The Blog

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.

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.