Note to self: Plan a day in Greenwich next time.

On the return boat ride we got distracted by a drunk guy who wanted us to guess his nationality, which turned out to be Polish.  This may have triggered a few stereotypes in me.

We missed our stop and got off at the next one.  The Pole got off and followed us. It was deserted and dark.  I was debating whether to scream when he came abreast of us, gave us directions to the nearest tube station, and stumbled away.

Oxford, Again

On the coach to Oxford.  The longest part of the journey, as in most places, is getting out of the city.  There’s no way to magically part the traffic, so you may as well sit back and enjoy the scenery.

The seats on UK coaches are raised up to make space for luggage compartments.  So you can see a lot from a coach that you won’t see at the pavement level. I hadn’t been on this particular route for a few years.  We passed a row of luxury car show rooms … McLaren, Ferrari … the type of gaudy wheels Donald Trump would love.

We passed my favorite hideous but marvelous building, Trellick Tower (not my photos).

I turned my head and there it was … the ill-fated Grenfell Tower.

Grenfell had gone up in flames in June, when I was in Ethiopia. I recalled being in the canteen at work and how everyone stopped eating and stared at the TV, in disbelief that this was London, not Addis Ababa. Seventy-one people died in the Grenfell Tower disaster.

We passed the Hoover Building, as in hoovers, which Americans call vacuum cleaners (not my photos).

This art-deco bonbon is being converted into luxury flats.  I’m sure they’ll be fab, but they’ll still overlook a motorway clogged with traffic that produces plenty of noise and exhaust fumes.

In England, there are Green Belt policies aimed at preventing urban sprawl.  And they really do look like belts. (image by Hellerick).  The big one is London.

While my fellow nature lovers and I love green belts, they have been criticized for pushing up house prices, since 70% of the cost of building new houses is the purchase of the land (up from 25% in the late 1950s).

There are no signs stating, “You are now entering a green belt,” but I have been on a coach many times where I was surrounded by relentless concrete high rises and industrial areas and suddenly it’s like we’ve been transported into a Nature Valley Granola Bars commercial.

We entered the Chiltern Hills.  I have friends who have hiked these, camping along the way; I prefer to enjoy them from a coach for now.

In under an hour we were entering Oxford from the east, along the Headington Road.  It felt so familiar and I felt nostalgia well up.

I have never been so in love with a place.  I think it was because of what it represented in my life at the time.  From the teenage welfare mom living in subsidized housing, when I arrived in Oxford I had a master’s degree, I had traveled all over central America and Israel and some of Europe, and my son was stable—for the time being.  Moving to Oxford was my triumphal escape from St. Small, and I was never going back.

Of course I did come back, because my work visa couldn’t be renewed.  And I have come to appreciate many things about St. Paul, like how affordable it is.  It’s clean.  We’re a hub for theater and other culture.  I can drive five minutes and be at the Mississippi River or two hours and stand on the shores of Lake Superior. The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul are one of the most progressive metropolitan areas in the US, which I appreciate a lot right now.

But Oxford is a medieval city that is home to the most storied university on the planet.  It’s called the City of Dreaming Spires, and I won’t gush on about it but here are a few photos from some sight-seeing days I spend with my niece when she came to visit me.

I believe we’re atop Carfax tower here.

This is a tourist and TV detective-series directors’ favorite.

There are the Harry Potter-esque colleges.

Everywhere you look there are gargoyles and grotesques.

 

Oxford is also surrounded by woods and rivers and meadows.

Moving to Oxford is how I met Lynn, and Sam, and Possum, and Heidi.  It got me started in the international development biz.

How lucky am I to have lived there and returned again and again?  Most people never get to visit once.

Power and The Pig

I was on my way to Oxford.  This involved taking the train into London, then boomeranging out to Oxford by coach.  I had taken both routes many times so I felt no anxiety about getting there.  From the train I could see Battersea Power Station.

When I first spotted it, I thought I recognized it from somewhere.  After a couple more trips it came to me—this was the scary structure featured on Pink Floyd’s album Animals, which I had listened to over and over in my youth.

Animals is loosely based on George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm.  It’s the debut of the pig that Roger Waters, the band’s former bassist and lead song writer, still features in his concerts.  The album critiques the socioeconomic conditions in late 70s in Britain, with the pig symbolizing despotic, ruthless capitalism.

This is one of those moments where I feel overwhelmed and amazed by coincidences and connections, but I’ll write on.

Battersea Power Station was decommissioned in the late 70s and early 80s.  It looks ominous and cool from a distance.  It took me back because my first day at Oxfam involved a group “field trip” to another coal-fired power plant in Didcot, a half hour south of Oxford.

Yes, my first day happened to be an “away day,” which we in the US would call a staff retreat.  It was disorienting, to say the least.  Here I was, ready to start researching issues like small scale agriculture and industrial mining, and instead my new boss picked me up in front of the liquor store near my hostel and whisked me away to a coal-fired power plant.

This is what it looked like as we approached.

All I could think was, “What the fuck?!  Maybe we’re really on an undercover mission to sabotage it.  I could be deported on my first day!”

But no, we were really going on a tour.  The Didcot plant has also since been decommissioned and transitioned to natural gas. Sadly in the process, part of it collapsed and four workers were killed.

But back in 2006, the management was in full marketing buzz-speak mode.  We got to don jump suits and hats and masks; we must have looked like the Oxfam version of Devo.

We were lead around by a perky young woman who made coal power sound so cool! and really—just super for the environment! We received cardboard model coal plants to assemble at home with our children.  These actually were really cool.  I wonder whatever happened to mine.

I never received a clear explanation of why we went.  Maybe to try to understand “the opposition?”

Back on the train to London, seeing Battersea reminded me that there was a Pink Floyd exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum.  Strangely, my son is a bigger Floyd fan than I ever was, and I made a mental note to go check out the exhibit in order to obtain Cool Mom Points.

Now, sitting in my living room in January in Minnesota, I am reading Donald Trump’s tweet about Nine Elms, the area where Battersea is located.

“Reason I canceled my trip to London is that I am not a big fan of the Obama Administration having sold perhaps the best located and finest embassy in London for “peanuts,” only to build a new one in an off location for 1.2 billion dollars. Bad deal. Wanted me to cut ribbon-NO!”

An off location?  I read several articles about the redevelopment of Nine Elms and specifically Battersea Power Station when I was in the UK.  The plan is to invest £8 billion ($11 billion) into Battersea to create luxury penthouses.  $11 billion!  Yes, billion!  There are all sorts of other fantastical buildings springing up around Battersea, including the new American Embassy.  This is an artist’s rendering; the real thing was more impressive, although I didn’t know what it was when I saw it in the distance from the train.

This kind of phantasmagorical development project should be right up Donald Trump’s alley—affordable only to the one percent.  I’m surprised he doesn’t recognize a great real estate investment deal when he sees it.  I’d invest in it if I had his money.

Adieu, not Good-Bye

Heidi and I worked our way through the first and second floors of F&M (remember, what Americans call the first floor is the ground floor, and so on).

F&M doesn’t carry clothing or accessories; its focus is on food and home goods.  One of their signature items is picnic baskets, or hampers as they call them.  I hate that buzz word “signature,” but in this instance it fits.

I don’t recall how much this hamper cost, but this is one of those cases where if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.

“But how heavy it would be?” I remarked to Heidi.

“Oh dahling!  You wouldn’t carry it yourself!  You would have your man carry it!”  And by “man” she didn’t mean my lover but my manservant.

There were many hampers of varying sizes and with different contents, all with the signature F&M bluey-green colors.

“You buy these as a wedding gift?” Heidi suggested in her Aussie upspeak.

“Yes.  And then the happy couple use it once, put it in a closet, and every time they move they say, ‘Oh this heavy old thing—why don’t we get rid of it?’”

“But they can’t because Cousin Harriet gave it to them as a wedding gift,” Heidi finished my thought.

“That’s right.”

“Maybe some people use them all the time,” Heidi suggested.

“Maybe.  Maybe if you live in the country and your man only has to drive the Bentley a short way down the lane to get to the picnic spot near the river.  Not if you live in London and have to transport this on the tube.”

“Oh darling, no cousins of Harriet’s would ever be seen dead on the tube!”

We eventually staggered out of the store.  This is the entrance, with a couple of customers Kath Kidston’d to the max.

F&M had lovely window displays which I wasn’t able to capture due to the glare.  Since it was still raining, I’m not sure where the glare was from.

There were also windows featuring trains, a boat, and a bicycle, all incorporating the Signature Hamper.  I guess the message was, “Go explore the world with a 300-pound basket of china and cutlery!”

We stood on the pavement in the rain under our umbrellas.  It had been a long day.  First the Churchill War Rooms, then Victoria Park and the flashback of seeing my dad standing on that same spot, the unexpected Jewel Tower, Houses of Parliament, the Red Lion, then Fortnum and Mason.  My bags of accumulated trinkets were feeling heavy.  All I had had to eat was a bag of crisps and a pint in the Red Lion. It was 9:00ish and beginning to get dark.  Suddenly I felt tired to the bone and wished I had access to a Star Trek transporter machine so I could be home instantly.

“Now let’s see … what shall we do next?” Heidi mused.

I paused, because Heidi would leave in a few days to go back to Australia and who knew when we would see each other again?

But I am no longer willing to force myself to keep going. I simply said I was tired and needed to start getting home.  I started to apologize.

“No drama!” responded Heidi. This is her Signature Phrase and I love it.

“Where will we see each other next?” she asked rhetorically.  Since meeting through Sam in 2006, we had met up in Berlin, the south of France, London, and St. Paul.

“I would love to come to Aus, but it’s so expensive and I would need a ton of time off work.”

“It would be great to see you there—but I know, it’s sooooo far.  Well, think about it.  I should be there at least through New Year.”

We said our good-byes, I dropped down into the tube tunnel, and Heidi walked off toward Green Park station where she would catch the Jubilee Line to Swiss Cottage, the station closest to her flat. Her flat with the room she lets out when she isn’t in Aus.

A tube, a train, and a walk and I was back in the flat running a bath an hour and a half later.

Seeing, Really Seeing

Am I a bad, shallow person to enjoy places like Liberty so thoroughly?  Only the one percent can actually buy anything there, right?  True, although I did buy some nail varnish, as they call nail polish in Britain.  It cost £12 ($15)—the most expensive nail polish I’ve ever bought—but I love the color and it reminds me of my day there.

But no regular person can actually afford to buy a pair of pants at Harrods.  Isn’t that wrong?  Isn’t it criminal that people spend £1,500 on baby carriages made by Maserati?  Or £2,000 for jeweled clutch purses, or £200 for a canvas tote bag because it has the Liberty look and label?

Isn’t it outrageous that people spend £95 for a small plate with a Liberty design on it, when they won’t give £5 to the homeless person sitting on the pavement outside the store?

Yes, it is outrageous.  And I’m glad there are people designing, making, selling, and buying beautiful things in this world.

Maybe, if the contents of all the high-end department stores were liquidated and the proceeds given to homeless people, those folks would get new clothes, get jobs, find apartments, fall in love, and live happily ever after.

Nah.

Some would, some wouldn’t. Some might use the money to start a small business, and build it into a business empire … like Harrods.  Some have such intractable problems that no amount of money or social service intervention can solve them.  Some poor people would be offended by the offer of cash and continue on their own path of working their way up.

No, it’s much more complicated. I’ve worked in nonprofit organizations almost my whole career and I know that rich people and businesses can be part of the solution.

I just searched the Liberty website for the terms “donations,” “charity,” “corporate social responsibility,” and “philanthropy” and came up empty handed.  It would be nice to think that they hired ex offenders or donated unsold shoes to charity auctions.

I would be happy to help them start a corporate philanthropy program if they would just allow me to work from that green velvet sofa.

For better or worse, I have an “eye” for color, composition, and all things beautiful, whether they’re manmade or natural.  You may be thinking, “Well everyone loves beautiful things!” but you would be wrong.  I have friends who have nothing on their walls.  Nothing.  No art, not even Art-in-a-Box from Target.

They come to my house, look around, and say, “Wow, you have so much stuff on your walls.  Interesting.”  As if it has never occurred to them that they could do the same, much less surround themselves with beautiful, interesting, uplifting objects.

I have been told that I notice things, in general.  The other day, I was in an old-timey grocery store in St. Paul and said to my friend, “Hey!  When was the last time you saw a grocery store with a ‘Grits’ aisle?”

She laughed and said, “You always notice things like that.”

Doesn’t everyone?  I guess not.

I asked my landlady, “What are those tracks?”

“What tracks?”

“The ones there—that look like a snake made them,” I pointed.

“Oh, those.  I’ve never noticed them.  Maybe a mouse?”

I am in a hyper-state of noticing when I’m traveling.  It was good to know I could see things—delightful, humorous things—right at home.  This new year, I’m going to try to pull it in even closer, and notice things in my house that I use or pass by—sightless—every day.

Back at Fortnum and Mason, Heidi and I worked our way slowly through the food hall.

I bought a box of Earl Grey tea for Lynn and a box of English Breakfast for myself.  I didn’t buy these exact containers but you get the idea of the packaging.

Yes, they cost more than a canister of PG Tips at Tesco.  They may not have been grown in a socially-responsibly, environmentally-sustainable manner.  But so what?  They’re beautiful, and six months later I am still dipping into my stash and enjoying the tea and the memory.