Day 14 Final Thoughts on our London Adventure

Despite my best intentions of doing one more Cultural Thing That I Would Be Proud Of, my body screamed a resounding NO. I slept poorly last night: two separate bouts of insomnia, during which I finally got up to meditate. Even so, I had an idea that I would try to get down to St. Paul’s Cathedral to hear the boys singing at 3:15, but that did not happen either. I am exhausted. As Katryna says, I need a vacation from my vacation. So I went for a walk up to Waterlow Park, listening to White Teeth all the while. Lila and I practiced again for Falcon Ridge (singing “Love Love Love” winded me!) while Tom and Johnny did their best to introduce baseball to Great Britain. We roused ourselves to venture down a whopping two tube stops to Kentish Town (how can you not LOVE the names of these stops???) where we found a fantastic book store called Owl Bookshop. Tom got a novel by Finish writer Ulla Lena Lundberg called Ice, and I abstained, since I am reading both Homegoing and White Teeth (plus, um, War and Peace… to Rosie…) But even this meager outing reduced the 8-year-old to tears. Tom took the kids home, and I walked the short distance to Archway under rare, beautiful blue skies.

Speaking of White Teeth, Tom read my copy in record time, which is why he needed a new book. He is able to just sit on a couch during a vacation and read a juicy novel. How does he do this? I used to have this skill. I used to read and read and read. Couches were my friend. But these days, I feel so guilty if I sit and read, unless it’s right before bed. Or on a train or plane. I “read” via Audible while I am doing housework. But that is not the same. So when I returned to the flat, I picked up the copy of the book he’d finished, located my place, and sat with a glass of water and dove into the world of the Joneses and the Iqbals. Bliss! And then….I TOOK A BATH!!!! These are the kinds of things I only do when I am killing time. Which is what we did today. Only we didn’t kill time at all. That walk, that bath, that sitting-and-reading–this is what I wanted all along in a vacation. Maybe I had to go to England with shingles and exhaustion to get it.

I would recommend this trip to anyone. I do not regret having taken it, as I had expected I might, given how strong-willed my kids can be, how averse they are to being dragged around. At some point on this trip, Tom said to the kids, “I’m proud of you for sticking up to us. Especially to your mom. If you can withstand your mom, you can withstand anything!” Poor kids. I think this might be true. But anyway, as I think I mentioned in the first post of this series, two weeks is by far the longest vacation we’ve ever taken as a family, and Tom can’t remember ever taking a two-week vacation. My family used to vacation for two weeks in the summer, but I haven’t done this since, well, that last trip to the UK in 1985, which I wrote about here. We learned that this trip was about four days too long. If we had to plan it again, we’d return earlier and skip Paris. (But not Liverpool!) (Well, maybe…) But I am glad we didn’t know, because I wouldn’t really want to change a thing about this trip; not the shingles, not the complaints, not the missed opportunities. I learned so much. I spent so much quality time with my family. I got to see that we all still love each other in our complete worst-selved-crankitude. This is the golden era for our family. Mom pre-menopause, kids pre-pubescent. Kids still having little kid problems and not delinquency issues. And you know what? It’s a good thing to love one’s home so much one can’t wait to get back there.

Dinner was more Sitara take-away, plain pasta for Johnny (“YahooooOOOOOOO!” he rejoiced), plus Cadbury for all the chocolate-eaters. We’ve packed our suitcases, ordered our car service. More football on the telly, an early night.I have heard more languages spoken here than in any city I’ve ever visited. This is the most multicultural place I have ever been. It puts NYC to shame in that department. (At least our neighborhood). I see the homeless, the mentally ill, miserable poverty, just as I do in the cities in the States. I don’t think universal health care has solved all their problems, but it doesn’t seem to hurt, either. And I don’t see the insane wealth that’s rampant in the US. Maybe I’m not looking in the right places. London, I hope I return to you in better health. I hope YOU are as brave and resilient as you are today. I hope your skies are sunny just the right amount, and your people are as friendly to all as they have been to us. I hope I can see a play at the Globe, visit the mummies at the British Museum and tour the Tate in a more leisurely manner. I hope my kids remember you fondly, laugh at the fights we had, or remember only the cuddles on the couch and the Cadbury. Till then.

Day 13-Camden Market

I continue to struggle with sleep. This morning, I just got up when my body wanted to–a brutal 5am–and did some yoga, meditation, ate breakfast, read the juicy NYTimes on my phone and went back to bed. I slept till 9:30! The big plan today was for Lila and me to go to Camden Market while Tom and Johnny hung out and played baseball in the park. Lila and I also worked on her fiddle part for “Love Love Love,” as Falcon Ridge is only a week away. This song has by far the hardest fiddle part of any Nields songs. Our Suzuki teacher, when asked what “book” it was comparable too, said, “Book 11!” (There are only 10 books in Suzuki, Spinal Tap fans).

My goal today is simple but not easy: not to get impatient with either child, but go with the flow. That’s what will constitute a good day for me today.

We set out in the rain, hopped on the Northern Line and stopped very soon after, at the first stop–Tufnel Park. “What’s going on?” we asked our new ride-mate, a woman named Julie, who wants to be a doctor and whose boyfriend wants to move to the States. “This has never happened before!” she said after translating the train announcer’s Cockney–there was a train ahead of us off the tracks. Everyone de-trained and headed above ground. Lila and I walked for awhile in the general direction of Camden Town, and eventually hopped on a double decker.

Even in the rain, Camden Market was totally worth the adventure: very much my image of London street life, and the shopping was just great. We got Johnny a bunch of cheap white socks, some soccer jerseys, and a pair of flip flops. We failed on the jackets for Tom and me, but I got a pair of classic Dr. Martens, AND a pair of Fly boots!

Lila got a molten chocolate cake with ice cream and a raspberry from a sweet Italian place. We Uber’d home, and right around the corner from our flat happens to be the best Indian restaurant in Britain! Seriously, it’s ranked #22 out of over 17,000 English restaurants. The Sitara is also a jazz joint owned by Sam, a lovely septuagenarian gentleman from India, who made us pull up chairs and talk to him while his staff prepared our Chicken Jalfrezi and Lamb Biryani plus an aubergine dish that wasn’t on the menu. He was horrified by America’s lack of health care, but worried for the future of Britain’s. “The country is going broke,” he said sadly. We commiserated about Brexit and #45, mourned the loss of Obama, and wondered about the nationality of the current First Lady. (Slovenian–I just looked it up.)

As we walked around our neighborhood, I noticed that there is nearly as much dog poop on the sidewalks here as there was in Paris. But my kids don’t recoil from it here. The economic feel of this neighborhood is certainly the same as the one in Montmartre, too. It’s so interesting to me that my kids had such a strong reaction to Paris. I suspect it’s a combination of not knowing the language and feeling some primal fear around that, and also just exposure exhaustion. They have seen so much that is new these two weeks. No wonder they practically kissed the ground when we returned to London. It was, relatively, familiar. We all crave the familiar at some point.

We took the food home, along with sushi for Lila, and butter for Johnny’s pasta (we are adventurous, here) and ate together at our sweet flat. That Indian food is seriously the best I have ever ever had. So good that I might just get it again tomorrow, our last night. Now the boys are watching football on the telly and Lila is watching Modern Family on her iPhone. I am contemplating going to Westminster Abbey tomorrow morning for Choral Matins, which sounds like heaven to me. It will depend on the health of the Northern Line and on my own energy levels. I am learning to do the best I can, given the circumstances. And often, I am not in control of the circumstances.

It’s almost bed time. It was a good day. The best. No yelling at any kids; just sweetness, kisses, cuddles, laughter. In response to my cranky post about Paris with its defiant ending about how we were probably going to see Despicable Me 3 tonight, someone wrote on my Facebook page, “Why bother leaving the states if you are just going to do the same thing on the other side of the Atlantic that you do here?”

In fact, I have been trying to ignore my own inner voice screaming variations of that sentiment for the past two weeks. Today, I am just smiling at that perspective. My response? Because this is where we are, and we know what we like. Because we have already done many many things we couldn’t have done, seen, heard, smelt, felt, eaten or experienced in the States, and now we are saturated. Because we are all learning what “enough” is. Because sometimes loving your kids means pushing them hard, and sometimes it means letting them chill out and be kids. Because we are the luckiest people I know.

Days 10-12 En Paris

Tom and Lila waving from our flat

We meet at 3
I have coffee, you have tea cause you’re
Such an Anglophile
But I’d take Paris anytime…

-Some band from the 90s. Points if you know the name/song

We took a Eurostar from London to Paris, and we are now on our return trip. This train passes under the English Channel at a rate of 285 km/hour. It’s fast! Right now, the countryside is whizzing by–a sight for sore nature-starved eyes. We are all homesick and so ready to go home we called British Airways to see if we could move our return forward by a few days. But it would have cost us $1200 to do this, and we wouldn’t have been able to sit together. Oh, well; we’ll just have to endure 2 more days of Europe.

Boarding the Eurostar BEFORE THEY KNEW HOW BAD IT WAS!!!!

My kids’s assessment of Paris was stark:
– Everyone here is going to die of lung cancer and, oh well, then there’ll be no more Paris!
-This is the worst city in the world!
-There is nothing to do here. This is way worse than London!
-Why are they so mean here?
-Why don’t they like kids?
-Why is it that everyone speaks English to us when we speak French to them?

An assessment of the last Presidential election ici.

Ah, age-old question, that last. I tried to be diplomatic, and explained that in Europe, school kids learn more languages than we do, but they saw right through that.

Kids playing a game that has a potentially racist name, so we have changed it to “Slap 45”

But I am getting ahead of my story: we arrived Wednesday late afternoon. On the train ride, spirits were high, and I was ecstatic about returning to a city I love so much. “Thank you,” I kept murmuring to Tom, whose idea this was. We’d booked an AirBnB in Montmartre just north of Sacre Coeur Basilica. This neighborhood was a place I’d wanted to visit when we were last here in 2015, but unseasoned as we were then in the realm of subways, it had seemed too far away.

But when we emerged from the Metro at our stop (Porte du Clinquecourt), I was unprepared for my children’s experience of this neighborhood. “Mom! It stinks here! It smells like pee! There is literally pee on the streets! And dog poop! Wait, is that dog poop, or human poop?” Finding our flat––huge, airy labyrinthian, on the fourth floor with all the amenities–– did nothing to increase their confidence. It didn’t help that the elevator was only big enough for two of us without baggage, or that the bathroom was divided, with sinks, shower and bathtub on one end of the apartment and a little room with just the toilet all the way at the other. Or that we couldn’t figure out how to work the fancy Bosch electric stovetop. Or that the restaurant our host recommended served things like calves’ brains and sheep intestines and sausages that are supposed to smell just a tiny bit like poop. (Lots of poop in Paris.)

Poor, poor us…

So we chose an Algerian restaurant very near our flat, since we were hungry. In Paris, they don’t allow you to eat dinner until after 19:00 (7pm). Before that, they are napping. The woman was from Algieres, and was very nice, but we seemed to be the only patrons, which made us nervous. Johnny ordered chicken, and though he insisted he hated couscous, once it arrived all steaming and soft, he inhaled it. Lila’s lamb was melt-in-your mouth. Tom got a Mahkfoul which he loved, and I got a chicken tagine that was exquisite, especially when I tricked it up with some unidentified red pepper condiment. I also got some soupy carrots and a small delicious salad with olives. We thought things were looking up, and were excited for the next day. On the menu: Sainte Chappelle, Musee D’Orsay and the Eiffel Tower, bien sur.

But Isle de la Citié was no more impressive to the kids than Montmartre had been. They were not swayed by the architecture nor the river Seine, nor even the copious amounts of treats we ladled on them; even Johnny’s Nutella crepe or Lila’s tiny little apple pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream so rich you could see the specks of vanilla bean.

Pondering his next searing critique

They did gobble it all up, including a pizza-thing on French bread at a sketchy dive on the Rive Gauche across from Notre Dame, where we discovered that in Paris one has to pay about half a Euro to use the bathroom, even when one is a paying customer. Per person!

Speaking of Notre Dame, when I pointed it out to Johnny, I said, “Do you know that took 150 years to build?”

“Well, then they wasted their time!” snapped Johnny.

We made our way along the Seine until we got to Musee D’Orsay. I was keen to go, because the one place I had loved as a cantankerous 12-year-old had been the Jeu de Pomme, the precursor of D’Orsay, whose collection is housed in a fabulous old train station.

I wasn’t naive enough at this point to think my kids would actually like it, but I had taken heart from a friend’s email the day before. “I hated traveling so much as a kid,” she’d said. “And I remember one day being dragged all around Moscow, and my parents saying, ‘Just a little further! We’ve got to see something red!’ It turned out it was Red Square, which meant nothing to me at the time, but thereafter, every time someone mentioned Red Square, or we studied it in school, I felt such pride and gratitude for my parents.” So I saw visiting this museum as money in the bank.

This is the original. There is a reproduction of this at the V&A which I also got to see!

We kind of speed-dated this museum, as is our wont, but I felt so happy to be there and to feast my eyes on these paintings and sculptures. We left the kids on a bench on the second level with a deck of cards. But when I found the Van Gogh section, I went back to get them. Their fabulous art teacher Jen Lilly had infused them both with a respect if not love for M. Vincent, and sure enough, they jumped up in the hopes of seeing “Starry Night.” But the portrait of a starry night was not the one they knew and loved. They were OUTRAGED when I looked up its whereabouts and discovered it was in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Johnny especially. “What????” he cried. “But why?” As if all art in the world belonged in this dreadful Paris. Now there was NOTHING good about this place.

They refused to go any farther, so we abandoned our plans to visit La Tour Eiffel (which I was glad about), and instead played wall ball against a bank of the Seine. Then on a whim, I led them down some avenues until we found ourselves in the neighborhood where Tom and I stayed in 2015. It’s much more upscale than Montmartre, and the kids were suitably impressed, but they wanted to know why we hadn’t found an AirBnB here. We gave up on going out to another restaurant, and instead got delicious comestibles for our apartment from a kind of Whole-Foodsish store on steroids. (This was the night we tried to find an early return.)

Today we climbed up the stairs and hills to get to Sacre Coeur, the incredible view of the city, and most importantly a Starbucks. Again, the kids disparaged Paris, moaned about the hideousness of it all, and declared themselves homesick for London. I have to admit, I am too. I can’t wait to get back to our sweet little flat. I am quite fond of our neighborhood, and yearn to speak English.

 

View from Sacre Coeur.  Yeah, no big deal.

Last night, I had a dream that made all of these experiences gel. In it, I had the chance to adopt a year-old collie that I was somehow beholden to. But in order to adopt this dog, I had to give away our puppy Hudson. A woman who looked exactly like our dentist’s receptionist wanted Hudson, and so I gave him to her. I embraced my new collie, feeling like I’d done the right thing, somehow. But Collie promptly peed on our rug. Then, when I took her out to the back yard, she ran away. “Oh,” said a man in some kind of position of authority. “You’ll need to take this dog to a trainer. This breed needs a lot of education.” (!!!!!)

I felt incredibly sad that I’d given away Hudson. I could keep both, couldn’t I? No, apparently I couldn’t. I had to choose. But it was too late to choose. The dental receptionist did not want Collie. She had already bonded with Hudson. I rode a bus home, heartbroken.

So–you can analyze me yourself, but here’s my take. The collie represents my past, my family of origin, my heritage (my grandmother always had collies, and that was the first dog I ever knew). (Full-bred, well-educated, helpful, somewhat vain dogs???) Hudson represents my present and future, my now-family. And I am in danger of trading away the present for the past. Even more of a reason to listen to my kids when they ask, “Can we just do nothing all weekend? Just stay in our apartment in London and not have to go to any more sites or museums?”

Yes.

Day 9: Speed-Dating the Museums of London

Seriously, that’s what it’s like. We zip in and zip out before the kids can start complaining. No, let me amend that: they complain before, during and after. So far, members of our family have seen from the outside only:

-Various sites from aboard a City Cruiser
-10 Downing Street (everyone but Nerissa)
-British Museum
-St. Paul’s
-Globe Theatre (Nerissa only)
-Abbey Road

And from the inside:
-Westminster Abbey (Nerissa only)
-Trafalgar Square (everyone but Nerissa)
-British Library (10 min)
-Tower of London
-Tate Modern (45 minutes, maybe)
-Milleniel Bridge
-V&A (kids’ section only, expect Nerissa got to see the Rodin sculptures on the bottom floor)
-Science Museum (50 minutes)
-Beatles Story (Liverpool)
-Slavery Museum, Liverpool (Nerissa only)

I have to say, I have some compassion for my kids. This would have bored me silly when I was Johnny’s age (8). Even now, fully-grown, an information junkie of the highest sort, I find museums enervating and tedious.  (Though this may be a side effect of the shingles. Or my kids’ moods.) I want to stop at one exhibit and take it in, not zoom from object to object. And I want to spend maybe 20 minutes taking that one thing in and then go home. So I am secretly glad they hate museums.

Except I am very sad I came all the way to England and did not get to see a Shakespeare play! Here I am in front of the Globe. I just had to set eyes on it! Which is all I did.

Today was Tate Modern. The building itself is spectacular, and there is a Giacometti exhibit happening now. When we were kids, as I have said previously, my grandmother (Midge Tenney, mother’s mum) did pretty much nothing with us other than drag us to various museums, especially art museums which I detested (until age 14 when I decided I myself was an artist of sorts. Though I always loved the Impressionists, which I will discuss in tomorrow’s post). Katryna, on the other hand, a professional Pleaser and generally delightful person, seemed to love the art museums, and her favorite artist was the sculptor Giacometti, whose elongated skrinchy torsos appeared all over the Hirshhorn Museum’s sculpture garden in Washington DC. It was made much of, Katryna’s love for this artist, as if the grown-ups could somehow infect me with her enthusiasm if they talked about it loudly enough in my presence.

So infected was I that I had to bite my tongue to inform my kids that they would also love Giacometti because all children (except me) do so. Whaaaat? Fortunately, I kept my mouth shut, and they passed by the creepy sculptures in blissful ignorance, choosing instead to terrify me at the 18th storey of the building, where there is a balcony that encircles the entire floor. The views of London are stunning, but I discovered I have a gigantic fear of heights. Not so much fear for myself, but fear for my kids, who insisted on climbing up the rails and leaning over. OK, not really–I was just sure they would if I didn’t howl loudly enough.

The day was beautiful, and we came home on the early side so we could be well-rested for our trip to Paris tomorrow. There are sites planned for Paris: the kids want to go to the Eiffel Tower, and I want to go to la Musée D’Orsay, which was closed on the only day we could go in 2015. But other than that, I am done with sight-seeing. I just want to walk around these two European cities, do some shopping (I still want to find my fab jacket), pretend I am not anywhere epic at all, but merely on a regular vacation, with no stress, and no need to check items of a list, and just veg out. Maybe we’ll go see Despicable Me 3.

Day 8-Liverpool!!!!!

It’s not the leaving of Liverpool that grieves me
But the fact that we never went there in the first place!

So sayeth them bards of yore, Nerissa & Katryna Nields, yea rudely to their father who, as was mentioned previously, along with their mother, insisted on driving THREE HOURS OUT OF THE WAY merely to avoid a visit to Liverpool in the summer of 1985 when last our heroine came to the British Isles.

So it was not without some huge doses of irony that these words came out of my children’s mouths today as we approached Liverpool.

“How long do we have to stay here?”

“If we ever come back to England, can we NOT go to Liverpool?”

“How long do we have to stay here, again?”

And, most brutally, “Why are we even here?”

Tom: Because this really means a lot to Mom. Basically, today is pretty much about Mom.

Child: Pretty much this whole TRIP has been about Mom. What do you call yesterday? Abbey ROAD?

I should also say, first off, that we almost didn’t make it onto the train from Euston Station. Remember how I was marveling a few days ago about how great it was to travel ticketless? How I’d gotten an email confirmation and could use just that to board? Apparently, we could not. Picture all 3 of my family members yelling at me as we stood in line for boarding. All I had, at 5 minutes to the time the train left Euston Station from London to Liverpool, was a cold iPhone that wouldn’t budge from a message from Trainline that said, in pale grey letters, “This message not downloaded from the server”. In a panic, Tom said, “Let’s just buy the tickets again!” So we raced up to the kiosk back in the station where I tried to input my confirmation code. When that failed, he said, “Let’s just forget about this till tomorrow. We blew it.”

“Noooooooooo!” I shrieked, and I ran as fast as I could back to the platform. The good crew of the train stood baffled as I blubbered on about my cold iPhone and the cruelties of the internet, and they finally just waved us onboard. “Wow, does Mom have some specially convincing powers?” marveled the son. “No, just desperate,” I said. And “Acting!”

It wasn’t acting, though. I was really crying. And as I got on the train, I took a moment to think about all this. Why the blasted kerfuffle on my part? Do I really care about going to Liverpool? I almost don’t. It’s a bucket list thing, isn’t it? And what, after all, is a bucket list? Things we want to do before we kick it. But why? Is it just to redeem the feelings of that cranky 18-year-old who missed her boyfriend and hated being bossed around by her parents (just as my kids now hate being bossed around by me?) What will change if I go to Liverpool? Haven’t I gotten enough Beatles in my life? What do I even love about them? Their music. But I have all their music. It lives in me, and it always will, and the way to be in closer relationship to the music is to play it; not to go to Liverpool for Godssake. I am not going to discover their music in Liverpool. That’s already happened.  What can the Beatles Museum, or even the River Mersey show me that I don’t already know? Why am I spending £350, five hours on the train and an entire precious day of our London trip to be in this Northern boring industrial city for five hours of sightseeing?

We did not see much of the English countryside from the train. But when we arrived in the Lime Street Station (“she’ll never walk down Lime Street any more”), I felt a jolt. We had done it! I was here and it could not be undone! We asked for help from the friendly ladies at the train station, and they kindly directed us. We walked down to the river and found the Beatles Story, the museum that houses all sorts of artifacts Beatles. And for the next two hours or so, my family wandered around from room to room learning about my favorite band. And the kids each got their own little device to listen and watch the tour. Give a kid a device, and all is well.

George Harrison’s first guitar!!!!! OMG!!!!!
Reproduction of the Cavern Club

I did not learn very much I hadn’t known before. I did not have any epiphanies. But I did have a bit of a sense of being in a very crowded place of worship, sort of like being at Westminster Abbey: all these people knew the lyrics of “It’s All Too Much” as well as I did. All these people knew the exact date John and Paul first met (July 6 1957–word to my sister Abigail!) What I DID learn today is that the gig for which the Quarrymen were booked was in celebration of the 750th anniversary of the date King John gave the charter inviting people to start settling in Liverpool. WHOA!!!!!! And sitting to watch the films and images from the Beatles’s solo years moved me deeply–the George/Monty Python skit made me laugh, and the Lennon footage made me cry.

A pair of John’s glasses

We left the museum and let the kids play wall ball against the Albert Docks,

chatted with some friendly Liverpudlians, and worked our way around to the Slavery Museum. Once again, we managed to show up 15 minutes before closing, so I only got in for a bit. But I was shocked and impressed by what I saw. Much of Liverpool’s wealth in the 18th century came from the slave trade, and in fact, Liverpool was “Confederate” during the Civil War in the States–this according to an Englishman who worked at the museum. There was quite a bit of discussion about what it was like to be of African descent in England, and it peaked my curiosity more than anything in the Beatles museum had done. I want to know more about the Black experience in England. I also wonder what, if any, was the connection between what the Mersey Beat described as “The New Orleans of England” and its historical connection to the American South. Did John and Paul love the African American rock pioneers in part because of an historical connection in Liverpool?

We’re on the train now, heading home to our flat in London. I have a bag full of Beatles memorabilia and two kids who are playing cards with a deck that has the street sign for Abbey Road printed on its back. There is some triumph in checking off a bucket list item, if only to fortify the illusion that we have some control over our lives. That’s not nothing. Would I have preferred this trip as an 18-year-old? Possibly, though I suspect what would have meant most to me would have been knowing my parents had noticed my passion and made a sacrifice in that direction. But that was not the way in which they sacrificed–they sacrificed plenty. Have we done similar for our kids? Not sure. We failed to take them to the Harry Potter tour (it was all sold out by the time we got our act together). We certainly dragged them to more museums than they wanted, though far fewer than we would have liked. But we did make sure to travel with their friends, and we loaded them up with sugar pretty much whenever they begged. (Not that that is any kind of sacrifice; merely laziness on our part.) But time can only tell what they will make of this trip; of what they will remember and what they won’t. I am hoping they feel their real inheritance: our presence. In the end, that’s the biggest gift.