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Must be the season of the witch: Nikki's autumn trip to London and Paris

Must be the season of the witch: Nikki's autumn trip to London and Paris

Old Nov 16th, 2015, 02:53 PM
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Must be the season of the witch: Nikki's autumn trip to London and Paris

Ten years ago I flew to London with my husband Alan and our daughter Lauren. We landed at Heathrow at 8:30 AM on July 7, 2005. As we rode in the taxi from the airport into London, traffic piled up and the driver turned on the radio. Public transportation had been shut down throughout London. There was speculation that it had been caused by a power surge on the tube. Crowds lined the roads looking for taxis. The driver told us there were always problems with the underground, this was normal. But it didn’t seem normal to us, and eventually we heard the announcement that there had been an explosion on a bus. By the time we reached our destination we heard there had been bombs both on the underground and on a bus.

We arrived very late at our rental apartment near Sloane Square and were greeted by the agent, who had been writing us a note as he could not wait any longer. He did stay long enough to let us into the apartment and show us around. The agent told us that it was a terrorist attack but that London knew how to cope with such an event and we should make ourselves at home and get on with our plans to explore London. We spent most of that first day glued to the television as the story was pieced together and then analyzed.

We spent a week in London and then Lauren went home while Alan and I went on to France. We flew home a week later and I wrote a trip report describing the experience.

Almost three weeks ago, Alan and I flew to London. We spent a week in an apartment, once again near Sloane Square, rented from the same agency, A Place Like Home. We took the train to Paris and spent a week in an apartment there. Then we flew back to Boston on Thursday evening, November 12, 2015.

We had been home less than 24 hours when we heard about the gunfire and explosions in Paris and sat glued to the breaking news reports as it became clear that there were many casualties and several locations in Paris had come under attack.

As I think back on our week in Paris, I remember the joyous atmosphere on the streets, the exuberance of crowds of young people spilling out of the cafes onto the sidewalks. It is devastating to think of the bullets that shattered the peace and security that makes such a scene possible.

I have debated whether to write a trip report set in the time immediately preceding the violent horror that changed the scene in Paris so dramatically. But I will write it in the hope that I can capture some of the feeling of visiting a great city that offers so much and that will continue to captivate visitors long after the events of this week find their way into the history books.

I had planned this trip for two reasons. The first is that I have not been allowed to travel since the stem cell transplant I had on May 4 (a date which I will always remember as Star Wars day: May the Fourth be with you). I was told that after six months my immune system would be up to the task of international travel.

The second reason was a bit of fortuitous scheduling. For a while I was turning most of my energies in other directions and hadn’t been paying attention to many things I would otherwise have been noticing. As I was starting to feel more part of the real world again, I decided to check whether some of the French singer-songwriters I love to listen to had new recordings out and found that some of them did. Then, just out of idle curiosity, I checked their websites for concert dates, and found that Sanseverino was playing a concert in Paris in November. A few more minutes on the internet showed me that Francis Cabrel was playing in Paris that same weekend.

I quickly calculated that this would be just six months after my transplant, turned to Alan and asked if I should buy one ticket or two. Two, he said. He’d even go to the concerts with me.

We decided to go to London for a week before going to Paris. We had postponed several planned trips there since our last visit six years ago for various reasons, and Alan has family that we really wanted to visit. So we bought concert and theater and airline tickets and held our collective breath in the hope that circumstances would not conspire against us and we would be able to take this trip as planned. The time came, nothing happened to prevent our travel, and we left as scheduled shortly before Halloween.
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Old Nov 16th, 2015, 02:55 PM
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On Wednesday, October 28, we leave Boston and fly to London. Arriving at Heathrow Thursday morning, we are met by a driver from justairports.com who takes us to the apartment we have rented on Lower Sloane Street near Sloane Square in Chelsea. I recognize this block because it is right at a bus stop we used several times when we stayed here ten years ago and we had admired the street and the apartment buildings at the bus stop.

The rental agent arrives shortly after we do and leads us up one flight of stairs in this converted town house to our first floor apartment. I am very pleased by the location of the apartment and the apartment itself; however, shortly after the rental agent leaves we realize that there is neither heat nor hot water. A call to the agency sends a plumber, who fixes the problem easily.

We are pretty tired from our overnight flight but manage to walk down the street for lunch at an Italian deli, where it is warm enough to have sandwiches at a table outside. There is a convenience store just next to the deli where we pick up a few essentials for the apartment before heading back for a nap.

I have been having issues with tendonitis and arthritis in my feet, so I am resigned to getting around the city in whatever manner best saves my feet for the walking that I will want to do rather than using up steps getting to those things. I have never used the Uber ride service before, but I have it loaded onto my smart phone and decide to try it out for the first time this evening to go out to dinner. I have made reservations at a restaurant in Notting Hill recommended by a friend, and I push the button that summons an Uber to our door.

It is incredibly easy to use. The driver shows up in a minute or two and already has the address of our destination. A GPS takes him right to the restaurant and we say thank you and exit the car with no need to fumble for taxi fare or figure a tip. The fare is automatically calculated as a function of time and distance and charged to my credit card, and I have an e-mail receipt immediately. We use this service throughout our stay with very good results whenever public transportation is not that convenient or I have just walked too much. There are many drivers throughout London. Whenever we need a ride, we see that there are lots of available cars within a few minutes of our location; they are visible on a map when I turn on the application, and I can watch the one that is coming for us move on the map toward us so I know exactly when it will arrive.

Tonight’s dinner is at John Doe, a restaurant in Notting Hill that has been recommended by a Fodor’s friend who was there recently. We both love this place and would go back if we were around for a longer stay. It emphasizes wild and sustainably sourced British ingredients cooked with wood or charcoal in a specially built oven.

Alan starts with smoked venison tartar served with a raw quail egg and toast. It is wonderful. But I am very happy with my roast bone marrow with parsley, caper and shallot salad. For a main course Alan has a very nice fish dish, wood roast plaice with brown shrimp, capers, white beans and parsley. I love my dish of hay baked roe deer with cauliflower, nuts, pomegranate seeds and duck fat potatoes. The waitress explains that hay is placed around the meat and set on fire, then removed before serving. Everything tastes a bit smoky in this place, and the chef was a judge on a television barbecue competition.

This has been an outstanding meal and a wonderful end to our first day in London.
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Old Nov 16th, 2015, 03:01 PM
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I look forward to reading about your time in Paris. I have picked up some great recommendations from your previous TRs there.
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Old Nov 16th, 2015, 04:41 PM
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Nikki... Uber is the best isn't it? Traveling along vicariously and taking notes as we may take the same trip next Fall.

I am glad you are well. I did not know you had a Stem Cell tx. I spent some serious time in hematology/oncology, so I know that's a rough one to go through. You're tough cookie! All the best for your continued health!
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Old Nov 16th, 2015, 05:19 PM
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Good decision to write a trip report. Of course, now we're waiting ....
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Old Nov 16th, 2015, 06:29 PM
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Thanks, Nikki, for sharing. I needed a dose of inspiration tonight.
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Old Nov 16th, 2015, 11:09 PM
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Old Nov 17th, 2015, 01:21 AM
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I thought you were there. Glad to know I was wrong.
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Old Nov 17th, 2015, 02:38 AM
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Hi Nikki -- Glad to hear you are better and able to travel again. Looking forward to your report.
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Old Nov 17th, 2015, 02:53 AM
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I echo Isabel!
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Old Nov 17th, 2015, 04:25 AM
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Friday morning Alan’s cousin Michael picks us up and we drive around London doing errands of various sorts, culminating in a trip to the supermarket. I hold up the line at the cash register because I didn’t know to give the cheese to the deli counter attendant to be weighed. I try to tell the cashier not to bother sending someone to weigh it, we’ll leave without it. The woman behind me is saying she will have to leave her purchases and go get her car from the garage because her time is up. But I have trouble getting the cashier to understand me even though we share a nominally identical language. If I have this much trouble in London, what hope do I have for Paris?

But the bagger returns fairly quickly with the cheese, which has now been weighed and priced, and the woman behind me does not give up her groceries or glare at me too visibly. And it is worth the wait, as I learn later when I enjoy the excellent Cornwall brie.

Michael drops us off at our apartment because he has work to do, and we head out for lunch at Caraffini, an Italian restaurant just a block away. We have theater tickets tonight so will have our main meal now. I start with wild mushrooms with garlic and chilis served with grilled polenta, then a pasta dish with sausage, all very nice.

We head out later on the bus toward the Apollo Theatre where we are going to see Showstopper!, a musical that has gotten excellent reviews. We arrive early and are picking up our tickets in the lobby when we hear the troupe singing and warming up downstairs. It sounds great.

We head out to a pub to kill time before the doors open. Signs in the pub say that they show US sports on their TVs. The fish and chips look good, but we had that late lunch so settle for drinks before the show.

Showstopper! is long form improvised musical theater, apparently the first ever of the genre to appear in a West End theater. We love this show. It is hard to imagine being able to think fast enough to come up with the lines, the songs, the interaction among the players. There is a trio playing the music that drives the singing, but all the songs are in styles suggested by the audience based on settings similarly suggested by the audience.

At the interval, they sell drinks and ice cream. It still amazes me that you are allowed to take these into the theater and back to your seats. The ice cream lady tells me the show is different every day. I ask whether there is an outline or something that they follow, and she tells me she hasn’t been able to crack the code, and that the members of this improv troupe have been working together a long time. Indeed, when I get home and read the program, I see that none of these folks has just fallen off the turnip truck.

After the show, one of the performers comes out and encourages us to come back and see the show again. We would actually do this if we were staying longer. You can’t do everything. They are handing out loyalty cards that you can use to get two for one tickets, and we later give these to Alan’s cousins and hope they can use them.

When we emerge onto Shaftesbury Avenue we encounter mobs of young people in costume for Halloween. They are milling about, lining up to get into clubs, pouring out of the underground station at Piccadilly Circus, handing out fliers for various festivities that nobody bothers trying to hand to us. Our night is ending but it is just beginning for them.

We take the bus back and have a late supper of salmon, prawns, cheese and fruit in our apartment. It has been so much fun going to the theater, and there are other plays we would like to see. We are already beginning to sense that our time in London is too short, that a week isn’t enough.
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Old Nov 17th, 2015, 06:12 AM
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Just a quick hijack. My nephew had a stem cell transplant on October 22nd. Spent three weeks in the hospital and he was surprised at how well he felt during the ordeal. Now resting at home and will have the central line removed on Thursday.

Best wishes to you and happy to see you are doing so well.

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Old Nov 17th, 2015, 06:27 AM
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I'm still trying to decide on a fall vacation for 2016....a week in London and a week in Paris, Or a week in London and a week in the countryside of England. Eagerly waiting the rest of your report.
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Old Nov 17th, 2015, 08:10 AM
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" But I have trouble getting the cashier to understand me even though we share a nominally identical language"

I can just imagine the poor cashier telling her husband that night "and then we had this crazy american in trying to tell me something"
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Old Nov 17th, 2015, 08:27 AM
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" even though we share a nominally identical language. "

In a food store in central London, statistically unlikely unless you're more fluent in Bulgarian or Punjabi than I'd realised.

Among London's service workers whose first language isn't English, a disconcertingly high level of fluency in speaking English can easily make native English speakers assume corresponding levels of English comprehension. This is often ill-founded.
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Old Nov 17th, 2015, 11:50 AM
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So lovely and timely right now. Thank you for choosing to post.
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Old Nov 17th, 2015, 12:02 PM
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Signing on for more, Nikki. Thanks for writing this, and I am glad you are well enough to travel again.
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Old Nov 17th, 2015, 12:14 PM
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Oh goody! I have been waiting (and hoping) for this report.
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Old Nov 17th, 2015, 02:10 PM
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Eagerly awaiting more, Nikki.
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Old Nov 17th, 2015, 02:17 PM
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Saturday we have planned to visit the farmer’s market in Duke of York Square, near our apartment. There was a family gathering scheduled for this evening, but that has been canceled, so we have an evening free to go to more theater or out to dinner or do whatever we want.

Checking the opening hours for the farmer’s market, I find a listing that has on the same page a selection of things to do today in the vicinity. The one that catches my eye is a concert by Donovan at Cadogan Hall, just across Sloane Square. On an impulse, I check to see whether there are tickets available and find that there are just four, good seats in the stalls. I figure they must be returns. Before they disappear, I click and buy two tickets. That is what we will be doing tonight. I start humming Mellow Yellow and can’t get it out of my head for the rest of the day.

The food market at Duke of York Square is not too crowded when we walk over there, but by the time we leave it is a mob scene. There is a very long queue to get into the Saatchi Gallery, stretching the whole length of the market. This is a private contemporary art museum that I had planned to visit some time during our stay, as it is just behind our apartment. But there is no way we are going to stand on this daunting line. I ask a guard why the line is so long and he tells me that there is a Chanel exhibit and that it is closing this weekend. I have no interest in this, which is I suppose a good thing, but we won’t be going to this gallery this week.

The market is a wonderful grazing venue. Lots of street food of various kinds, and stands selling all sorts of artisanal food products. Alan stops first at a stand selling oysters and champagne. If you don’t buy the champagne, the oysters are quite reasonably priced. I follow my nose to a stand where they are selling duck confit sandwiches. Yes please. It is possible I have hit the homemade donut stand first for an apple and cinnamon filled donut, but who can be sure?

There is cheese and sausage and handmade chocolates. By this time the market is getting pretty congested, I am being pushed aside by old men with canes. But we make one last stop at the pie stand. Meat pies of all kinds. We refrain from buying one of each.

We escape the crowds and find a bench in front of some designer shops and watch the people coming and going. The shop right in front of the bench appears to have clothing for young women, but there are women in their fifties coming out dressed in a fashion I am not used to seeing on middle aged women, with tight pants and short skirts, and stylishly ripped jeans. There are lots of young mothers pushing children in strollers, all dressed very stylishly. I am feeling more and more frumpy.

After returning to our apartment, Alan walks around the neighborhood in search of a sports bar where he can watch something, I forget what. He doesn’t find one; he would have done better at the pub near the theater last night. What he does find is lots of young families trick-or-treating for Halloween.

Dinner consists of pies. Mushroom and asparagus? Venison and something?

The Donovan concert is in a hall that was built as a Christian Science church and converted into a concert venue in 2004. We walk there and go to the box office to pick up our tickets. The woman with the tickets says, “Weren’t you at the Apollo Theatre last night?” It’s the ice cream lady. She gets around.

There are a few young people in the audience but most are old enough to remember the sixties. I wonder how long that fellow standing up in the aisle has had that Jethro Tull shirt.

Donovan comes out on the stage, still looks pretty good, sits cross legged on a pillow or something and plays his guitar. I’m impressed he can still get into this position. This is his fiftieth anniversary tour. He tells stories and sings many of his hit songs. He tells of growing up in Glasgow and sitting under the table at Hogmanay as his family sang Celtic folk songs. Then he tells of his friendship with Paul McCartney and what it was like living in London when fame hit like a tidal wave.

He talks about the girls, the short short mini-skirts and the pale makeup and the dark eyeliner. And I look around the theater, thinking that here we are in London, in Chelsea, and the girls he is talking about are sitting among us. Probably some of the actual girls who screamed at the concerts are here tonight. They look like us now. So do we, of course.

And then I realize I am one of those girls. Well, I didn’t look like that. But I did see Donovan play at Rockefeller Chapel in Chicago during orientation week when I first got to college in 1969. I went back stage at the intermission; he was standing alone in the wings. I was too self-conscious to say anything to him and walked on by.

It is Halloween. Donovan tells of the Celtic custom of remembering the dead and honoring them at this time of year, then shows slides of dead rock musicians. I recognize John Lennon, George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. He sings Season of the Witch. I haven’t heard this song in around 45 years. But all the words come back, stored in that part of the brain that is accessed during late adolescence and in which our musical chemistry appears to be fixed and solidified for life.
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