far too much writing, far too many photos

[continued from previous entry]

Major television fare during that Christmas season: indoors equestrian competitions, steeplechase-style courses set up in arenas — me finding them unexpectedly fascinating, surprisingly enjoyable. Gentle, intricate events for a gentle, intricate season. Same with the pre- and post-show atmosphere at the National Theater, with music, people singing, others sitting at tables talking until well into the evening, Christmas lights giving it all a soft edge, the scene grabbing me in a way I hadn’t expected. In fact, London as a whole seemed to show its heart during those two weeks. The cold, the damp, the sun coming up late and disappearing early barely registered — the pros overshadowed the cons in decisive fashion.

A couple of years later, I found myself getting off a plane at Heathrow once more, in April. Easter season. Took the tube to Hampstead, where I had a room at a B&B reserved for the next 11 or 12 days. As I walked along the High Street in faint sunlight, bleary from an all-night flight, light snow began falling, a chilly breeze whipping it along. That trip I did solo, circulating through the city, watching, listening. The reality of the strange, distinct American-English cousinhood taking hold.

I went to a performance of The American Clock at the National, at that time Arthur Miller’s latest play, and found myself in a packed theater, watching a lovely, autumnal show. At that time in the States, snide dismissals of Miller’s stuff seemed to have become stylish for most critics, eliminating the work of one of our greatest writers from U.S. theaters, except for one or two of his most classic pieces. With that as the prevailing reference point, finding myself in an auditorium overseas, a capacity crowd completely caught up in the telling of a very emotional, very American story had an effect on me that’s hard to describe, wrapped up as it was in the watching of the show. An emotional brew heavily tinged with gratitude and respect.

Just because I get sloppily emotional about stuff like that doesn’t mean, by the way, that all my London experiences have been blissful. ‘Cause they haven’t. Though that doesn’t seem to make any difference at all — it somehow all comes together in a way that produces big affection and appreciation on my part for just about all of it. Call me Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, but there it is. I love London, and when I’m there I spend huge amounts of time walking around, watching people, listening to voices, way content.

Last December: one chilly night after a show at the National, I ascended the stairway to the pedestrian bridge across the Thames to the Embankment tube station. A 30ish woman sitting by the top of the stairs — wrapped in a blanket, a hat placed strategically before her to collect change — asked me for money in intensely overdone fashion, voice breaking with what sounded like theatrical emotion. Given shere she was (sitting out in the cold, damp dark, panhandling), I figured she might have had good reasons for overdoing it, so dug out a one-pound coin, dropped it in the hat, continued on. Five seconds later, a compatriot of hers shouted a hey-how’s-the-evening-going from a nearby location, she shouted back — sounding like a different person, like a loud, brash professional, all overdone emotion gone — “Not bad, how much have you gotten?”

During my first visit, somewhere in the city center, I choked down the single worst sandwich I’ve ever eaten. In a croissantwich shop. Made with Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, straight out of the can. The only truly godawful chow I’ve eaten in London, but so spectacularly bad that I couldn’t hold it against the perpetrators. I had to admire the cheek it took to foist a creation that brazenly stinko on a paying customer. Apart from that, most of my meals in that part of the world have been excellent.

I’ve wandered the city with friends, with groups of weirdos, ridden the tube at all hours of the day, sat in double-decker buses watching the city slide by. I’ve wandered through the huge Camden markets, along the Portobello Road markets, bought great Christmas cards at small church fairs and museum shops. I’ve seen far too much good art and goofy avant garde stuff. I’ve tossed down many cups of pretty respectable cappucino, sipped a lotta good tea, emptied a few glasses of pretty tasty beer. And have had the pleasure of spending time with some of the local folk. All in that one immense, world-class city.

It’s watched century after century slip by, survived good times and bad, seen one epoch after another develop, flower, decline, give way to others. May it thrive for many centuries more.

The South Bank, London — December, 2003:

Madrid, te echo de menos.

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