Home, as dear Mr. Stevenson wrote, is the sailor. Home, in fact, from the sea. Here is a picture of said sea from my balcony on the Queen Mary 2, for which I will now forever pine the same way a dispossessed Estonian countess laments her lost ancestral dacha on the Baltic.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Before the voyage back there was the trip over, and three unforgettable days in London. Rather than try to craft a polished and interminable narrative, however, I'm simply going to throw a bunch of raw extracts from my travel notes onto the page and hope they will form, in your eyes, at least a moderately interesting pattern.
Here we go, and hang on because my verb tenses are all over the place.
Query. Why is it that although one may begin preparing one's friends and business contacts months in advance for one's absence, begging them to please be in touch to tie up this loose end or that before one leaves home, they all wait to call until one is going through airport security?
The agony of attempting to sleep while sitting up for seven hours in a roaring airplane, then braving surly British customs agents who make anti-American remarks before stamping one's passport, then struggling to get four big suitcases and a mammoth camera gear bag onto the Heathrow Express and then into a cab at Paddington Station is absolutely worth it, when at the end you throw open the curtains of your hotel room in Trafalgar Square and find that this is your view for the next three days.
(Query re: Trafalgar Square. Where the hell did all the pigeons go?)
File under: Good Ideas. On your first morning in London if the weather is fine, do walk down Pall Mall to Buckingham Palace and then walk back through St. James's Park. Your pictures, like mine, may be only tourist-grade snapshots, but your memories will be gilt-edged.
This little cottage-looking-thing is in St. James's Park. Would be perfect for me, as has wing at back with pond views ideal for drawing-table and desk. Must remember to make inquiries about summer rental upon return to Chicago.
Wednesday night, a friendly and familiar face in the hotel bar: Jane, who I last saw in my living room in Chicago when she came to be photographed for 1,000 Knitters during a trip to the United States. Even though we are both beginning to droop, we perk up at the sight of her. She kindly offers to shepherd us to and from the book signing tomorrow night, and we are grateful.
And then to bed, which feels awfully good after almost 24 hours awake. We sleep for something like 12 hours.
File under: Good Ideas. Get up very early and get to the Tower of London smack on the dot of opening and go straight to the Jewel House and you can have the crown jewels all to yourself for twenty minutes before Japanese bus tours show up and all hell breaks loose. This will give you time not only to ponder quietly the Big Stuff, like the Koh-i-Noor, but also the small stuff, like Queen Victoria's coronation ring–which was accidentally jammed onto the wrong finger during her coronation. She, being made of Stern Stuff, simply bore the pain until after all was over.
Tower ravens: love them. The sort of bird I would be if I had to be a bird–scary and severe. Also love admirably prim and concise wording on almost all British public signage.
Most photographs from this trip disappointing, nice for souvenir purposes but artistically bankrupt. Quite taken, however, with this accidental shot from the Piccadilly Line of the Underground. Clicked the shutter button when I thought I had the camera turned off.
On second day, realized long-time fantasy of afternoon tea at London Ritz, chosen by the delightful Kerrie Allman of Yarn Forward magazine as location for interview. Remembered reading, at age nine or so, of Madame Ritz insisting to her husband that the Palm Court must be perfectly lit, so the lunching ladies feel would feel pretty. Cesar Ritz therefore ordered delicated, pink-shaded lamps. I was thrilled to find the pink-shaded lamps still in place.
The Yarn Forward ladies surprised and delighted us with a birthday cake (chocolate mousse, thank you very much) for Tom. It was phenomenally good and had a cookie as the bottom crust.
After interview, took photographs on main staircase while various Ritz employees sneered openly at our gaucherie. Realize with great relief that finally, at age 37, no longer give a flying fig whether people who work at fancy hotels approve of me.
Signing at I Knit. Jane arrives at the hotel as promised and announces we will travel by bus. I have no problems with the Underground but haven't braved a bus yet and am very excited to try it. The ride through night-time London from Trafalgar to Waterloo is dizzying and thrilling. Less thrilling is watching Tom be nearly thrown down the stairs from the upper level when we are descending and the driver screeches to a halt. Happily, no harm done, and Jane assures us that we have now had a very authentic London transport experience.
At the shop, first an interview downstairs with Elizabeth, extremely sweet writer from Simply Knitting. Then, upstairs to find shop is packed with knitters. Absolutely not an extra square inch of room. People are backed up against the doors and perched on tables. Am, frankly, overwhelmed and only just able to stop self from fainting and/or weeping. Naturally, forget to take pictures–but Tom remembers, bless him.
Such a crowd. Came from all over England–and at least one came all the way from France. Full of good wishes, kind words, and caring inquiries about our stay. Listened and laughed while I read from two essays from the book, and then queued up for signed copies–which sold out.
At last met in person so many knitters I've admired from afar, including long-time correspondent Judith, and Yvonne Davies of And All That Stash. (Ages ago, wrote fan letter to Yvonne after hearing her on Marie Irshad's late, lamented Knit Cast. In person she is even more fun, if you can believe it.)
Note the glass of wine. I Knit has a fully-licensed pub in it.
Presented owners Craig and Gerard, on whom I developed an instant double crush, with drawing of Dolores dressed as Britannia. Wish I'd had more time to talk to them - perhaps during the next visit? Thanks, guys, for giving me such a splendid welcome–and my door is always open if you come to Chicago. (You just might want to wait until spring.)
Afterwards, Jane led us back across Waterloo Bridge–on foot, this time–to Covent Garden and we had a celebratory dinner at Joe Allen. Then a quick photograph, and so to bed, not quite believing all that had happened in the space of a day.
Last full day, beautiful sunny walk from Trafalgar Square to Kensington Palace via Green Park, Hyde Park, and Kensington Gardens. Horse Guards were out exercising in the ring.
In the afternoon another walk, this time down Whitehall. Gorgeous piles of architecture everywhere, to which this souvenir stand was (I thought) a fun contrast.
Paused at Cenotaph, which was covered in poppies and crosses.
Am always taken aback by British respect for the wreaths and tributes on public memorials, which can be laid in place without fear. In Chicago, even flowers tied with wire to private graves aren't safe from thieves and vandals.
Then to Parliament, for a very special visit. Liz of Knitting on the Green has offered to conduct us through the Palace of Westminster. On previous visit to London, only saw the clock tower from a distance. This time, am able to spend a while poring over the peerless neo-Gothic details. Am unfortunately too dazzled to get any really good shots, but do enjoy myself nonetheless.
Inside, pictures mostly forbidden but am allowed to catch the magnificent hammerbeams in Westminster Hall, the only surviving part of the mediaeval palace.
And Tom got a good shot of Liz and I on the stairs up to St Stephen's Hall.
Inside, rendered speechless. I am, please understand, such a passionate disciple of the Victorian Gothic Revival that I named one of my teddy bears Augustus Pugin. And these buildings are the epicenter, the ground zero, the ne plus ultra of Gothic Revival architecture, furniture, art and decoration.
And that's not even considering the history–both actual and fictional. After years of reading Trollope's parliamentary novels about the Pallisers, I find myself in the Commons debating chamber where Phineas Finn made his maiden speech. I stand on the very spot from which the Prime Ministers field questions.
In the Members' Lobby I hunt down Disraeli's statue and am (frankly) distressed to find that it–a sugary sweet bit of white marble–is overshadowed by a hideous, gargantuan bronze of Margaret Thatcher.
I probably have no business, as an American, thinking that this is shockingly wrong, but nonetheless I do think it. There is some comfort in noting that Mrs Thatcher in effigy looks like a badly-aged Valkyrie with indigestion. Which upon reflection I feel is wholly appropriate.
Liz, it was an afternoon I will remember until my dying day. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
Last morning. Tom waved goodbye from our room (you can see him, faintly) as I photographed from below.
Too soon! Though I admit the prospect of six days on a Cunard liner softens the blow a little bit.
About which, more to come.