The other night at dinner, Ben suddenly asked, “Well, what was your least favorite thing about London?” We all thought for a moment, then went around the table.
Isaac: the cold; the crowded buses
Elias: the long line for the London Eye
Ben: the difficulty finding a restaurant that would allow kids
Me: the worry for Elias’s safety
It’s been, good heavens, three months, since we got back from our grand tour of London. It was a huge triumph of health for me while there– I did it!– but took a toll. The first two weeks back I was flat-out comatose. The second two weeks back I was foggy-headed and scrambling to catch up on many loose ends and details, such as past-due medical bills and lots of insurance fun. The end of the school year is always horribly packed with events and activities that seem designed to overwhelm and oppress one’s soul. See this blog for a mom who understands. That’s exactly how I was feeling. Plus, I added the creative writing class that I teach and a large final project to the bill. I also had the most wonderful, wonderful time at my 25th reunion at Vassar. Then I had my uterus electrocuted, which was not as fun as it sounds. And now summer is really here. Isaac is in summer school half days. Elias and I are hanging out, and I’m working on a new project: getting bids to get the house completely resided and all-new gutters. Meeting with a guy this morning, in fact. And the garden is woefully neglected. I have things to put in, like now. Today. How the hell it did suddenly become June 24??
My point: not a lot of time to sit down a write a proper blog entry about our wonderful trip across the pond. It all seems like a lovely dream now, except the prologue, which was kind of stressful.
Prologue: The Sick Child Drama
The week before we left was made much more exciting by the fact that Isaac was deathly ill. We blame ourselves because on Sunday night, when I guess he was borderline sick, we dragged him out for a family walk in the woods. There he broke through some thin ice on a shallow creek and got his feet soaked in 33-degree water. On the ride home, he took ill in an old-fashioned sense. He got a chill, like they always do in Victorian novels, and took to his bed. The next day he was hopelessly sick, with a fever of 102, splitting headache, wracking cough, the whole thing. I took him to the doctor and she said in effect that it was a virus and there was nothing she could do.
We went home and then I spent Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, tenderly nursing the patient, doing everything I could possibly do, such as making a vat of chicken soup in the style of Alice Waters. School was completely out of the question. I also cancelled everything I had planned. I plied him with tea, vitamin C, every possible alternative non-FDA-approved remedy I could find. Nothing worked. Ben and I went on anxious walks around the property, trying to figure out a plan. Should Isaac and I stay home a few more days, and Elias and Ben go on? Changing the flights would cost $1000, and did not address the question of whether he would be well by Saturday, or whatever day we picked. Should we cancel the whole thing, at a much greater cost, lose the apartment we’d paid for, and go in the fall? Should three of us go and Isaac stay with his grandparents in NYC? Should we fly with him sick and risk the specter of a child in the hospital with pneumonia in a foreign land? And how could he get through the flight in this condition?
On Thursday morning, a scant 8 hours before we our plane was to leave, he was still incredibly sick. I took him to the doctor one more time. Isaac hacked and coughed and smoldered with fever through the appointment. In the end, the suspense drew to a close. The doctor pronounced him “fit to fly…” pretty much, kinda, with a huge array of prescription medications, and over the counter ones, and a stern warning that it might be incredibly painful, and indeed his ears might rupture, but no worries, they will heal back up!
This was ominous, but a major relief in many ways. The best option was for all of us to go, as planned, together. The last few hours were an insane scramble, but that evening we got on our plane to D.C., and from there overnight to London.
Day 1, Friday March 30: we made it!
We made it. No one except Elias (the shortest member of our party) slept much at all on the plane. When the sun started to rise, Isaac began to weep uncontrollably, overwhelmed by the combination of illness, excitement, and abject misery. His ears did not burst, at least. But the emotional circuits jammed and overloaded. He was so tired and sick that he spent the rest of that challenging day on the edge of tears.
We took the tube from Heathrow into London, and found our apartment without any trouble, but the man with the key wasn’t there, and neither of our phones was working. Also, it was bitterly cold. Like, arctic. I had been watching the weather closely, and it was supposed to be about 45 degrees F and fairly dry all week. We brought jackets and sort of spring gear, it was Easter week after all. But it was more like 28 degrees with a damp and bitter north wind. Indeed, we spent the entire week wishing for winter clothes.
As we waited outside, freezing, with the children utterly miserable from the flight, I decided to take refuge at a Jamie Oliver restaurant that happened to be… right there! I learned that in England they can’t just box something up to go. They don’t and they won’t. It doesn’t happen, not unless it’s a specific take away place. I ordered for Ben anyway, just thinking maybe he’d show up eventually and be able to eat. Isaac wolfed down some spaghetti, while nearly crying, and nearly falling asleep all the while. He then startled the man at the cash register by marching up and asking the price of a large chocolate penny. Apparently British children don’t just march up and ask adults things like that. The matter of how children and adults interact became sort of theme of the week.
Finally we got into our flat, which was still being cleaned because the previous occupants had left late, with a huge mess in their wake. But the maid lady took pity on us and let us come in, giving us rooms she had already cleaned to flop down in while she cleaned the others.
The flat was stunning. Just stunning!! Huge, bright, three bedrooms, two baths, a long sliding hallway, a full balcony all along the bedrooms, and a sleek kitchen. These don’t do it justice:
You’ve got to understand, too, we looked at so many hotel rooms in the same price range where there was but a slim margin of space around the bed and that was all. For the four of us to be crammed in such a place with all our gear for eight days, and eating out for every single meal at the breathtaking London prices just made no sense. It was only slightly more for a flat, and then by sheer luck we got upgraded from a 2 bedroom to a 3 bedroom (we had a full room we never used), and to a much nicer, tonier building than the cheaper, scuzzier one we had booked.
If you want to go and stay in the same place, check out SACO Covent Garden, St. Martin’s Court. I recommend it 100%.
We spent our first day stocking the fridge, learning how to operate the faucets and other things. (Ben explained, “This button turns on the option to turn on the stove… And the stove is called ‘the hob'”) I figured out that the little washing machine built into the counter actually dried clothes too! (well, sort of… the one use for our spare room was laying out damp clothes.) The telephone confounded us both, making the cheery written notes to “just call if you need anything!” somewhat irksome. We never managed to call a single soul. You couldn’t just pick it up and dial the number as written. There was some implied thing we didn’t know, as we might assume you know to add a 1 when dialing long distance. But once we got the internet going, we could e-mail at least and all was well.
Day 2, Saturday: Isaac names his socks.
Isaac has an unusual relationship with his clothing. He bonds with it and won’t let it go, despite his near constant growing and the troublesome changes of the seasons. Last summer he wore the same shirt, three sizes too small, featuring a t-rex in a rock band and the glowing word LOUD. I mean, he wore it ALL summer, into the fall, and throughout his class trip to Washington D.C. It became such a fixture that his teacher insisted on getting a photo of him in it at the White House. He’s also seen wearing it at Gettysburg, and many other points along the way. It was well into November when I finally got him to stop wearing it. At that point he switched to his trusty too-small pants from Land’s End, and one of a series of identical long-sleeved t-shirts with thin various color/black stripes. The knees began to evaporate, and I got him the exact same pants in the next size up. These we insisted he wear in London, because torn clothes would look shabby and poorly represent our proud nation. He very grudgingly agreed to the strange and unwelcome pants (identical the naked eye) but that was as far as he would go.
I got him a pair of smart wool socks also, which proved to be quite helpful, seeing as it was freezing the whole time. These Isaac named “Sockalovich and Sockafer.” He was the only one who could tell them apart. He wore his trusty sock friends everywhere that week, only parting with them at night when I would stealthily wash them.
Their first stop was the London Eye. I contended that it would be smarter to wait until the crowds thinned out a little later in the week, because not only was it Easter weekend (a 4-day holiday in Britain) it was “half-term” — spring break, I gather– from all the schools. The London Eye was mobbed the Saturday before Easter. We walked across a frigid bridge towards it and I could see from far, far away that it was going to be arduous. But I had taken the advanced step of ordering tickets online, and paying for the most expensive, flexible, least line-intensive option. Even the lines seemed to have lines, and all the lines were mingling together hopelessly, but once I found out the right queue I managed to get our tickets and onto the thing in maybe less than a half hour.
POTS-wise, I was concerned about this London Eye business– it’s the world’s largest ferris wheel, or something. Did you know it doesn’t even stop? You have to step on while the car (?) in question briefly abuts the platform. But I did it! Then it moves so slowly and easily that I had no problem with dizziness at all. Up high, we had a lovely view. Here’s a snap of the occasion:
Also, there’s a bench in the middle of the car so a tired or slightly woozy person can sit down as needed.
After we had completed the very topmost item on the boys’ to-do list (indeed I think it was the only item on Elias’s), Ben whisked us away in a cab to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (“Rebuilt in 1667”). I began my fish-n-chips research project, and we sat behind a bunch of local chaps who were drinking pints and all straight out of central casting. They were stone cold talking about “orangemen” in a pejorative fashion. What is that, like Protestant Irish people? I don’t know. But I do know that an American friend heading to a soccer match in Scotland in an orange t-shirt was pulled aside by a casual observer and informed, “You don’t want to be wearin’ orange today, mate.” There are many things about the UK that I don’t understand, but I’m glad my friend didn’t get the crap beaten out of him for a random unwitting fashion choice.
A stone’s throw from there is Dr. Samuel Johnson’s house, so we went to see it. (Ben was reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson before and during the trip.) I was especially charmed by the little bronze statue of Hodge, Johnson’s cat. (I took a picture of it, but the iCloud has absconded with it, or something!) Here’s an image from the internet:
I recollect [Hodge] one day scrambling up Dr. Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, ‘Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;’ and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, ‘but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.’
This is the caption under the sculpture. Also notice that Hodge is surrounded with a few scattered oyster shells. Dr. Johnson would go to the market himself and buy them personally (they were Hodge’s favorite thing), because he didn’t want to bother the cook with it, lest she end up blaming the poor cat for her extra work.
The house itself, whatever.
Amazingly, we packed yet more into that day. We rode around on a double decker bus to our great joy; Ben took the boys to
hell on earth Hamley’s, a huge and absurd multi-level toy store packed with screaming children. I did not go along on that ordeal shopping trip. Instead I went to the Covent Garden market, quite near our flat, and bought a whole bunch of wonderful bath items at Lush. (Our apartment had two beautiful big bathtubs as well as two sleek glass showers, where the water fell like rain from a square light fixture thing up high in the ceiling.)
I also did some emergency Easter Bunny shopping– it was Easter eve. I found that the English Easter bunny had only a few dregs of Easter supplies to choose from, which was counter to plan. The whole city was sold out. Not a basket to be found, nor a colored egg, nor grass, nor bunny-shaped cookies, nor… nothing. Thus he focussed on odd British candy and Tintin swag– we were only a block away from THE Tintin shop! My personal favorite odd candy were the innocuous-looking chocolate drops, boldly entitled “MAN-SIZED BUTTONS.”
Day 3, The Lord’s Day: Jesuses with Pints
Easter morning, after strange British candy was devoured and meringues as large as a child’s head nibbled upon, we headed out to St. Paul’s Cathedral for Easter Service. What we ended up going to was actually Matims, which meant nothing to us. I had hoped that there would be a lot of uncanny similarity between our Episcopal service at St. Paul’s of Akron, and the Anglican service at St. Paul’s Cathedral, and that the boys would be struck by the wide reach of church, and the wonder of being part of a larger global community, and not just think of church as a boring place where you play trucks or read quietly until there are cookies. Also I thought it would be pretty epic. In our own church, Easter is a huge deal with tons of flowers all over the place, a full choir, with a horn section, and on down the line. It’s like you KNOW you’ve been to church after that experience. So I figured in a huge cathedral? It was going to be mind-blowing.
The building was in fact mind-blowing. The service was dull, and packed with tourists, and chilly literally and figuratively, and just all around a dud. Isaac slept through 95% of it, head on my lap. Yes, he had jet lag, and was still somewhat sick. Yes, it was lifeless and hard to follow. The giant space absorbed the choir voices and muffled then, making them seem wan and tinny. But Ben was crabby that Isaac snoozed through it, and I was just bummed that I had been looking forward to it so much and it fell so hopelessly short of expectations.
Indeed, I was exhausted myself after it, and begged to go home and nap. I think the jet lag and traveling and everything hit me all at once. While I slept, Ben got antsy and went out for a walk. He came upon the most wonderful sight of Easter in London– 15 or 20 Jesuses drinking beer in a pub! What remarkable good fortune! This excited him a great deal, understandably. He rushed home and collected Isaac to come and see them. Here are a couple snaps:
One of the Jesuses was dragging a huge wooden cross, but Ben noticed it had a wheel on the bottom. Clearly cheating! Ben said, “But you’re supposed to be suffering.” And the Jesus replied, “It’s the modern world!”
Some good friends of ours, Alan and Maureen, who have been living in Switzerland made the trek up to London to visit us for a few days. Through the luck of the hotel fairy, they were upgraded to an incredible suite overlooking the Thames and Big Ben. So later on Easter Day we went over to visit them. Their kids, Ben and Anna, and our kids became instant friends and we hung out most of the next few days.
Here is Big Ben, the boys, and “Medium Ben” (Little Ben being the kid.)
On the way home from visiting their hotel, which was right next to the London Eye, the boys were beguiled by a lovely merry-go-round, and also despite the frigid temps, wanted ice cream cones. Now, a merry-go-round is less than merry for me and I stayed clear of it. After 50 tries I did manage to get a good picture of the three of them as they went by, though:
To be continued…
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