Friday, September 9, 2011


Well, here we are in Merrie Olde England. Arrived at Heathrow later morning yesterday and made it cross town on the Piccadilly Line to the small flat in the northern reaches of Islington, where we'll be staying for the next ten days. But first... a hymn in praise of New Zealand Air. We were booked in "premium economy"--a cut above coach but not quite business--and had the most comfortable transatlantic flight in memory. A pair, not a trio of very high-tech seats, angled to look out through the portholes and provided with an advanced, easy-to-operate audio and visual system. Better yet, though, was the quality of the food and the kind of service geared to the pleasure and comfort of the passenger, not the convenience of the flight attendant. A refreshing change. Loved it... well, as much as ten hours at five hundred miles an hour and thirty-five thousand feet in a sardine tin can be loved. Kiwis forever! I even got a refresher course in the language, having chosen to watch, re-watch "The King's Speech"--a truly marvelous movie about the courage of a man not born to be king, but having to shoulder that responsibility despite his dreadful fear of having to speak in public.

Having brushed up on my English, then, I felt reasonably well equipped to face the next British challenge: the queues. Not so bad as I'd feared at immigration, but once we got to the airport Tube station it hit me. The English love to queue. They pretend to hate it but believe me, they love it. Otherwise, why would they do so much of it? We lined up to buy an "oyster" card for the London transport system--and got rejected by the damn machine. Joined a long, patient line to buy one at the ticket office, and were nonplussed at how many different oyster cards there are to choose from--week-long, weekend, senior, pay-as-you-go--the choices seemed endless. By now, of course, we are dog-tired and incapable to rational analysis. Buy a damn card and head for the netherworld. The Piccadilly Line takes us straight to our destination at Holloway Road--an hour's bone-rattling journey--and we try to prepare for an exit from the crowded train with our overloaded wheelies and backpacks, but too late. We reach the station, the doors open, we barge our way through the throng... and the doors close in our face before we can make it out to the platform!

We turned around at the next station, of course, and made it back to Holloway Road where our friend Bernard was awaiting our arrival patiently at the exit. Margaret, his wife, had meanwhile been lurking around the corner in their Prius and answered the cell phone call to pick us all up and drive us the "our" flat--though it actually belongs to their son and daughter-in-law, with whom we had arranged our trade: the whole family had stayed at our Laguna Beach cottage earlier in the year. Margaret and Bernard introduced us to the area and the flat itself; they even had a cell phone ready for our use--though by this time our minds were no longer up to the challenge of a new electronic device. We enjoyed a good English cup of tea and a fine conversation, arranging to visit them next week at their home in Dulwich, south of town.

Thinking to take a nice walk to get our feet on the ground and awaken ourselves sufficiently to last out just a few more hours to account for the jet lag and the time change, we headed out, going north on Holloway Road a ways before arriving at the very cosmopolitan hub of the Archway--an area crammed with markets, restaurants and shops and lively with the endless flow of people, a polyglot of languages and ethnic costumes all mingling with the apparent ease of familiarity. No one seemed to be noticing the difference of anyone else.

We stopped at a the cash-point outside a Lloyd's Bank and this machine, too, turned down our request for money. It must be something about Americans... We joined the line inside the bank. I have been banking since the 1950s at Lloyds. My parents banked there before me. It used to be a family affair. We knew the manager, he knew us. Knowing the family, they had no problems allowing us to "go into the red" when necessary; they knew that sooner or later we'd be good for the funds. Well, now nearly sixty years on, it's different. The queue reached from the counters to the door. Two tellers struggled with everything from a huge cash-laundering transaction with two thugs--so it seemed to me--from the Russian mafia to a local store-keeper depositing three hundred pounds in small change. When we got to the front of the line, the teller explained to us carefully that he could give us cash only on a Lloyds Bank card, not a Citibank Visa, and directed us politely to a hole-in-the-wall a few blocks further off.

We had not yet quite reached the destination we had set out for. The long and detailed instructions our friends Phil and Jess (an acting/musician/performing couple just starting out to make a niche for themselves in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles) had left in their flat for us suggested a mile's walk up to Highgate Park, which proved to be another long haul from the Archway up the rather steep Highgate Hill. The park, once we got there, proved a delight, complete with walled English gardens, wide areas of green lawn with dogs and children playing, woods and lakes. Having read along the way that Karl Marx was buried in the Highgate Cemetery, we could not resist a detour to make that pilgrimage--the poor man must be restless in his grave these days--but found the cemetery closed a few minutes before our arrival. We had to make to with peering through the railings and sending belated metta to the great man, greatly despised as he is in our own country!

By this time, we were no only lost, we were totally exhausted and miles out of our way. A kind stranger offered us a pitying look when we asked for directions, and put us back on the right track. A long walk back down Holloway Road, a stop at a surprisingly desultory Saintsburys, another at a fruit and vegetable stand, and we arrived back home in time for a light supper. What I had hoped would be an easy online hook-up via wi-fi turned into an hours' long comedy of errors, involving a series of increasingly desperate local and international calls and, finally, one to the internet service provider (much easier here, I have to say, than the familiar nightmare at home) who set us straight. My greatly fatigued and totally befuddled mind had betrayed me. The instructions that Jess had left for us proved right in every detail; I simply had not read them carefully enough. The final call was in red-faced embarrassment to Phil in Los Angeles, to admit to my idiocy.

Ellie, meanwhile, had laid out a nice supper of salad and tomato basil soup from Saintsburys and Double Gloucester cheese. And I helped myself to a much-needed pouring of Phil and Jess's vodka. Before allowing ourselves to retire for the night, we made good use of our new connection to watch the Obama speech on the economy. We both thought he did a great job--both with the content and the delivery. I have no doubt there will be disagreement from certain readers of The Buddha Diaries... but all that can wait. We're content, for the moment, to be here in Merrie Olde.


mandt said...

One thing upon which we might all agree is the civility of queues. years ago when traveling in Egypt I experienced that the distinction between Americans or the English and the French and German tourists was that of the former's polite que and the latter's mad dash for the gobble.
Enjoy your visit...have fun and send us a Stilton from Harrod's to make up for our disappointment in the job's speech. lol :) m

PeterAtLarge said...

Had a great Stilton at lunch yesterday. But sorry, no nice. Harrods too rich for our blood, despite yesterday's excesses. And re: the speech--some people never satisfied?

mandt said...

Just a joke, not intent, Stiltons and plum puddings were always gathered at Harrods as treats to take home to my dad, who lived in Menlo Park back then. It looks like you're having a fine visit and we here do enjoy the pictures.