Monday, January 30, 2012

Happy Christmas in Merry England

Much to our delight, we found London enjoying spring-like temperatures when we arrived and were able to leave our hats and scarves and mittens unpacked. For the entire week of our stay, it was in the upper 50s and although the skies were overcast, we had only one afternoon of gentle drizzle. Having been to London many times for both business and pleasure, we forewent any rigorous sightseeing and simply strolled the streets.

It was terrific weather for wandering, peppered with breaks in whatever pubs we found welcoming. In the past, the omnipresent cigarettes that turned pubs into murky chimneys kept me away, but now that indoor smoking has been outlawed, I’ve become a huge fan of the neighborhood hangouts. I enjoy the sense of camaraderie and everyday conversation that pervades them as well as the fascinating people watching. We met an American ex-pat banker and his German colleague, a witty duo who worked for Deutsche Bank, in Chequers Tavern, the small, dependable pub next to our hotel. We enjoyed some laughs about their experiences in the UK and how the English women in their lives helped keep them in London. They were both rather fascinated by our Gap Year experience, asked all sorts of questions about logistics and our itinerary and seemed genuinely in awe of what we were doing. They kept repeating things like “really?” and “wow” and “awesome.” Our festive evening with the financiers ended abruptly when they were pulled away to the office Christmas party by a compatriot and we then left the pub feeling gratified that the escapades of a 55-year old couple had so impressed two 30-somethings. It was just the emotional boost we needed since the memory of the kids’ departure still lingered and the prospect of Christmas by ourselves loomed. Every once in a while when we’re feeling generally melancholy or like two lonely Americans battling a smoky European haze or lucky to once again been missed being hit by a renegade motor scooter on the sidewalk, it's nice to hear that others deem that what we’re doing is cool. Outside affirmation, especially by bankers, so far away from home is always a good thing.

London was incredibly expensive, as it always is, but on many of my previous trips, I’d had the luxury of an expense account and hardly needed to worry. Jumping into a classic black cab in those days was standard practice but little did I know that other than walking, they were likely the least expensive mode of transportation. When we arrived at Victoria Station on the express train from Gatwick, we dutifully took the underground to our stop at Piccadilly Circus. It was difficult to believe, however, that the two tickets to Piccadilly cost a whopping eight pounds -- that’s over six dollars each for the privilege of dragging our luggage down long flights of stairs, through connecting tunnels, onto the train and then up a final stairway for the four block walk to the Cavendish Hotel. The London Underground is a terrific system that happens to be extraordinarily expensive and so we took the tube just that once. We’d learned our lesson and did a whole lot of walking thereafter. Upon departure a week later, we hailed a cab and paid exactly the same fare -- eight pounds, tip included -- to be chauffeured back to the train at Victoria.

Joe was especially pleased with the relaxing change of not having to struggle with a language barrier, and I appreciated the opportunity to temporarily relinquish my role as translator-in-chief. As usual, the moment we arrived on British soil we found it difficult not to affect an English accent and sprinkle our speech with “brilliant,” “ring my mobile,” “dodgy,” and “takeaway.” We quickly learned to say “Happy Christmas” instead of “Merry,” searched for where to make reservations for “Christmas Lunch” instead of “Dinner,” and anticipated the arrival of “Father Christmas.” Few restaurants advertised that they would be open on the 25th other than brightly lit chain establishments or stuffy, overpriced dining rooms in the fanciest of hotels. We managed to find Greig’s on a list provided by the concierge, a warm, neighborhood inn tucked behind Berkeley Square that would be serving a reasonable prix fixe meal and promptly made a reservation for 2:30 PM on Christmas Day. But later that evening, while enjoying a drink at Chequers Pub next door we saw that their daily specials blackboard was decorated with green and red chalked holly and berries and advertised Christmas Lunch: pigs in a blanket, turkey with all the fixin’s, cranberry sauce and mince pie – all for just under 10 pounds. Joe was sure I was kidding when I first remarked that the menu sounded good, but once he realized I was seriously suggesting we eat at Chequers on Christmas, he soon warmed to the idea. Why not? The pub served a nice variety of draught beers and a good Sauvignon Blanc, so in the spirit of eating local, we decided to have our Christmas meal at the tavern next door. The bartender said they would be serving all day, from 11 AM until about 7PM, and that no reservations were needed. Doing our best to be good patrons, we called Greig’s multiple times on Christmas Eve to cancel our reservations, but were unable to get through.

Christmas Day dawned with the standard weather for the week: temperatures in the 50s under steely gray skies with no rain in sight. After a very quiet breakfast at the Cavendish, we headed through the deserted London streets to The Jesuit Church of the Immaculate Conception on Farm Street, a quiet back lane about a 15-minute walk from our hotel. The church was built in the mid-1800s but felt warm and modern on the inside, a welcome change from so many of the cold, aloof churches on the continent. The 11 AM high mass sung in Latin was a lovely liturgy that harked back to the Catholic Church of our youth in the 1960s. We sang Adeste Fideles and Gloria in Excelsis Deo along with the rest of the congregation, a bit lonely with no family next to us, but feeling very British indeed. Next up was the short walk to Grosvenor Square to pay our respects and say “Merry Christmas” to the American Embassy and the statues of past presidents FDR, Eisenhower and Reagan, and then we headed back to Chequers, anticipating our turkey dinner. But when we arrived at about 2 PM, Chequers was shuttered – no lights, no patrons, doors locked. Oh no – the plans for Christmas Lunch in our neighborhood pub had quickly evaporated! Was it a communication issue of “two countries divided by a common language” and all? How could we have misunderstood so completely? Standing on Duke Street in front of Chequers, Joe and I were crestfallen at the prospect of spending Christmas in a charmless cafeteria. But then we remembered Greig’s. Lady luck had prevented us from canceling our reservation and if we hurried, we would arrive right on time. Just a bit more upscale than the corner pub, Greig’s served us a tasty Christmas Lunch of prawn cocktail, traditional turkey, stuffing and veggies and brandied Christmas pudding. The atmosphere was festive and congenial and we fit in perfectly with the international mix of diners.

The balance of our week was filled with many of the activities we most enjoy in London: high tea, fabulous Indian food, the changing of the Queen’s Horse Guards, a play in the West End (live theater may be the only bargain in town) and several long runs in the incomparable parks. Why Chequers was closed for Christmas and the subsequent several days remains a mystery; we left London before it reopened and were never able to ask.

Christmas week in London was a very nice, although somewhat lonesome, experience. We didn’t get to share Christmas dinner with the royals at Sandringham, or even the locals at Chequers next door, but we did have a lovely, quiet holiday, Christmas pudding and all. But at the end of the day, there’s nothing as comforting and heart-warming as being with family for Christmas and we agreed that this would be the last one on our own. Any future Gap Years will have to start after the holidays (wink).

Pictures of our adventures:

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