Like most artists, I have a fascination with those who came before me—Agatha Christie who wrote her first novel (which was published) on a dare, Virginia Woolf whose mind weaved in and out between fiction and real life, and Jane Eyre who was the Nancy Meyers of her time—in petticoats.
I have a special fascination with the expats or “The Lost Generation” (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein) who flocked to Paris in the 1920s, and love to imagine them sitting around in cafés on La Seine discussing art and current events and which caffeinated beverages gave you the runs.
So when my dream finally came true and I purchased a plane ticket to Europe, I almost peed myself with excitement.
My trip started with the TSA confiscating my very dangerous weapon—a tube of fennel-flavored toothpaste—which I encouraged the security agent with the faded enamel to use as I flashed her my own pearly-whites.
I knew right then and there that nothing was going to discourage or prevent me from having a fantastic time.
I must have been rewarded by the airplane gods for good behavior, because I got an entire row for myself on the 10-hour flight across the Atlantic and all the wine I could drink. And why not? Not only was I on vacation, but I was taking the red-eye, for cripes’ sake.
My friend Sara met me at Heathrow airport, where I waited at baggage claim next to Tom Jones, and we (Sara and I, that is, not Tom and I) took the tube back to her place. She suggested I buy a week-long Oyster Card (i.e. bus pass) which turned out to be the greatest idea since the Facebook “dislike” button because London, unlike Los Angeles, thrives on public transportation.
Our first night there we took a double-decker bus into SoHo, a busy entertainment district in London’s West End, and walked around looking at shops for a bit. We were trying to find a pub for the perfect British culinary experience, but apparently the Brits are not big on spontaneity and without a reservation we could not get a table. At last we found a place that could seat us, a restaurant called The Matador, where I discovered that it was more convenient to communicate with the owner and waitress in Spanish.
I come all the way to London and I’m eating tapas and speaking Spanish my first night here. So much for having the ultimate British experience.
The next day we were off to a traditional Christmas Market at the Tate Modern, where we indulged in the Pimm’s equivalent of mulled wine which, I suspect, the curators were hoping would drive the newly inhibition-free crowd into the art gallery. Didn’t happen. Instead, most people rode the merry-go-round until they got sick and fell off. Okay, I exaggerate a little. Clearly, I was the only one drinking a little too much Winter Pimm’s, but only because it was being served by a cute British guy in a tux and I was really cold.
Later we passed by Southwark Cathedral, the oldest Gothic church building in London that saw the likes of Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Dickens. I’m telling you, the history of the city and specifically the architecture made me want to pen a lengthy poem in iambic pentameter with a feather quill.
A friend of Sara’s was having a birthday get-together at a pub that Sunday where several educated, diverse, and artistic men and women sat around the table nursing pints or wine and engaging in very interesting discussions. At one point I actually felt like this was a modern version of the Paris expats, as only one person at the table was actually British, unless you count me who kept accidentally speaking with an English accent.
One person was from India, one from Columbia, one from Thailand, one from Sweden, one from America, and one from Canada. We discussed living situations in the UK as compared to all these other countries, our respective families that we left behind to pursue new opportunities and, of course, dating in England versus elsewhere. And also fashion, as the Thai guy was dressed as un-British-like as you could get: everything he wore said 'look at me!' while the British guy's outfit was basically societal camouflage.
One of the things I was most looking forward to was getting a good cup of tea while I was here. Tea is so quintessentially British that the country downs 165 million cups per day or 60.2 billion cups per year (as compared to only 70 million cups of coffee each day). I mean, this nation is so tea-crazy that they actually named a meal after it! And yet I did not find one good cup of tea the whole time. Apparently no one has heard of cream, so you’re often given “semi-skimmed” milk (1.7%, which I suppose is metric for 2%) and a sad little packet of sugar to go along with your bland Lipton-type tea.
And whenever I requested honey for my tea, you’d think that I’d just asked the waiter to take his pants off.
I had hoped to take some kind of Agatha Christie walking tour—crime scenes or other geographic locations from her novels—but, much like her mysteries, I had a hard time figuring them out based on the confusing info I found. If only I’d had Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple to help me out!
No matter, however, as I did get to see The Queen of Crime’s The Mousetrap, the longest-running play in the world (25,000 performances over the last 64 years—and no, not by the same actors). Sara and I showed up at the box office to purchase tickets and were pleasantly surprised when the cashier gave us special discounted tickets (£26 each or about $38) in the front row. I never did quite understand what the special was. Probably bestowed upon us by the same travel gods who gave me an entire row of seats on the plane.
Watching the absolutely fantastic play made me fall in love with Agatha Christie all over again. She is a great storyteller. At one point I owned all 66 of her mystery novels and, due to a ridiculously spotty memory, have been able to read them over and over again without ever remembering who dunnit. Some of my early writing actually sounded just like her, British syntax, 1950s slang, cryptic characters and all.
By my fifth day there I was starting to really feel at home. England is, after all, in my genes. I have British and Scottish blood on both sides of my family.
Side note: the surname Templeton is Scottish and comes from the village of Templeton in Ayrshire. Some people think it has to do with the Knights Templar, but that's probably just a bedtime story. Its origin comes from the Olde English 'templ' which is a pre-Christian place of worship, and 'tun,' meaning village. So yes, you may worship me.
I wound up mimicking the British accent, rhythm, and sentence structure sometimes, not because I’m an ass, but because I couldn’t help absorbing everything. I mean, The Lord Stanley, a local pub that Sara and I visited frequently, had a bartender called Alfie for crying out loud. How could I not call him matey, tell him that I liked his jumper, and enthuse that everything was absolutely brilliant?!
That Tuesday I had almost a full day to myself, which I thought would be an excellent dress rehearsal to see if I could really live here. I hopped on the tube at Foyle’s Bookshop in SoHo and took it to Notting Hill (a 22-minute ride), where I was very surprised not to see Hugh Grant and his quaint little bookstore. In fact, I didn’t really find much of anything there except lovely residential buildings. My phone was operating strictly on Wi-Fi, which was dodgy, so I couldn’t check Google Maps. Later I discovered that I had been walking parallel to a busy street with plenty of cafés and restaurants. Whatever.
I kept walking and soon found myself at Hyde Park. One of the fellows from the “expats” group the other night had mentioned that I should check out the Winter Wonderland, “London’s Spectacular Christmas Destination,” complete with ice rink, Ferris wheel, magical ice kingdom, and circus shows. I walked along Bayswater Road, which borders the north side of Hyde Park, and not only did I not see any magical ice kingdoms, but every time I came to a park entrance, all I saw was pitch black nothingness. Have they not heard of street lamps? Winter Wonderland, my ass. Eventually a nice-looking couple boldly strolled into the inky, cavernous park and I followed them in, figuring that if we came across a mugger, he’d get them first and I could dash off undetected. Later I discovered that I had been walking parallel to and about half a mile from the wonderland. Whatever.
When I emerged from Hyde Park I found myself more or less at Buckingham Palace, so I took a few snaps (see what I mean about Brit-speak?).
I’m no royalphile, but standing outside the vast palace gave me a sense of wonder. Until one of the paparazzi at the gates horked onto the ground a little too close for comfort for me.
I continued on my trek, not knowing where I was or where I was going, but loving all the sights and sounds. When you’re on vacation, you’re not “lost”; you’re “having an adventure.” Until, of course, you have to piss like a racehorse and haven’t passed a public loo in over an hour. Also, what would normally be obnoxious teenage boys in the U.S. were delightful British lads here, so one bloke's request for his pal to “bugger off” made me smile like I’d just heard a poem.
When I meandered out of a quiet neighborhood back into the lights, noise, and energy of a business/tourist district, I soon realized that I was in Piccadilly Circus. Laugh if you want, but until recently, I thought this was an actual circus—you know, with bears on tricycles and sword swallowers and cotton candy. Apparently, “circus” in this context comes from the Latin “circle,” which refers to a round, open road junction.
Kind of like Times Square, but with less neon and public urination.
I also stopped by Big Ben, the Neo-Gothic clock tower at northern end of the Palace of Westminster. Big Ben is the nickname for the 2nd-largest four-faced chiming clock in the world (Minneapolis City Hall claims first place) on the tower which is called Elizabeth Tower.
By the way, during my whole stay in London, I came across many buskers and homeless people, most of whom were the recipients of large handfuls of change about which I was blissfully unaware.
As I told one homeless guy, “It’s to your advantage that I have no idea what all these coins are.”
Unlike American currency (but more similar to Canadian), British coins are not relegated to denominations under a pound; there are also one- and two-pound coins. So some of these guys were on the receiving end of £5-6 (roughly $7-9).
When at long last my legs felt like two sticks of wood that had just caught fire, I looked for a restaurant in which to have dinner—and realized that I was back in SoHo, which meant I had just walked about 10 miles. I wound up eating at an Italian place. So far the British to non-British cuisine was .5 to 100.
Sara and I took a guided walking tour of historical London (really, what part of London is not historical?) down by Thames River, which was fascinating, even though I don't remember a lot of facts and figures. One of the parts I do remember, though, is the historical Ensign Street where Reverend George Smith built a hostel-type of establishment in 1830 for all the sailors whose jobs on boats were always one-way journeys.
They would land in London and then have to fend for themselves until they found a new job on another boat bound for America or elsewhere. With a certain sense of naïveté to all things non-aquatic and a satchel of newly-earned coins, they were targets for thieves (some of whom were prostitutes). The hostel was meant as a safe place for them to stay.
That Wednesday evening, my last in London before the second leg of my journey, I accompanied her to a BBC screening of Dance Rebels: A Story of Modern Dance, a documentary about the free spirits whose “radical ideas created modern dance in the 20th century.” Not only was it interesting, but Sara (a dancer and choreographer) is interviewed in it!
On the tube ride back home, we found a couple of seats that folded up to accommodate wheelchairs. I pushed mine down, went to sit on it, and suddenly found myself on the floor with a throbbing tailbone. It took me a second to realize that I had indeed fallen to the floor. Later, Sara explained that those fold-up seats don’t stay put; you must hold them down in order to sit on them. But in that moment, the complete jolt of surprise combined with embarrassment made me burst into laughter.
As I got to my feet, I glanced around and discovered that not only was no one laughing at me, but no one was even acknowledging that anything had happened. The British are so horrified by any public display of emotion, that even coughing on the subway causes angst for them, never mind someone falling on their ass. Two young lads across from us were biting their lips and looking intently at the floor. When one of them peeked up at me, I said, “Go ahead and laugh. It was funny!” Not even that could encourage them to lose their mask of repressed indifference.
When we returned to her flat, her cat Mackey was happy to see me for reasons which I'll never understand. It should be noted that after waking me up by sitting on my chest and punching me in the eye (more than once), I can't say I went out of my way to be friendly to him. So this picture is really quite something.
I packed for my solo trip to Paris the next day. All of a sudden I was overwhelmed by what I can only describe as a fear of the unknown: I was going to a country I’d never been to before, whose language I barely spoke, and doing this all by myself!! This seemed a strange reaction for a woman who enjoys so much alone time that she’s been called anti-social (which I’m not, by the way; I’m merely selectively social).
I got into bed, my heart pounding and my mind racing, both excited and nervous….
Check out the second leg of my European journey: An American Writer in Paris.
Unless cited as "source" (and the video), all photos taken by Selena Templeton.