People Places Things

The Magic of Mythical Inverness

July 5, 2019

The remains of Urquhart Castle overlooking Loch Ness.

After the weeks of exuberant fun in beautiful Edinburgh, I’ve come farther north in Scotland, my first stop being Inverness – another city, with another vibe. Smaller, a bit chillier, with the scenery of a river instead of a beach. Though it’s a city, Inverness has the spirit of the highlands and the enormous sky which surround it. There is a crisp, simple certainty to everything – the folks here are warm in spirit, and unflappable.

It’s far enough north now that Gaelic words have begun creeping into conversations, and road signs are printed in two languages, with Gaelic often taking precedence over English.

On the bus ride up from Edinburgh, I hit it off with an engaging, intelligent young woman from Germany named Sophie. She and I were staying in different hostels (for this, I had hostel envy of her, as the one she had chosen was directly across from the bus station, whereas mine was a fifteen minute walk away… up a hill… with my big backpack…). We connected through Instagram and made plans to meet up the next morning to go do some dolphin watching as the high tide came in. Sophie had given herself only one night in Inverness, so she was determined to do as much exploring as she could.

I, on the other hand, had arranged to stay for four nights. For me, at least, one or two nights isn’t long enough to get more than a glimpse at a place, and soon it all becomes a big blur. Of course, I have the luxury at present to take as much time as I like in a place. And I’m finding that I prefer to focus on just a few places over trying to pass through many.

There’s also the element of fatigue which factors into this. As much as I loathe to admit this, I just don’t have the stamina to put my backpack on my back every thirty-six hours and take off for somewhere new. Now, I’m not about to accept that this is due to my age, or that I’m “slowing down.” Rather, I blame it on the fact that both my backpack and I could stand to lose some weight.

Given the amount of daily exertion I’ve been getting, coupled with the slow whittling down of the toiletries and essentials I’m carrying around, I do believe we’re both starting to shed a few ounces.

Back to the other morning…

Sophie and I met with little success in spotting any dolphins, but we had a lovely time sitting on the shoreline talking about life, priorities and courage. We also decided that we caught a glimpse of Nessie (a.k.a. the Loch Ness Monster, though I believe that term has fallen out of favor, at least with the locals, who speak of their most famous resident with great affection).

Then again, it was probably just some seaweed floating in the water. But you never know…

After Sophie and I said our goodbyes and parted ways, I hopped on an afternoon boat tour of Loch Ness which traveled from Inverness to the ruins of Urquhart Castle. It was cloudy and cool, with not even a hint of sun, but there wasn’t any rain and the winds weren’t terribly strong or cold –  which, in the Highlands, you have to take as a win, weather-wise.

Cruising the expanse of Loch Ness is a beguiling experience. The slopes are sparsely dotted with homesteads, with more cattle and sheep than humans residing along the shoreline. Occasionally there is a fine stately manor to be seen, dating anywhere from the 18th century to the 21st century. It’s all very quiet and serene, and feels as if it has remain unchanged for untold centuries, that the Vikings and the Highland clans who claimed this place as their own would recognize it today. The only thing missing on the day I visited was a nice, mystical fog rolling in to cover the hillsides.

Once again, no Nessie, but no matter. After all, it’s the possibility of her, of just maybe seeing her, which is what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Leaving the boat tour, I meandered over to an ancient cemetery residing at the base of a sizable hill. At the top of the hill, there were more gravestones and memorials, a few of which could be seen from the boat as we were docking. I was curious to climb up and investigate them, but the boat tour operator had cautioned me about wandering up through the wooded hillside.

“There are mischievous fairies which dwell up there, and if you encounter them, they will be very friendly and invite you to come sing and dance with them at a party in their cave.

“But don’t go,” he warned me. “At the end of the party, the fairies give you a bag of gold and a bag of silver, and you think it’s all been lovely. But when you leave the fairies’ cave, you discover a hundred years have passed, and you have only twelve hours before you turn to fairy dust.”

Armed with this intel, I made my way to the top of the hill without incident, where I had the captivating weathered headstones all to myself, save for two other visitors stationed on a bench at the far end of the cemetery. I grabbed a few pictures, took some time to enjoy the panoramic vistas of Inverness and the Highlands, and then was able to get back down the hill without encountering any fairies.

Walking through the lower cemetery, it occurred to me that I might have ancestors buried here. My family tree is rife with at least dozen folks whose surnames begin with “Mc” or “Mac”, not to mention a host of other Scottish names. I hadn’t done my research, though, so I couldn’t be sure who might be here. So I spoke as I walked through the lines of graves, saying who I was and when I was, and that if anyone there shared my DNA, they should know I was here, I was their American descendant — if they knew what that was — and that I wished to say hello to them.

Heading back into town, I decided to take the scenic route through the River Ness’s Five Islands. This is the prettiest walk, along connecting footpaths through a series of small dollops of land in the middle of the river, which are linked together by graceful iron bridges. The ground beneath the covering of trees has been cleared of the undergrowth, giving one the feeling that they have stumbled into a secret glade. The paths are lined with old-fashioned streetlamps, with long chains of string lights running between them. What an enchanting little world this must be in the evenings.

As I was strolling along one of the paths, I came across a man riding/walking bikes with his daughters. We talked about the islands, and they told me how there are events on the islands all year round, including a big Halloween shindig. The daughter explained that the best part was that they have a smoke machine to make the woods look foggy. Ah, a kindred spirit.

Something led me to mention my visit to Tomnahurich Cemetery and the hill, and the dad asked me if I’d run into the fairies, in a tone which implied I had accidentally wandered into a bad neighborhood which was beset with ne’er-do-wells. With this confirmation of the tour guide’s warning, I could only conclude that the fairies story is true.

And to think, at the beginning of this journey, I wondered if there would be any magic along the way.  I needn’t have worried.

 

Photos below:

Top row: Road signs in Gaelic and English; Sophie and I make a quick stop in the marina.

Middle row: Aldourie Castle, on the banks of Loch Ness (there is a terrible story associated with the current owners of this home, which I found too sad to include here); monuments at the top of Tomnahurich Hill.

Bottom row: Oh, no, Nessie?! No, just a petrified fallen tree; charming Inverness.

People Places

Dancing My Arse Off in Edinburgh

June 24, 2019

Edinburgh Castle

This isn’t the first time my trusty backpack and I have ventured into Scotland’s beautiful capital city. We were here a few decades ago, during my first time traveling in Europe. My study abroad group had come here for two weeks during the world-famous Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and I spent a good amount of time dashing between plays, stand-up comedy performances, and authors’ lectures. I spent even more time hanging out with a street band and learning to eat fire from street performers Gareth and Pepe.

Ah, misspent youth…

This time around, it’s a rather different experience, but equally magical, because this time around, I came here to dance.

The whole idea for my travels and the story I hope to get from them is that I go beyond simply being a tourist, and immerse myself in a place’s culture and community by learning its dances. Where better to begin than in Scotland, the home of myriad ancestors of mine? Banking on that highland DNA of mine to carry my through my first dancing attempts, I figured Scotland would be a natural starting point for my journey.

The closest I’d ever come to a highland reel was in elementary school, when we spent a few weeks learning square dancing as part of P.E. class. I remember finding this fun. To me, it was certainly better than playing basketball or kickball or – geez louise! – dodgeball, which we did on a frighteningly regular basis. Even our rudimentary attempts at the Virginia Reel offered the benefits which dancing brings, breaking down the awkward barriers which exist between school boys and girls, allowing us to pair up, hold hands and trust each other. Definitely better than dodgeball.

Upon my arrival in Edinburgh, I booked highland dance lessons at Dance Base, a handsome studio in the Grassmarket area of Old Town. So far, I’ve had two lessons, both of which have been good fun and a good workout. The skill level of the other class participants varies greatly from person to person, and that is absolutely fine by all. It seems everyone in the class is there mainly to enjoy themselves and each other’s company. I couldn’t have asked for a better, warmer welcome to Scotland.

Then again…

One of the best things about Latin dances like the salsa and bachata* is that they are done all over the world by scores of talented devotees (in some of the larger cities, aficionados take to the dance floors and streets on almost a nightly basis). Having touched on some salsa and bachata basics in Florida with Grigol Kranz, my superstar dance teacher and friend, and having taken what I’d learned for a spin around Havana, Cuba in January, I knew I wanted to do more of the same in my travels around the world.

So, concurrent with my search for some highland dancing, I went looking for some salsa and bachata in Edinburgh. Happily, I didn’t have to look far, for there is a thriving scene here, thanks to Ami Emirato, a rock star teacher whose charismatic, high-energy personality has brought together a strong community of dynamic, engaging, just utterly marevlous individuals, who have all become fantastic dancers under Ami’s tutelage.

From the moment I joined this merry band on the dance floor at Club Cuba, they have taken me in as one of their own, embracing me and my fledgling bachata skills, cheering me on and shoring me up with tips and tales of their own struggles with dance.

For three hours, four nights a week, my fellow students and I share countless good laughs as we take on the sultry, sometimes challenging bachata steps, and I find I’m actually starting to get the hang of it all. What’s more, with Ami’s and the gang’s support, I’ve mustered the courage to stick around after the lessons finish, and join in the social dancing.

This is something I’ve always been too shy and afraid to do in the past, so it’s a sizable accomplishment for me to find myself doing salsa and bachata into the wee hours. Sometimes I just stop and marvel at how I got here. I hardly recognize myself.

(A big thanks to everyone who encouraged me to stay on Saturday night – it was glorious fun. And a special shout out to Piers, who not only was willing to brave the dance floor with me numerous times, but insisted it was a pleasure doing so – a true gentleman.)

So even if it’s not exactly the way I originally envisaged  it, my experience in Edinburgh is still in line with what I intended my journey to be, and I find it all quite perfect.

Added to the phenomenal workout I’m getting on the dance floor, there’s lots of cardio and muscle-toning to be had on the stairways of Edinburgh. The old part of town is built on a hill known as The Mound, and is peppered with steep staircases which link together the thoroughfares – a small but significant detail I’d forgotten about this ancient walled city. A person can spend a lot of time huffing and puffing up thirty to sixty or more stairs just to get to the next street. A couple more weeks here, and my quads will be strong enough to crush tree trunks.

But even the steps have their charms. Many of these stairways are located in what are called “closes,” which are utterly beguiling little hidden lanes populated by shops, restaurants and residences. It always feels as if I have stumbled upon a delicious secret anytime I tuck into one of the closes. And I certainly find it immensely satisfying to traipse over for a morning walk on the Salisbury Crags via the Miss Jean Brodie Steps, which just happen to be next to the hostel where I’m staying. After all, what could be more of a treat than starting one’s day with a bit of Dame Maggie Smith when she was “in her prime?”

And speaking of the hostel…

When I first started planning these travels last summer, I wrote about how in my twenties, whenever I stayed in youth hostels, there was always this one weird old woman in there, who was backpacking around for a few months… and how I’d come to realize that, nowadays, I’m that weird old woman.

Happily, as it turns out, I’m not the only one, at least here at the hostel in Edinburgh. In fact, I’m not even sure anyone calls them youth hostels anymore. There seem to be people of all ages here, including many who are older than me. And to a person, those folks I’ve met amidst the bunk beds – both the young and those in their prime – are all pretty darn cool.

With all of this going on, I have been too preoccupied to spend any time reminiscing about my first, youthful visit to this city. Still, the other evening as I was walking home from Club Cuba in the wondrous daylight of 11pm, I caught a glimpse of my twenty-something self as I was crossing Princes Street. I hadn’t seen that girl since last summer when I ran into her in Oxford. This time I kept my distance and let her go on her way. I didn’t feel compelled to catch up with her and speak to her, like I had that day in Oxford. The girl here in Edinburgh didn’t need any reassuring about her experience or what lies ahead for her. She was doing just fine on her own.

Walking away from her, it suddenly dawned on me: Edinburgh doesn’t belong to that twenty-something me, the first time visitor. Edinburgh belongs to the present me and to the happy times of this moment. So when I come back here in the future – whether it’s in a couple months’ time, or a couple of decades – I will be returning to the memories I’m collecting right now.

I have one week left here before it’s time to strap on my backpack and take off for the highlands. I’m hoping to slip away just in time, before it becomes hard to say goodbye. But I’m not sure I will make it. In fact, I’m pretty certain it’s going to sting.

I can live with that. Edinburgh is worth it.

*Bachata is a social dance which began in the Dominican Republic, and could be considered a kissing cousin of salsa.

 

Photos below:

Top row: My favorite throwback photo, eating fire on the steps of The Royal Scottish Academy; the Miss Jean Brodie Steps

Bottom row: Within the centuries-old confines of Advocates Close; co-ed communal living in the hostel dorm room.

Places

The Welcome Quiet of Oxford

June 10, 2019

After an eventful week aboard the QM2 and the literal launch of my next book’s journey, I was glad of my choice to begin my time in Europe in my old stomping grounds of Oxford.

The weeks and months leading up to my travels had been focused on finishing my first book, finding the right publishing venue (an ongoing process) and clearing the last vestiges of my homestead out of storage in Marina del Rey, California and into a POD (not knowing where I will land when this journey is over, the only thing I know to do is make my belongings portable, with hopes that answer to the question of where I should put down roots will become clear in a year’s time).

All of this left me no real time to plan these next six months of travels and dancing until I was actually underway. I figured my week in Oxford would give me a chance to “find my feet,” and formulate at least a rough plan for what my European journey would look like.

It has been a good week, a productive one. Happily settled into a studio flat in North Oxford, I have savored the simple comforts of popping over to the Summertown shops or walking into town, stopping in for lunch at the covered market, then weaving through a few quiet, narrow lanes to the banks of the River Cherwell to enjoy the punters and sunshine. Just as I’ve done countless times before. I never tire of it.

Upon completing their exams, students jump in the river to wash off the cake and champagne they’ve been doused with.

It was an added bonus to my week that my writer friend Betty from Hawaii was over in the UK visiting her family. She, along with her daughter-in-law Galya and grandkids David and Katie, came up from Basingstoke for a day of exploring the city. It was a delight to show them a bit of the Oxford I know, as well as join them for a tour of the botanical gardens and a tasty pub lunch.

And I took the morning of June 6 to visit the war memorial at St. Giles, and say a prayer of gratitude and peace for the soldiers who took to the beaches of Normandy seventy-five years ago, including some amazing men I’m proud to call my friends.

The rest of my week has been spent mostly with people I’ve known for decades, whom I’ve written about before. These are folks with whom I share a sort of shorthand — so much is already known and understood between us. There is that easiness in being with them which is vouchsafed only to close friends and loved ones, and it’s always a comfort to come across it, especially when one is moving around the world.

Oh, I needed this week here. I needed to be quiet for a bit. And I needed the terra firma of Oxford before I continued into the uncharted territory and shifting sands of my travels.

But this afternoon, as I strolled along the Woodstock Road to the familiarity of my flat, I felt myself settling in. My senses were telling me I belonged here, that I was home.

The pull to stay is strong, which means it’s time to pack up and go, before I give into temptation. But, as my lovely friend and poet Miranda Warner writes,

“…I can return

And not return

Because I never really left.”

 

Below: 

Left: my hat at home in the flat.

Middle: a lettuce, guacamole, bacon and tomato sandwich, my new favorite — wish it was available all year round and not just for Pride.

Right: my first car — haven’t seen one of these in years, let alone a convertible, let alone in perfect condition, let alone with right-hand drive…

People

Crossing With the Boys

May 29, 2019

A gathering of heroes.

I write this aboard the Queen Mary 2, as she traverses the North Atlantic on her way from New York City to Southampton, England.  It’s always an exhilaration to watch the ship cut through the water as she travels in this direction.  Sailing east means the journey is just beginning.

At the start of my last book project, on my first voyage on the QM2, I crossed with the girls, Cornelia and Emily, and we traveled together throughout that summer. Even when I strayed from their path, it was always with the sense that the girls were there waiting to rejoin me and carry on with our adventure.

This past Friday evening, as we sailed out of New York harbor, I was quite cognizant of the fact that it’s different this time, that the girls aren’t here, that I’m going it completely alone.  This time around, there is no security blanket of Cornelia and Emily and their book to help me make my sojourn and my story.

I’m also aware that on this journey, I will be traveling exclusively in the present.  Two years ago, I traveled in a fusion of 2017 and 1922, often peppered with moments from the World War II years.  This I will miss as much as trekking around with Cornelia and Emily, because there was magic to that summer, when the boundaries of time and space would blur, and I would feel myself slipping into the past.

But this journey is all about the here and now.  Can there be magic in this?

I find I’m experiencing a disconnection even from my past voyages.  When I recall the friends I’ve made aboard the QM2 who aren’t on this crossing, I certainly miss them and picture them here.  But there is a surprising, lovely newness to this sailing, in spite of the fact that it is a familiar experience for me.

With this comes the same doubts I remember having when I started my first journey and my first book:  What if nothing happens and there is no story?  What if I can’t do this?  What if it’s all an astoundingly terrible idea?  What if…?

I’ve been taking great comfort in sailing with the boys, a.k.a. the veterans of World War II who are the featured speakers on this crossing, as they make their way to Europe for the 75th Anniversary of the D-Day invasion.  Once again, these men are the rock stars of the ship.  And I’m fortunate and blessed that they not only gave me a top-drawer ending to my first book, but a brilliant beginning of my second.

These WWII heroes are the same charismatic, strong, dynamic, witty, smart, extraordinary men I remember from when I sailed with them in August 2017.  This time around, most wonderfully, there are sixteen World War II veterans traveling with The Greatest Generations Foundation.  And like all proper rock stars do, the boys are traveling with an entourage – a posse of Vietnam veterans who look after their big brothers in arms.  The Vietnam soldiers are warm, engaging, generous and deliciously funny, and they bring a marvelous new dimension to this already profound experience.

The boys are also flanked by TGGF photographer John Riedy and Denver newsman Jeremy Hubbard — simply stellar men who have done an admirable job in attempting to keep up with the vets, and I thank them for some great laughs and high times during the week.

Just as I did two years ago, I spend my mornings grabbing time with the boys at breakfast, the days taking in their compelling, often heartwrenching stories from the war, and my evenings with them in the ballroom, dancing with ninety-nine-year-old Steven Melnikoff, a.k.a. The Foxtrot King, whenever I can manage to get a turn with him.

(In all the times I’ve made mention of Steven, I’ve never written about his service in WWII.  Technical Sergeant Melnikoff served with the 1st Battalion, 175th Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division.  A veteran of D-Day, he was wounded twice – first during the battle of St Lo on “Purple Heart” Hill 108, and in August 1944 he was wounded for a second time during the Breast Campaign.  He returned to duty in December of that year and continued fighting until his unit met the Russians on Elbe River.  Melnikoff’s unit was responsible for capturing over 10,000 Germans.)

What has been especially touching for me is how much throughout the voyage the vets have shown up for me.  They have shared memories of some of their favorite travels as they helped me formulate some ideas of what places I should visit in these next six months. They’ve given me sound advice on where to go looking when I begin researching war records for a future book I plan to write.  Navy veteran Donald Cobb, who, at the age of ninety-four, has just published his first book, The Lady With A Shamrock about his World War II experience aboard the USS Murphy, shared tips on the writing and formatting software he used and recommends. And this morning, Sergeant Greg Melikian, age ninety-four – the radio operator who was hand-picked by Dwight D. Eisenhower to broadcast the General’s message of Germany’s surrender – shored me up when I was feeling shaky about how my trip and my writing will go, assuring me I can do this.  This was soon followed by a second pep talk from Steven, who understood well and offered sympathy and advice on coping with the emotional fatigue which has hit me hard in the last day or so.

These men saved the world, and — just like two years ago — they’re still saving me now.

It means everything that the end of my first journey is repeating itself in the beginning of my second journey.  It makes for a jubilant, rock-solid starting point for my travels, and I’m so thankful for the gift of once again being with the vets.  They soften my fears, and I draw from their strength.  And Steven, as I hoped, provided me with the first dance in my twirl around the world.  He is the one who led me here, so this is nothing less than the perfect beginning to my adventure.

In less than forty-eight hours, we will dock in Southampton and I will have to say goodbye to the boys.  More goodbyes.  These will be especially hard.

Then it will be time to cut the ropes on the beautiful safety net I’ve enjoyed this week.  From the moment I step off the ship onto terra firma, to when I return to board the QM2 to New York in November, the journey will be mine alone to make.  Wish me Godspeed.

 

Photos below:

Top row: Starting the day with the boys at breakfast; ending the evening with the boys in the ballroom.

Bottom row: It’s an extra special pleasure to be sailing with these three once again — Stuart, Steven, and Gentleman Jim (and yes, that would be me sitting in Steven’s lap).

People Places

Where You Hang Your Hat

May 27, 2019

“Home is wherever you hang your hat.”

These are the words I used on the map which chronicled my journey two years ago, when I followed in the footsteps of my favorite book, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  You can read all about those travels under the Enchanted Summer heading.

And now here I am again, about to put to the test that adage I find so reassuring.  I’m getting ready to take off and see as much of the world as I can manage, now that the nomad spirit has a firm grip on my senses.  Two years of living on the road, out of suitcases, in various locales around the US and Europe, I’ve found that it has become my normal.  And the idea of settling down in one place is becoming a more remote and less appealing option.

In the past twenty-four months, I have lived in and put down roots in a number of places which now feel like home whenever I return to them.  It is a blessing, but it comes at a price:  the goodbyes.

When I first started my travels, I read articles and blogs by other nomads, and one word of warning stayed with me, which was that there would be a lot of goodbyes.  I’ve found it to be acutely so on a number of occasions, particularly these last few weeks.  In the past month, I’ve had to say goodbyes to friends and loved ones in Florida, California, Missouri and New York, all with a vague promise of seeing them again at some unknown point.  The partings have come hard and in rapid succession, and truth be told, I’m still reeling a bit from them as I take the first steps of my new journey.

But I know, waiting on the other side of the Atlantic are more friends and loved ones, with hellos and welcome homes.  Having that fills me with the greatest excitement and joy.

In a year’s time, I suspect I will start behaving like a grown-up, settle down somewhere and get a proper job.  I had been wrestling with this idea for a few months, struggling to decide where my heart will live.  But I’ve come to understand that there is no knowing this right now, because I have no idea what the next twelve months will bring into my life. And that’s absolutely, perfectly fine.

These last few years have taught me that “I don’t know” are magical words, because they mean anything is possible.

So now it’s time to go see what’s out there, and probably put down a few more roots here and there along the way.  Because home is wherever you hang your hat.

People Places Things

One Last Pin in the Map

August 12, 2017

New York City at sunrise, from the deck of the Queen Mary 2

It was over.  All of it.  The starting trek across the US.  The weeks of research in New England, filled with Cornelia’s and Emily’s “rapturous plans and lyric anticipation”.  The quick visit to Canada for the “false start” part of the story.  Sailing to England on the Queen Mary 2.  The month in London, followed by the month in France.  And then the last hurrah on the QM2.  It was quickly becoming my past.  My three and a half months of traveling with the girls – my dear friends at this point –  was at an end.  Saturday, August 12, 2017 had arrived and my enchanted summer came to a close as the QM2 pulled dockside in Brooklyn.

On September 9th, less than a month after we arrived in New York, The Greatest Generations Foundation reported that Colonel Douglas Dillard had passed away at the age of 91.  He was very fortunate, really.  To have lived such a long life, and been well enough only weeks before to cross an ocean, speaking to crowds and enjoying a marvelous vacation, was a blessing, for sure.  But even understanding this didn’t stop me from being terribly saddened by the news.  RIP, Colonel.

After stopping in to see my QM2 friends Matt and Marianne in Chicago and New York City, respectively, I would spend the autumn following my enchanted summer in the idyllic New England town of Hudson, New York, living in a converted 1900 schoolhouse which sits between two cemeteries – and in the process, make a new friend in the artist-owner, Laurie.  There I would finish the first draft of my book at 1:28pm EST on November 9, 2017.

In early 2018, I would spend three months in Lake Worth, Florida with Cornelia and Emily – not the girls in the story of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, but the two accomplished women who wrote it.  Doing my best to emulate their wit and style, and occasionally whispering a plea for their help or guidance, I edited and worked through various drafts of my book, trying to sort out what the journey had been about.  That is, I worked on the book in between making good on my promise to Steven the World War II veteran.

I needed to learn the foxtrot.  And so shortly after I arrived in Lake Worth, I signed up for dance lessons with Grigol Kranz, a brilliant pro dancer and teacher, as well as a witty, wonderful, and extremely patient soul, who managed to get me dancing passable versions of every dance I would need for the ballroom on the QM2 – the most important being, of course, the foxtrot.

From him, I even learned the tango, just as Cornelia and Emily had done in 1922, when it was still quite new – and quite scandalous.  They had been taught by a fellow hotel guest, Jacques Ventadour, in the parlor of their Paris pension.  This was symmetry I found extremely pleasing. 

(In addition to somehow teaching me to dance, Grigol worked overtime as therapist on some of my rougher writing days, and his bright spirit would lift mine when I was doubting my work or myself.  He also gave me a marvelous gift:  some of his other students.  They are a phenomenal group of intelligent, charismatic, talented, beautiful women – Jean, Anna, Andrea, Jill, Bimika, Carolyn, Susan and Hannah – who I’m thrilled to have as my friends.  Grigol and my dancer friends, along with pros David and Alexis at Palm Beach Ballroom Dance Studio, would end up turning those three months of work into lots of a brand new kind of fun.)

On March 14, 2018, Stephen Hawking passed away at the age of 76.  In the summer of 2018, his ashes were interred at Westminster Abbey, and one of the last things I did on my return visit to London was stop in and pay my respects.  I whispered to him how sorry I was that I would never get to ask him about the phenomenon of time and space blurring.

But maybe, just maybe, that me from thirty years ago can find a way to ask the him of thirty years ago about it, as we pass each other on the sidewalk in front of King’s College, Cambridge.  Because time is not linear, and everything is happening at once.

In May 2018, I would once again sail to England on the QM2, traveling with some familiar faces, and making new friends along the way, most especially Patrick, Anette and their darling daughter Flora, as well as Kate and Greg (my nomad role models) and their golden doodles Lucy and Gracie.

I would spend a couple of weeks in Oxford (see my post “Home Can Be More Than One Place”) before returning to London, to the same flat I’d lived in the summer before.

The plan had been to finish the book in London, but it seemed that there were too many people to see and too much fun to be had.  In addition, I would continue my dance lessons with the kind, talented group of teachers at the Karen Hardy Studios, as well as attend weekly forro dancing lessons at the Lighthouse Bar in Shoreditch, learning this Brazilian street dance from the brilliant, fun foursome of Chinedu, Graziela, Gala and Jonathan.

My longtime traveling buddy Daron and I would get a week to run around London, a couple of decades after our first “Cornelia and Emily” visit to the UK.  I’d also get an all-too-brief visit with my friend and fellow writer, Betty, who was over from Hawaii to visit with her son and his family.  And I got some – but not enough – hangout time with my ex-pat neighbor Sabrina and her beautiful poodle Tigger.  There were shows and dinners and drinks and, of course, afternoon tea…

As always, it wasn’t easy to leave England, to get back on the ship, when the time came to leave.  But it helped that I had Grigol and Marianne with me, and that I made some amazing new friends, including Matt, Nick, Ciaran, Margaret, Christelle and Andy.  Most happily on this voyage, I discovered I was sailing with some other friends from the past – Amy and her daughter, Hannah; Maite and her daughter, Hannah; and Vicki and Bill, my fellow spa-rats.

It was another magical summer.  Though it meant I would return to the States short of my goal – a completed book – my time had been extremely well-spent.  The stars had aligned, and I had found my next book idea.  All because of that promise I had made.

So here’s how it worked.

Thirty years ago… I dated a guy in Oxford, and through him and his family, I met Tom, who would give me the idea for my first book.  And it would be Tom who, over drinks one night this past June, would implant in my brain the notion that I needed to find an inventive angle for my next book, which was to be about my upcoming travels.

Meanwhile, a year ago…  I make a promise to learn to dance.  Ballroom dancing leads me to social dancing, which leads me to other dances – bachata, then forro – and making a lot of amazing new friends.

Meanwhile, this summer… In reading tributes to the late, great Anthony Bourdain (which he was), I am reminded of how he learned about the world through food, and it made me realize I had my own way to see a place, learn about the culture and meet the people… through their dance.

All those bits and pieces had fused together to become my next book project.  And on May 24, 2019, I shall begin A Twirl Around the World by dancing across the Atlantic on the QM2 with The Greatest Generations Foundation, as they sail to Europe for the 75th anniversary of the Normandy D-Day invasions.

But first I have to finish this first book, which I’m calling Enchanted Summer.  In a few weeks I will be stationing myself back in that schoolroom in Hudson, and only emerging when I have a completed manuscript.  If I appear to go missing, check there first.

 

Photos below:

Top Row:  Colonel Douglas Dillard, holding a picture of his WWII self which appeared in Life magazine (photo courtesy of John Riedy, The Greatest Generations Foundation), with Matthew at Chicago’s Union Station; my room in the old schoolhouse in Hudson – the perfect place to write a book.

Bottom Row:  With Daron at the artist Christo’s installation in Hyde Park; Stephen Hawking’s gravestone in Westminster Abbey; afternoon tea with Grigol at Fortnum and Mason.

People Places

A Momentous Occasion

August 10, 2017

The World War II veterans with QM2 Captain Stephen Howarth (standing, center) and “bellhops”.  Seated:  Stuart Hedley, Joseph Reilly and Michael Ganitch.  Standing:  Steven Melnikoff, Douglas Dillard, Bruce Heilman and James Blane.  – Photo courtesy of Jim Riedy, The Greatest Generations Foundation

“… we had on our best crepe marocain [dresses] and they always gave us a tendency to feel dangerously alluring.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough

Time to get back in the fancy clothes.  Go to afternoon tea.  Dress for dinner.  Evening gowns and opera gloves.  On Friday, August 4, 2017, the QM2 would sail from Southampton to New York, and I was to be aboard.

I had taken the boat-train (there I go, using that term again) down from London Waterloo that morning, forcing myself through check-in and onto the ship.  But saying goodbye to my summer with the girls, and to England, had made me sulky.  Standing on the top deck of the ship, looking back at Southampton, I thought to myself about how my story was over, and this voyage back to the States might as well have been a flight from Heathrow, for all that it mattered to the tale.

Even the tantalizing notion of getting to be prissy for nine straight days wasn’t enough to lift the cloud over my head.

At least the pressure was off, I told myself.  I wouldn’t have to “try”.  I could just lounge around and read and not talk to anyone.  That’s one of the beauties of travel:  No one knows who you are, so you get to choose who you want to be each time you are in a new place. 

This time, I would be the quiet, keep-to-myself, person.

That settled, I went to my stateroom to unpack.  There, on the dressing table, was a brochure introducing the seven World War II veterans who were newly-announced featured speakers on my voyage.  And that changed everything.

Suddenly this afterthought of a voyage had become a glittering grand finale, a last chapter that would really top off my enchanted summer.  “A momentous occasion,” as Cornelia and Emily would say.

It started the next morning, when I spotted and barged in on five of the veterans having breakfast.  They were never able to shake me after that.  I was like a stalker, but the men seemed to take it in their stride.  Every morning I made a point of getting some time with them at breakfast.  At noon I would attend their lectures.  And in the evenings, I would dance with them in the ballroom.

These men – Doug, Bruce, Joe, Jim, Mickey, Stuart and Steven – were all charming, charismatic and strong.  They weren’t old men.  They were men, and much more than that.  They were heroes, and they were larger-than-life.  I write extensively about them in the book – from Bruce’s continuing cross-country journeys on his motorcycle, to Colonel Doug quietly telling me about liberating Flossenburg concentration camp – and every moment I got with them meant the world to me.

It was especially poignant for me to meet Joe and Steven, both of whom had been there on June 6th, 1944 – D-Day – in Normandy.  I could only think back to that day in July, when I was at Omaha Beach, walking in the footsteps of the soldiers… I hadn’t known it at the time, but Joe had parachuted from those sunny skies I had enjoyed that day, and on the beach I had walked in Steven’s footsteps.

And it would be Steven – a.k.a. the Foxtrot King – who would inspire me to take up ballroom dancing, which would lead to… well, that’s a story for another post.  But I did take it up, because I made a promise to Steven that the next time we were together, I would be able to dance properly with him.  A year later, I’m pleased to report that I’ve kept that promise, and I’m ready to dance.

Without question, my World War II buddies were the stars of the ship, and the stars of my voyage, but there were other highlights during the crossing, involving amazing friends and wonderful memories I made along the way.

I go on quite a bit about these people in the book, but I cannot emphasize strongly enough how important it is to have rockin’ tablemates at dinner.  They are the ones who will elevate your journey.

One of my favorite memories of the crossing was going up on the top deck with my tablemate Matthew one sunny afternoon, to practice what we’d learned in our beginning waltz class.  There, next to the shuffleboard and paddle tennis courts, we whirled around the deck, working on our steps as a fellow passenger attempted to play something on his guitar that we could keep time to.  Sometimes life is perfect.

There were the many nights on the ballroom floor, when I attempted that waltz, along with the cha cha, foxtrot and rumba, with the encouragement of my tablemate Marianne, who got me over my embarrassment and anxiety about “not doing it right”.  And while I might not have made it all the way to feeling “dangerously alluring”, I certainly became comfortable on the dance floor.  Twirling around in those party dresses of mine, I was able to enjoy myself out there, in spite of the fact that I wasn’t any good.

Two days before we were to dock in New York City, we stopped for a day in the charming port town of Halifax, Nova Scotia.  With Matthew, Marianne and our fellow tablemate, Robert, I made the trek to the deliciously picturesque Peggy’s Cove.  There we climbed on the rocks and visited the lighthouse, which we then followed with seafood delights at The Bicycle Thief restaurant back in town.

(Stopping in Halifax was a bonus – most of the crossing are straight shots from New York to Southampton and back.  But this special Canadian stop gave us a most-welcome extra day on the ship, just to make the voyage all that much more marvelous.)

And there was that one unfortunate late-night incident in the disco involving Long Island Iced Tea, and a bit of a snog with one of the guest piano players.  But it’s okay, as memories go, only because…

“… that conscientious drinker from Princeton brought me a hooker of straight brandy… I also have the distinct recollection of going out on deck with that Pride of Princeton and letting him kiss me.  Girls didn’t kiss much in those days.  Those who did were considered ‘fast’”. – Cornelia Otis Skinner

Symmetry.  It took me until the end of the journey to match that tidbit in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, but – for better or for worse – at least I could check it off the list.

The crossing back to the States had turned out to be a glorious end to my travels, thanks to the vets, and to some great new friends I’d made aboard the ship.  What an unexpected, happy surprise, just when I thought it was all over.  I was especially going to miss my breakfasts with the boys, and my evenings dancing with them.  It had become my habit, my daily routine.  How was I ever going to let go of all of that fun?

 

Photos below:

Top row:  A gorgeous day at sea; my single cabin, complete with dressing table and fainting couch; Matthew and I at the Captain’s cocktail party, before the complimentary champagne.

Bottom row:  Dancing with Steven the Foxtrot King; my favorite photo of my friends the vets, courtesy of John Riedy, The Greatest Generations Foundation; utterly charming Peggy’s Cove.

Places

Where Journeys Begin and End: Southampton

August 4, 2017

The Queen Mary 2 leaving the dock in Southampton.

The story of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay is all about the magical, crazy, eye-opening, summer that forever changed the lives of Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough.  And yet it came very close to not even happening at all.  The girls’ journey almost ended before it began, right here in the ancient port town of Southampton.

When the Empress of France docked here on June 21st, 1922, Emily and Cornelia were in a real bind.  By the time they reached the English shore, Cornelia was extremely ill with the measles, and the tell-tale spots were starting to form on her skin.  This was a very precarious situation for her, because, in 1922, if the health inspectors got wind of her illness, they would have had her quarantined and sent to a German hospital/camp, where – Cornelia feared – she would “be nursed by a Valkyrie”.

Luckily for Cornelia and Emily, a couple of the conquests they made on the crossing from Canada to England just happened to be those dashing young doctors, Paul Dudley White and Joe Aub.  Risking their budding careers, Paul and Joe pledged to keep the girls’ secret, and had even managed to score some meds from the ship’s doctor without raising suspicion (can you imagine passengers being able to do that with the shipboard medical staff these days?).  Those had helped keep Cornelia’s illness in check, but they couldn’t conceal the truth much longer.

Joe had gotten off the ship in Cherbourg, France, but Paul stayed with the girls and helped Emily slip Cornelia through customs, immigration and the dreaded health inspection, then into the care of Cornelia’s parents, who had come to the dock to meet the girls’ ship.  From there, according to the book, Otis and Maud Skinner, along with Emily and Paul, took Cornelia to a hotel a few blocks away, where they stayed for ten days while Cornelia went through her illness and recovery.

As a nod to their experience, when I arrived in England on the QM2 back in June at the start of my own journey with the girls, I had stayed in Southampton for a night before heading on to London.  I figured it would give me a chance to explore this historically significant port, and also try to retrace the path of my 1922 traveling companions.

I had already booked a room at the White Star Tavern, which was right in the heart of Old Town, close to the piers.  This was a new experience for me, as I had never had the opportunity before to stay in a pub.

It had been a surprise to me how few of these pubs-with-lodgings still exist in the UK.  I thought those charming old tavern inns like the one at the beginning of “Four Weddings and a Funeral” were to be found everywhere.  It’s a true shame that they aren’t.

After getting settled in at the White Star (which happily exceeded my hopes and expectations about staying in a pub), I went for a walk around town.  My first stop was South Western House, a beautiful 1897 building that now housed condos, but had been the hotel where the Skinners and Emily had stayed in 1922.  The girls had given a specific enough description that, even with the passage of ninety-five years, I could work out that I had the right place.

“The hotel was one of those British terminal ones, part caravansary, part ticket office, right on the tracks, the sort that gives the impression of having engines running in and out of the potted palms.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough

Some internet searching for the place they described had turned up the South Western House (formerly “Hotel”), a six story turn-of-the-century building adorned with white stone Victorian flourishes that resembled frosting on a cake.  It was a hotel through the first half of the twentieth century, playing host to celebrities and royalty, including Queen Elizabeth.  The hotel is also famous for welcoming many of the first class passengers – including Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line – on the night before the Titanic sailed from Southampton.

During the Second World War, the hotel was requisitioned by the military due to its close proximity to the docks and was used as the Headquarters for Combined Operations during the planning for D-Day, which in part was launched from this port.  According to legend, a lot of the plans that went in to effect on June 6th, 1944 were formed in this building, with Winston Churchill and General Eisenhower allegedly meeting here at least once to discuss important invasion matters.

Once again, another piece of the girls’ story is tied to World War II.

On the far side of the building, the railroad tracks which once carried those “boat trains” filled with passengers, were still set in the ground, though a bit unkempt from lack of use, (the main railway station for Southampton is now located about a mile away).  Cornelia and Emily had been right about just how startlingly close the hotel was to the tracks.

I circled back to the front of the building and stepped into the South Western Café.  Though it was clear that things had been altered in the decades between when the girls were here and my visit now, one could still make out the remnants of an elegant showpiece of a restaurant dining room.  On the walls, there were enlargements of vintage photos of the building, some circa 1920s, and I studied them all with delight as I explained to the woman working at the host desk about my project.  At this, she stepped over and unlocked some nearby doors, inviting me to go through into what had been the lobby of the hotel.  Needless to say, I was pleased as punch.

Its furnishings were sparse, but what was now a foyer for the residents of South Western House, had retained the sumptuous marble paneled walls and columns, and high, elaborately carved ceiling mouldings worthy of a grand hotel. I was able to picture a front desk where Otis had checked into their rooms, and a seating area flanked by potted palms where, over a cup of tea, Maud had beguiled and staved off the Empress of France’s doctor, who had come to check out rumors of a sick Cornelia.  I could even imagine Cornelia, in her hat with the red cock feather and big white veil, being whisked through the lobby to the very elevators I was standing in front of.

This had been unexpected, and I was thrilled to have gotten a glimpse at the lobby.  I was very glad on that day in June that I was starting my travels abroad in Cornelia’s and Emily’s footsteps.

Leaving the South Western Hotel/House, I turned back the other direction and followed along the perimeter of the Roman wall which ran through the oldest part of the city.  A lot of the town had been bombed in World War II and rebuilt, but it was still rich in beautiful architecture, from the Tudor period through the Edwardian.  Set within the paving stones of the sidewalks were brass placards inscribed with bits of Southampton’s history.  While the main tourist draw in Southampton seemed to be the Titanic connection, I was far more intrigued and moved by the placards noting that the Mayflower pilgrims had sailed from here, and how it was from here that many thousands of the D-Day invasion troops had been deployed.

It was staggering to contemplate how much history had been launched from this port town.

Later in the day, I ambled back over to the docks and watched the Queen Mary 2 as she pulled away from the pier, turning into the estuary, heading towards open water.  Already sensing on that first day of my travels how quickly this enchanted summer would pass, I felt a little sad knowing that the next time I saw the QM2, it would mean that my journey was over.

As expected, that next time came way too fast.  Now here we were.  I had blinked, and suddenly it was August 4th, the day the girls and I would board the Queen Mary 2 and head back to America.

Little could I know then what a grand finale that voyage would turn into.

 

Photos below:

Top row: The White Star Tavern; South Western House, formerly the South Western Hotel; the lobby seems almost ghostly, but retains its graceful charm.

Bottom row:  A placard honors the two million American soldiers who passed through Southampton on their way to the D-Day landings; the Empress of France; the lighter which carried Joe Aub into Cherbourg, as noted by Paul Dudley White in his scrapbook.

People Places

Home Can Be More Than One Place

July 29, 2017

Dinner al fresco with Bruce, Francis and Sylvia Corrie (not pictured), some of my favorite people.

This one is a cheat.

And I’m glad of it.

My blog.  It was always supposed to be about the summer of 2017 and my journey with Cornelia and Emily.  As the days of that enchanted summer passed, I fell more and more behind with my blog posts, promising myself that I would do them once my travels were over.

It’s taken me almost a year to finish what I started, telling the tale of my enchanted summer, but as my “follow-up trip” a year later comes to an end, I’m finally in sight of the last post from that journey, just as I’m nearing completion of the book as well.

My first book.  It feels a bit crazy to be typing those words.  Rather a shock to the system.

Anyway…

In theory, this post is supposed to be about a couple of trips I made to the city of dreaming spires last summer.  But as I write this, I find myself reflecting on the two happy weeks I spent in Oxford this time around – my “follow-up visit” in the summer of 2018 – which deserve more than just a mention in a postscript.

When I travel to England, I visit London.  I visit Cambridge and Brighton and wherever my journey leads me.  But when I travel to Oxford, I am not visiting.  I am returning home.

Last summer…

My first trip to Oxford was an overnight stay with Bruce and Sylvia, the parents of a former boyfriend of mine – Alistair – who is still a close friend.  In the book, I write about arriving in town and walking familiar streets, passing old haunts and ghosts from the two years I lived in Oxford in my twenties.  I spent that afternoon catching up with Sylvia and Bruce, with Alistair’s brother Francis joining us for dinner al fresco that evening.  The next morning I would meet up with Francis’ wife, Susie, for coffee and a chat before heading back to London.  Reflecting on that trip in the book, I write about feeling the ease and affection of family, as if it had been just a week or two since we’d last seen each other, and not the fourteen years that had actually passed since my last visit.  And how it meant so much that they still called me, “Girlie”, the nickname Alistair had given me almost thirty years ago.

The other visit came during the last few days before I sailed for the States, when I popped down to have lunch with Francis and Penelope Warner.  It was through them – or, rather, their study abroad program – that I came to England that first time around.  I explain in the book what an opportunity – what a gift – these two wonderful people had given me, along with their friendship.  I also recall three distinct memories of that day.

The first was, when I knocked on their front door, it struck me that the last time I had stood in front of number 27, I had been a young woman.  Where had the time gone?

The second was when I learned that the Warners’ daughter, Miranda, was in the UK, visiting from New Zealand, but that I had missed her by just a day or two – that she had been in Oxford, but was now up in Scotland seeing her brother, Benedict, and his girlfriend.  I have known Miranda since she was four years old, and though I refuse to accept that she could possibly be older than, say, sixteen, I had been very much hoping to see her.  Well, it would just have to wait for another time, possibly in another part of the world.

But my most vivid memory of that visit was, upon seeing me for the first time in twenty years, Francis Warner’s first words to me were, “Welcome home.”  It was one of the best moments of my summer.

I knew from those two brief sojourns to a city I had, indeed, once called home, that I needed to really be in Oxford for a time.  So for my follow-up trip this summer, I AirBnB-ed myself a charming basement flat on the Woodstock Road near Summertown in North Oxford.  Here I was right in the thick of my old stomping grounds, and I would spend two weeks reconnecting with both people and a place I love.

And Oxford delivered.  So many happy moments.

There was the evening when Francis Corrie’s band was playing in the neighboring village of Kidlington, where I got to be with half the family as we listened to Francis and his son Johnny rocking the night.  Sylvia and Bruce introduced me to their myriad friends who had come to enjoy the music.  I caught up with Debbie and her husband, James, both of whom I hadn’t seen in over a decade.  I showed off a few of my newly-learned dance moves from those lessons I’d had in Florida in the spring, as I grooved to Jonny and the Jive Tones.  And I chatted with Johnny, along with Rebecca (Bex) and Alexandra (Zana), members of the next generation in the Corrie clan, who had all been small children the last time I’d been around.

And then there was the afternoon I went to the Warners for tea, where Penelope had outdone herself, serving homemade scones and three kinds of cake to me and the other guests to the party, Francis Warner’s daughter Lucy Warner Stopford and her husband, John.  Being the same age, Lucy and I had become friends during my study abroad year, but we’d lost touch once I went back to the States.  A quarter of a century and a lot of living later, Lucy and I didn’t miss a beat as we filled each other in on our lives.  It was especially wonderful to discover that Lucy is still very much Lucy – always the brightest light in the room.  Over tea, she asked me to sit for her painting class.  Lucy is an award-winning artist, as both a painter and a sculptor, and I considered it a great honor and privilege to be invited to sit for her and her fellow artists.

I spent one wonderful morning “touring” around town with Bruce, starting with tea in Blackwell’s Bookshop, then on to visiting important places in the colleges which make up Oxford University.  There was a quick hello with James’ and Debbie’s son, Tim, as he was studying for his exams, then a visit to the astounding Museum of Natural History where Bruce had worked in his youth, before we headed up for lunch at home with Sylvia.

On another day, Susie and I managed to get squeeze in some time for a good chat over beverages at the coffee house on South Parade.  Her beautiful, ethereal spirit made me wish I lived in Oxford full-time, so that we could have “girlfriend natters” on a regular basis.  That evening, I would find myself a block over at the Dew Drop Inn, having a pint with her husband Francis, and – poor Francis – a girlfriend natter with him as well (that dry cider is stronger than you think).

I even had the good fortune of being in town at the same time as Tom Fremantle, who had returned to Oxford a few months prior, after living for a few years in China.  Think Indiana Jones, only with an English accent.  Tom is a fearless adventurer and brilliant writer, and it is his books which had first inspired me to take my journey with the girls. Over drinks one evening at the Rose and Crown, Tom was able to not only give me some good advice about my book, but his words would also end up pointing me in the right direction for my next project.

There was also an unexpected turn in Oxford – my discovery of Forro, a lively, rather up-close-and-personal Brazilian dance.  While Oxford seems like an odd place to learn Brazilian street dancing, I figured “Why not?”, and went along to the Monday night classes and social dancing at St. Giles Church.  I have warm affection for that lovely little 12th century church, partly because I was once kissed amongst the headstones in the churchyard by a gorgeous Australian (she writes with fatuous modesty).  Later in London, I would continue with Forro, even giving it a go when I visited Birmingham.

And wouldn’t you know, happening upon that Forro poster outside the St. Giles Church, and giving the dance a try, would lead me into my next book project?  It’s a wondrous thing, how the pieces sometimes line up.

Those two weeks in Oxford were also filled with the delicious minutiae of everyday living – shopping errands to the drugstore and grocery store, exchanging pleasantries with the neighbors, walking into town on the same pavement I’d traversed all those years ago.  All of the little everyday, unexciting things that let a person know they are home.  It is those moments which penetrate the most, and last the longest.

If you have managed to read all the way to here, I can only thank you for your patience, and for indulging me as I prattled on with my highly-personal reminiscences.  Not only is this post a cheat, but I suspect it’s of interest only to me.  But I’m okay with that.  I’m giving myself this one.

Still, at least I can leave you with some of the wisest words I’ve ever read, which have resonated with me for almost thirty years.

“Home can be more places than one.  The pity is having to choose.” – C.W. Gusewelle

Photos:

Above, Middle:  Sitting for Lucy’s portrait class, with varying results — from generously young-looking, to Mary Tudor-ish, to still a work in progress.  I dig them all.

Below, Top Row:  Cows in the foreground, dreaming spires in the background of Christ Church Meadow; a game-changing poster; the St. Giles Churchyard.

Below, Bottom Row:  The old Dew Drop Inn has been glammed up; the reassuring blue door of number 27; Tuesday night Forro dancing in London.

Places Things

A Realm of Enchantment

July 27, 2017

On Tuesday, July 25th, I woke up in Paris.  One three-hour Chunnel ride later, I was back in London, and within an hour of that, I had the keys to the Chelsea flat back in my hand.

It was good to be in the flat again.  It was almost like coming home.  But it didn’t feel the same as it had the first time.  These were two separate visits, not a continuation of one.  I hadn’t expected that sensation – to borrow a phrase from the girls, “it hadn’t quite the flavor I anticipated.”  But neither did it dampen my enthusiasm for the place.  I was thankful for this last week I was getting, and was ready to make the most of it.

On my first full day back in London, I visited the National Portrait Gallery to view the BP Awards for 2017, and one of those winning portraits in particular.  It is a study of Dr. Tim Moreton, a former Registrar of the National Portrait Gallery, painted by a wonderfully talented artist, Lucy Warner Stopford, who also happens to be a longtime friend of mine.  I had learned about her prestigious honor when I was visiting her father and stepmother in Oxford (which I cover in my next post, “Home Can Be More Than One Place”).  In the Gallery, I studied her compelling portrait, dazzled by the palette of colors Lucy had fused together and formed into Dr. Moreton’s likeness.  I then took some time to view the other BP Award winners before returning to Lucy’s work, where I hovered for a good half an hour, for the sole purpose of boasting to other museum-goers that I knew the artist.

After that satisfying experience, I walked up to New Bond St to the Allies Statue, an outdoor art piece which is comprised of a wooden park bench on which sit life-size bronze sculptures of Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  It captures the friendship and mutual admiration of those two men who brought us to victory in World War II.  What is especially compelling about this piece is that the artist left space between the two men’s sculptures, so that a person can join them on the bench.  I was looking forward to that.

I arrived at the block of New Bond street where the statue is supposed to reside, only to discover that there was construction work taking place right in that spot, and the statue has been moved into storage somewhere.  This was an annoyance I hadn’t been expecting, and I was pretty darn disappointed.  With as much as World War II was figuring into my journey, I had really wanted an opportunity to visit the sculpture and take a seat, but it would just have to wait for another time.

I had far better luck on another outing I was excited to make, to the Globe Theatre to see “Much Ado About Nothing”.  It would be my first time attending a performance in the replica of the famous Shakespearean theatre since it opened in 1997.  “Much Ado About Nothing” is a play I already like, but this production sounded especially intriguing because it was set in 1914 Mexico, with Latin music and dancing.

It was an engaging, spirited production, and I have to think the men, especially, enjoyed their costumes.  Instead of sporting Elizabethan stockings and frills, these actors were dressed as caballeros, with cowboy boots, gun belts, a scruffy appearance and all of the boisterous swagger that goes with it.

The Globe Theatre itself lived up to all of my expectations – the building had been meticulously recreated, and the experience was as authentic as one could hope for, right down to when the audience members standing in the stalls got spritzed with light rain during the performance.  But no one seemed to mind in the slightest.

From there, the days slipped by fast, and the next thing I knew, it was Monday, July 31st, the day of my move from the flat in Chelsea to the Grand Hotel, where Cornelia and Emily, along with the Skinners, had stayed.  I would remain there until Friday, August 4th, when I would catch the boat-train to Southampton and board the Queen Mary 2 back to the States.

(Okay, so “boat-train” is an antiquated term from Edwardian times, referring to trains that ran to a port for the specific purpose of catching a passenger ship.  But it applies well to my particular journey plans.  And also, I just really enjoy saying, “I will be catching the boat-train…”  After all, how often does one get the opportunity to utter those words?)

On the morning of the move from the flat, I woke up feeling terribly, feverishly sick.  Up until that day, I hadn’t had so much as a sniffle, but the months of traveling had finally caught up to me.  It was a nuisance, to be sure, but I could feel only gratitude that it was happening now at the end.

I managed to get everything together in time to catch the river bus one last time from Chelsea to Embankment, and was still holding up fairly well when I entered the Grand Hotel, even feeling excited for the novelty of being steps away from the West End instead of a couple of subway rides.  Not that I would have the strength to take advantage of the situation.

I spent most of the next few days lying in bed, in various states of consciousness.  Occasionally I would venture out for something to eat, or to soak up some sun in the Embankment Gardens while my hotel room was being cleaned.  I knew that if I didn’t baby whatever illness this was, and really take care of myself now, I would be sick at sea.

By Thursday, twenty-four hours before I would be leaving London, I was finally starting to feel better.  After being cooped up for three days, I decided the best thing for my recovery now would be to get some fresh air and sunshine.  I started the day by walking over to St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was quite a haul, but I didn’t mind – it was just good to be out of doors.

I never can approach the magnificent St. Paul’s Cathedral without thinking of that iconic photograph from World War II, which had stiffened the backs and strengthened the resolve of the British to fight on.  Thank God it survived the Blitz.

After my visit to the cathedral, I took my time meandering back through central London – wandering through Covent Garden, strolling along the Strand, then making my way down to St. James Park, where I whiled away the afternoon.

There was nothing new or particularly exciting in anything I was doing.  But everything about the day was amplified.  It was all in sharper focus because I would be gone from it soon.  I was completely connected to this time and place, as I felt – and tried desperately to hang onto – every moment as it passed.

That evening, I was happily still energized and feeling well enough to attend the performance of “Queen Anne” at Theatre Royal Haymarket.  It was the first time in at least 20 years that I had been there, and I was glad I had made the effort to go.  The play itself was good, and just being at the theatre allowed me to spend a little time with some lovely memories from my twenties.

After the play, I walked back from the theatre through Trafalgar Square.  The daytime crowds of tourists had pretty much dispersed, and the lions and fountains of the square were left to the young, flirty people.  I made my way down to the Thames, where I stood for a long while gazing across it to the South Bank, which was bustling with lights and music and voices and bodies, all under the watchful London Eye, as the twilight disappeared into darkness.  Sometimes life is perfect.

I could’ve stayed forever.

 

Photos:

Above:

Top:  Swans grace the lake in front of Bletchley Park.

Middle:  Dr. Tim Moreton, by artist Lucy Warner Stopford; afternoon tea with my friend the artist, fittingly at the National Portrait Gallery; Lucy tidying up after making a start on a portrait of me!

Below:

Top row:  “Much Ado About Nothing”, playing at The Globe Theatre; Shakespeare would be shocked at the lack of bawdiness in the crowd.

Middle row:  Packed and ready to leave the flat; last look at my cozy London home; leaving Chelsea by boat.

Bottom row:  Herbert Mason’s iconic 1940 photograph of St. Paul’s Cathedral; the London Eye, Big Ben and Parliament, from the Jubilee (Embankment) Bridge; finally scoring my photo with the Allies, a year later.