Day 7-Abbey Road

The rest of the trip could have sucked, and because of this, I still would have been glad for every penny and pound we spent. We did NOT stop traffic, but we did wait for openings. Jan Sabach is a great photographer, as you can tell.

We made sure we had all the photos we wanted, and then I worshipped a bit at Abbey Road studios.

And then to a local Beatles gift shop where the owner was playing Revolver. I asked if he ever met Paul, and he said, “No, but he lives in the neighborhood.” And he gave me his address! It was a few blocks away. No, I did not go there.

Tom flirting with the performance artists at the V&A

After that, everything was pretty boring. At least to me. We took the tube to the V&A which none of the kids was into.

I managed to see some Rodin sculptures (my favorite), some stone Buddhas, and a clockmaker exhibit at the Science Museum. But basically I was ready for cafe-hopping earlier than usual. We ended up riding public transit around town, landing eventually on the top and front of a double decker driving through Islington.

We had a farewell dinner with the Sabachs at a lovely place recommended to us by our friend Molly Burnham, and said goodbye to our friends. A wonderful week. Hard to believe we still have one more to go!

Day 5 I’ve Got to Admit It’s Getting Better

Yes! Things are looking up. It helps immensely to have our friends from Northampton with us. They are cheery, intrepid travelers, eager and enthusiastic. These are qualities lacking in some of us these days, speaking mostly for myself. The drug I’m on for shingles makes me dizzy in the am and very lethargic. Caffeine helps! And there are Starbucks on every corner, natch. The shingles seems better today. There are still new pox forming, but the old ones are getting purple and scabbing over. Luvly.

Lots of people recommended I read White Teeth, the Zadie Smith break-through novel from 2000. It’s a fantastic way to experience London, a hilarious cultural romp so far. I am reading and also listening on Audible. The narrator (Jenny Sterlin) is incredible, doing all the accents very well. In the mornings, I go for a run up a steep steep hill to a park, wind around and enjoy the view of the Shard. There should be a picture of that here, but there is not, alas. Instead, a pic of the park itself, where my family goes to play football. See how I said “football” instead of the “s” word?

We tromped along Oxford Street and felt like we were in New York, somewhere near Times Square, perhaps. The kids loved it. Grown-ups yearned for Swinging London’s Carnaby Street and instead got served up corporate America, which is Corporate Everywhere now, I guess. One thing I keep thinking is that the English took over the world in the name of commerce, and to some extent succeeded. The British Empire was about creating wealth for the wealthy and comfort for the British. I don’t know quite what other values were valued. Decency? “Christianity?” But what did they mean by that?


Our intention was to go to the British Museum at some point, but instead we ended up hanging out outside of it, looking dolefully at the huge crowds and retiring instead to a luscious bookstore called The London Review and having tea. (Mostly what we do here is stop for sugar and caffeine). My kids invented a younger sister for the trip. Her name is Rose (I get to call her Rosie, cuz I’m her mama). She had brown wavy hair, green eyes and is left handed. She is six, and her favorite book is War and Peace. We made sure to keep our “eye” on her as we made our way through the crowds. I was reminded, by Rosie, to buy a copy of the translation of War and Peace that came out in 2008, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonksky. I had read this behemoth in 2005, and I am ashamed to say I now barely remember it. So I am going to try to read a page a day. To Rosie.

I booked train tickets to Liverpool for Monday. Yes, of course I did. You didn’t really think I wouldn’t, did you? After all those years of torturing my parents? The joke is going to be that the kids will hate it! The Magical History Tour was all booked up, but no matter–it would have been too much to spend all day on the train and then get on a bus. We’re going to the Beatles Museum. I love how you don’t even need a printer in this day and age. Just show them your iPhone! Tomorrow we’re going to Abbey Road to get our photo taken on the crosswalk.


Day 6-It Rains on Portobello Road

It rained Saturday, so no Abbey Road. Instead, we trudged along Portobello Road, buying umbrellas and crepes. I searched in vain for a fab jacket, but nothing. It’s cold here! They say London is just like that–completely unpredictable weather-wise. Highs were around 60, but I’m not sure it ever got there.

We took an overground train to escape from the rain, and while the kids played a raucous game of something called “Concentration,” which involves chanting and hand clapping a la “Miss Mary Mac Mac Mac,” a Scary guy in this mid- to late-20s sat across from me wearing a Hillary for Prison yellow tee shirt. He looked at me in this totally menacing way sort of like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Or Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs. Did he see that I was a middle-aged American woman with weird glasses and Bludstones, and therefore must have voted for her? I was sure he was going to pull a gun out of his bag, but instead he pulled out a paperback by Joseph Stiglitz, (a huge apologist for Brexit) but better than a weapon. I wanted to dance for joy when we all escaped the car. Euston Station never looked so good.

We made it to the British Library (after our four or five trips to various Sugar & Caffeine establishments) with a whopping 10 minutes before closing. We raced over to the Treasures of the British Library where I managed to set eyes on 1. an original copy of a part of the Magna Charta, 2. The Gutenberg Bible 3. one of two copies of the Codex–the ancient scrolls of the New Testament in Greek, this of Matthew. and 4. (BE STILL MY HEART!!!) original handwritten documents of lyrics by George Harrison, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. This last made me swoon, though I was quite impressed with the other Treasures, too.

We were so close to Kings’ Cross Station that we had to go find Platform 9 3/4s. Unfortunately, there was a huge queue for the same, and our kids were all suitably disgusted at the photo opp that they refused to pose. (Jan snapped some photos and assured us we could photoshop our kids into his template, so I did not care, either.)

I retired early to nurse my shingles, and the rest of them marched onward to 10 Downing Street and Trafalgar Square. I was going to go to bed, but they called and made me meet them at a wonderful Turkish restaurant across the street from our flat.

Day Four

This trip is my 50th birthday present to myself. And I feel so ashamed about that right now. I have a long list of places I wanted to see–Tate Modern, V&A, British Library, Abbey Road–– and no one (not even me) feels like going. The shingles is wretched today. My entire left thigh feels like it’s hiked for years–tight, achy, disgustingly ugly and covered in huge red welts. Also, it feels like tiny needles poke at it when I least expect it. The meds make me dizzy and nauseated. But we have joined up with our friends from Northampton, and the kids are in heaven until we tell them we are going to the Tower of London. “Noooooooo!” cries the 8-year-old.

I am immediately brought back to my own childhood dread of being dragged around to museums. My grandmother was a great lover of art, and from my earliest memories brought us to art galleries and museums. My mother is an historian, so her bag was history museums and sites. That’s just what we did on Saturdays: trudged around seeing impressive things that made me cranky. So I had tons of compassion for my son. In fact, his proximity made the tower boring to me, and it was my idea to go! Amazing how one person’s attitude can affect me. Two years ago when Tom and I went to Paris with my parents, I couldn’t get enough of the architecture, the statues, the history. I was with people who were as energetic and curious as I was. But now, all I could think was, “So what? I read about the princes in the tower when I was twelve. I know the story. Big deal.”

Part of the plan for this trip was to finally go to Liverpool. But no one wants to go now, not even me. Maybe my parents were right: it’s just a dirty industrial city.

The girls are into the Tower and race around sharing a sweatshirt;  they hope to be mistaken for Siamese Twins. I am intrigued by the evolution of the architecture, the incredible ages of the buildings, including part of a Roman wall from the second century. And I have to admit, when I see the staircase where the two little princes’ bodies were discovered in the 1600s, I have shivers. It’s an amazing, tragic story.

I do not care about the crown jewels. What strikes me, in my crankitude, is how strange these royal rituals are, how uptight and tied to the past in ways that seem rigid and meaningless now. Well, to me–an American. But these are my people, my ancestors. I feel a connection, but a very odd one. The are my ancestors, but not my tribe. I miss music. Maybe I can get the kids to busk with me tomorrow.

Days Two-Three

Day two was a kind of half a day. We arrived at some crazy early hour, sleep-walked through a customs line that snaked fifteen times across Heathrow. When we stumbled into our flat, we all went to sleep, ignoring all advice to the contrary (stay awake till 7pm the next day…) But here we are in sunny/cloudy London making our first outing on the Underground, which is truly brilliant, as many have said before. We make friends with a woman and her huge Labradoodle, Daisy. She is the first anti-Trump person we have met. In our neighborhood, they kind of like the guy. They also voted for Brexit. Our new friend on the Tube feels otherwise, and it’s like being back in Northampton USA.

I last came to London in 1985, with my parents and sisters. I was in a liminal space between high school graduation and the beginning of my years at Yale. I was terrified, cranky, missing my boyfriend (who was also going to Yale), did I say terrified? and feeling dragged around by my parents. The famous story Katryna told for years from the stage was that we’d spent a week in Ireland driving around in the rain, climbing mountains in the rain, being cranky and bored. We took the ferry over to Wales from Dublin, and we knew the next stop on our itinerary was Scotlatnd. But on the ferryboat, we saw the travel map on the wall, and noticed that the road to Edinburgh passed right through…Liverpool! AHA!!! That was the gold at the rainbow’s end! Secretly, our parents were going to take us to the glorious home of our favorite, most sacred band. This was a surprise they had been planning! We rushed up to them and said, “Thank you, thank you! We see we’re driving right through Liverpool to get to Edinburgh! We have to stop and do the Magical History Tour and see the Cavern Club and Strawberry Fields and walk along the Mersey! This is the BEST VACATION EVER!!!!”

But our parents shook their heads and said, “No, no, no. Liverpool is just a boring industrial dirty city. We’re going to drive around it.”

Three hours out of the way to drive around it!

It took us years to forgive them. But at the end of that trip, we were in London for a couple of days, and there we passed through a tube station and stopped to listen to some street musicians. Two women: a duo. One played guitar, the other the cello. They were doing a version of “Come Together,” with the cellist playing Paul’s phat bass line. I wanted to cry with happiness, with connection, with the feeling of having found my tribe again. I wanted to do what that duo did.

Speaking of cranky bored kids, we quickly see that the massive historical significance of buildings that are a good 1500 years older than anything in the States is somewhat lost on an 8-year-old who just wants to play baseball. So we make some compromises. We take a tour boat along the Thames with a group who don’t speak any English at all, so that when the guide tells them to sit down already, they completely ignore him. The kids like this part because we give them our iPhones and let them take pictures of everything the tour guide describes. Their fave is seeing the City of London school because Daniel Radcliffe matriculated there. They also liked learning that there is actually only one Union Jack in London–on the front of a Navy ship that saw action in the Second WW. (You can only add “Jack” to the name if the flag has been in combat. Who knew?)

No one but me wants to go to Westminster Abbey, so I visit the tomb of Elizabeth by myself. Of course I worship at Poet’s Corner as well, standing on Handel’s marker, tracing with my index Mary Ann Evans’ name (better known as George Eliot) and gaping at Chaucer’s (hidden) tomb.

I have wanted to go to London since my senior year in college. That was the year I knew I wanted to be a folk singer, and I had no idea whatsoever how to go about doing that. I just knew London was calling, and I could picture myself standing on a street corner with my guitar, singing my original songs, waiting to be discovered the way Tracy Chapman had been. Instead, I got married to a guy who believed in me and my music and I dragged my sister along. That worked out pretty well. But all these years I have wanted to come back, to see if I could find myself again in some corner of London, the way I had when I heard that duo. So far, on this trip, she is nowhere to be found. I just feel like a frustrated mom with shingles.

When I look back on this, I will remember the tombs, the ancient walls, the connection to the writers. I won’t remember the shingles. Right?