Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Shakespeare Wears an Earring

Our home away from home is coming to life. From the kitchen window I can watch people heading off to work and parents taking their children to school. Rich is on some otherworldly time schedule after being on the Indian sub-continent for a week and a half. Sometime during the night he set up his little notebook computer on the kitchen counter, wi-fi connected. We now have internet access and the means to communicate via email to the family. Because of her business requirements Jaz has a calling plan that allows unlimited (and free) calling to the US and Canada, a luxury we may take advantage of. Other than letting the family know we are safe (and fairly sound) we doubt we'll use it much. There's something liberating to be out of touch with the rest of the world for short periods of time. It's Wednesday, somehow we have lost a day but we don't care. It's our first real day in London; what shall we do?

Wednesday - September 21, 2011 - London, England

Rich was feeling a little "under the weather", so Lu, Kathy and I decided to leave him at the apartment to gain some strength and stability while we explored our surroundings and made our first foray into what we think of as central London. The sky was threatening so we took our umbrellas to ward off evil. Rather than take the shortcut, we walked the small winding streets of the housing development and after 25 minutes of wandering developed a real appreciation for why the locals created their little bypass. With directions from some construction workers (who looked at us like we had 6 heads when we asked what bus to take to central London since according to them we were IN central London) we were soon in our favorite seats on the upper deck of a London Transport bus heading toward Trafalgar square.

First impressions: The part of London we were in reminds us more of Washington than New York. Everything is in scale, there are no towering skyscrapers (and attendant dark canyons of streets) that makes you feel so closed in. Perhaps it's because the taxis are inconspicuous black rather than the awful yellow they use in Manhattan. Whatever the reason the effect is wonderful. It is a joy passing the large squares and identifiable landmarks, riding 15 feet above it all. The heavy clouds from a half hour ago were slowly giving way to patches of blue and the sun was peeking out and lighting our way. Who says it always rains in London? Crossing the Thames at the Westminster bridge we had a perfect view of the Parliament building before us. At this time, on this day, there is also a lack of crowds. Even in Trafalgar Square, with it's fountains and Olympic Countdown clock there are people but not a lot of them.

Kathy and I continue our quest to see as many Vermeers as we can before the end days, and two live within the National Gallery (at the head of Trafalgar Square): the complimentary "Lady Standing at the Virginal", and the same subject seated at the same virginal. Unfortunately the seated lady was sitting in Cambridge at a special exhibition. Oh well. The upright lady is spectacular, and it's difficult to believe that she is over 350 years old. The gilded frame on the wall behind her looks as though it had been painted last week, and the Delft tiles lining the floor are rich in detail. It is a picture of a very formal and eerily still and silent young woman who has stopped playing to gaze at us. The only sound you can imagine is the rustle of her starched dress as she turns to look at the intrusion. We tiptoed out of the room.

Contrast this painting with "Les Parapluies" by Renoir (my second favorite artist), a few rooms away. The scene, cropped as if it were a photograph rather than a painting, is filled with people in motion bustling down a Paris street in a rain shower. And why all hands? They capture my attention, rather than the umbrellas. Seeing this painting more than makes up for the missing Vermeer. It got me to thinking; what if these two artists were to have lunch together. What would their conversation be like? It was just two hundred years that separated them, but what different worlds they lived in. Vermeer so constrained and stingy with his style and production where Renoir seems so free spirited and prolific in comparison. I'd love to eavesdrop on that conversation.

We could spend all day in this museum, but are disciplined and trying to make the most of our time. Exiting the museum Lu noticed that one of the outside walls had been planted. How's that you say? Some ingenious artists and master gardeners covered a wall with plantings that mimicked Van Gogh's "A Wheatfield, with Cypresses". I guess we could have spent a few more minutes inside to see the original after all.

We wandered up Charing Cross street toward Leicester Square, the center of the theater district and home to the tkts booth, known for discount tickets for West End plays and musicals. As a small thank you for putting us up (and putting up with us), we planned to take Rich and Lu to see "Chicago", the DVD of which we have almost worn out, it is so good. It was not meant to be. Closed until November the almost unanimous second choice was "Wicked", the story of, well you know. It appears I'm the only one in the universe (at least our universe of three) who didn't know. If I only had a brain. We made plans to return first thing on Saturday morning to get the tkts.

With a little time to kill, we popped into The National Portrait Gallery, to check out the family that is famous for high drama (including killing); dear old Henry the VIII and his band of merry wives. With 'divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived' running through my attached head we went directly to the Tudor room where I tried to identify the ladies without looking at the name tags. I didn't do very well. Neither Henry nor his women were as good looking in real life as the actors who portrayed them on the Showtime series. For a guy who turned the religious world on it's head he wasn't much to look at.

The only other portrait we were interested in seeing was the first one the gallery had obtained in 1856 when it opened. Right around the corner from Henry sits old William Shakespeare himself, with his humongous forehead and a glittering earring. He was surely ahead of his time. We have plans to go to the Globe Theatre and it's this image we will take with us.

Time to get back into the fresh air and return to Bermondsey to see how Richard is faring. We weren't sure how to get there, but knew we were north of the river and home was to the south. It was a perfect day for walking so we crossed the nearest bridge, The Jubilee, taking pictures of the Eye for us and everyone else who wanted their picture taken with it. Like eating potato chips, this Ferris wheel demands to have it's picture taken multiple times. Following the signs to Waterloo station we boarded the #1 bus and was back in the old neighborhood in minutes.

Rich was up, walking gingerly and feeling a little better. He is such a trooper. It was the first opportunity we really had to chat with him about his trip, and what a trip it was. Not one to pass on an opportunity he did take a dunk in the Ganges and was none the worse for wear. He thinks what did him in was the last real meal he had before leaving. He is a positive spirit and we admire him for that. We decided to take it easy with him so we took a leisurely stroll, through the shortcut, up to the high street for a fish and chips dinner, a simple meal that should be easy on the insides (Jaz had recommended the nearby Blue Anchor Fish take-away - "the best in the WORLD").

So with our bags of fish and our bags of beer (according to the beer store owner, there is an open container law in London, so as long as you keep the bottle in the bag you're OK) we sat in the little park at the top of the street and had dinner out. We've done this so many times, in so many places with Rich and Lu and it never gets old. Grateful and thankful we headed back to the apartment for a good night's sleep.

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