We took a double-decker red bus into London—a thrilling ride for all those who love close calls. That’s just the way coach drivers are though, apparently.
We didn’t stay at the Sandringham Hotel as we had thought. We were moved to Niki House, a much smaller establishment, with lots of narrow, twisting, steep stairs, threadbare carpets, and window panes that didn’t fit the size of the windows. The view from the room I shared was of old, dark brick rooftops full of blackened chimneys, with a modern skyscraper or two in the distance. It looked to me very Dickensian—I said I thought the place had all sorts of Romantic Character sticking out from every corner, and it was the kind of place we could pretend to suffer in, so as to enable us all the write Great Poetry.
Sari did say that the house was a monument to Mutability, but beyond that, nobody else was inclined to agree with me. They all gave each other disgusted and varying degrees of horrified looks as Polly, the hotel employee, showed us around. Everybody was cranky and tired.
I didn’t care. I loved it. I didn’t care that it wasn’t first class: did we really expect first class? We could appreciate English life and culture just as well in third—er, fifth—class (!) What did we expect for poor students? It was clean, if shabby, and the beds comfortable.
|Approximate location of Niki House|
|On the Niki House Stairs|
We ventured out soon after arriving, to the post office; that is, Sari, Sven, Sean, and I did. We met Gina, Nora, Roseanne, and Nancy out buying post cards. Polly had told us to be sure to get receipts for everything as the shoplifting is terrible and if you’re accused they’ll take you right away if you can’t produce a receipt for everything you’ve bought. Not everybody heard the warning—we had to extricate Nora from a shopkeeper accusing her of stealing the post cards she had just paid him for. We whispered Polly’s warning to the rest of the gang and then went in search of lunch.
We found an Italian deli whose proprietor yelled at Gina, the unlucky first of us to order, for not speaking up and being a dumb American who couldn’t even understand English much less speak it. The rest of us laughed, hard hearted and secretly relieved it wasn’t us. We all followed Sven’s example in shouting our orders. The man approved: “Yes, that’s the way. Tell me clear and no mumbling.”
We sat eating our sandwiches, drinking our fruit juice (even though the can lids were dirty) and wondering how we would ever blend in. Today we seemed to stick out as “dumb Americans” everywhere we went. We even got yelled at in the post office for not knowing they don’t take traveler’s checks nor exchange them, and then at the Bureau de Change for not signing the checks in the right spot the first time.
It was hot and crowded in the streets. Sari and I were so tired that we left the rest to shop (which is when Roseanne Marks spent all her money buying sweaters for all her family, only to discover that London is the most expensive place anywhere in Britain to buy such things). We went back to Niki House to sleep for an hour before going to Regent’s Park to see a Shakespeare play in the open air theatre.
|Regent's Park on that long-ago day|
The people in the park were not running around doing anything, as you see Americans doing in our own parks, such as Frisbee or a ball game or something. They just sat in the park, enjoying the sunshine, the afternoon, and the park.
The play was very well done. They used the gimmicks of costuming everybody in 1940s Italian-American mafia-style costumes, with all the principals being varying ranks in the United States Army, all with New Jersey accents, all chewing gum. We thought they were a scream.
After the play we walked back to the tube station and back to Niki House. Sari and I walked around a bit, seeing a bride and groom coming out of a church to step into a Rolls Royce limousine. Other members of the party drove off in equally fancy cars. We noticed lots of Rolls Royces on our walk.
And we had to carefully practice looking right first before crossing a street.
Bread, cheese, peaches, oranges, with fruit juices did us for supper. Then I went to bed, incredibly tired, while most of the others went to a concert with the orchestra of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, led by the inimitable Neville Marriner. One of those things you wonder later how you could ever have been justifiably tired enough to pass up; you decide you must have been stupidly tired.
Church was straight through Hyde Park on Exhibition Road.
|Walking through Hyde Park|
We passed the Albert Memorial and the Royal Albert Hall to get to it. The Sunday School teacher was an American who ran a lot of information together like Proverbs in Person.
Afterward we walked over to Kensington Gardens, and then toured the art museum.
|Kensington Art Museum|
Claudia was sitting on the lawn in the park. It looked inviting out there, so I joined her. Sari came out with our lunch: bread, cheese, a peach and an orange. When the rest of the gang saw us, they joined us. We all remind me of sheep—grateful if someone will only lead.
At the Victoria and Albert Museum in the afternoon: musings on whether Beowulf was authored by a Christian or not; how long it takes to make tapestries and embroidered altar coverings; the intricacies of carvings in wood, ivory, and stone; how figures in history live in frozen motion on cups, bowls, vases, or freestanding pieces besides on Grecian urns; how advanced and opulent are the silver pieces—we do not make things so ornamented in our age.
The guard asked if I were enjoying my holiday and whether I studied silver. “Just today,” I replied. There was not enough time to see it all.
|The Albert Memorial|
After the service we noticed our friends had returned and were sitting in a side aisle near the front. We joined them in the back of the vestibule. We met the assistant rector and stood talking to him about how much we had enjoyed it all. People were crowding along the street outside and the assistant rector told us that Prince Charles was coming along this street, and that we should go down to see him. But he invited us first to join him and others for coffee in the vestry. But Prince Charles! We declined, politely as we could, but I am afraid we were rude anyway. But Prince Charles! We dashed down to the street.
We crowded along the curb, those with cameras all ready. I didn’t have mine, worse luck. When he drove by, right past me and Claudia, we could have touched the car, he was so close. Or him if the window had been rolled down. Claudia was so in shock that she never pushed down the shutter on her camera. She was as flustered as could be.
Sari and I wanted to eat in a pub, but Sven led everybody else in deciding on the American McDonald’s. Sari and I rolled our eyes but took comfort in the slight cultural experience of “French fries” being called “chips.”
We walked down to Buckingham Palace to stick our heads through the bars and plot how we might get in and tell bedtime tales to the Queen. It didn’t look terribly feasible, and we wondered how that intruder had managed it in the recent spring. We weren’t serious of course and walked around the Palace, through the Horse Guards’ stables, past Number 10 Downing Street, up along the Thames, over Westminster Bridge as Big Ben chimed 10 pm.
The lights on the river were romantic in the soft, warm summer night. But sentiment was not to my taste just then; my feet hurt because I’d pulled a tendon early today and was quite tired of limping. I wanted more sleep. I had thought I’d be used to the time difference more quickly than this.
Everybody but me wanted to stroll further down the Embankment. I admit it. I’m a wimp and a party pooper. Sari was feeling obligated to go with me back to Niki House, and I was pretty sure she wasn’t willing. Happily, Claudia decided she too was more tired than a walk on the Embankment deserved, and the two of us headed back to Niki House.
We had Niki House all to ourselves. The Whites and the professors and spouses were at a Berlioz concert. I didn’t hear anybody come in.
Link to the next installment:
Part II: Education Underway