As blue as the sky is at any moment in time, there always is at least a 50% chance that the weather will turn for the worse. Furthermore, it will almost certainly end up as rain! Then it stops and starts and rains some more.
In England it rains – so much so that English people have a national obsession about the weather. “How’s the weather love? Bit hot today. It hasn’t stopped raining. We will need an arc if it carries on like this.” They even have words for varying degrees of rain. Spitting (yes, spitting!), drizzle and rainy spells (as if it’s some magic trick)! Cloudy with a chance of…some rain. Not rain but some rain!
I was thinking of this the other day while I was walking through Covent Garden and had to stop at the store Muji, a place where I always buy great pens, to grab a reasonably dependable short umbrella. Fact is that you simply cannot be without an umbrella in London. The whole city is geared towards terrible weather (there even are signs inside of the Underground stations telling us to shake our umbrellas Outside of the station in order to avoid slippery surfaces) and in stores people leave their umbrellas at the umbrella parking space by the door. Truthfully, if you are armed with a short umbrella which you can stick in your pocket, you can kind of go anywhere. It is a liberating feeling!
This got me thinking about umbrellas in general.
What is the story with umbrellas? Where did they come from and how did they evolve into what they are today? Funny enough, the basic umbrella was invented around 4,000 years ago and even appears in ancient wall drawings. The umbrella was made with paper and used as a shade from the sun. Hence, the name umbrella which comes from the Latin word umbra meaning shade. Leave it to the Chinese to figure out a way to wax the paper umbrella and lacquer them so that they can be used for both sun and rain. Then we fast forward a few thousand years to the 19th century when James Smith and Sons Umbrella Shop opened in London in 1830 to serve middle- to upper-class people a parasol for the rain. Working classes used their cloth caps or just got wet! The shop on 53 New Oxford Street is still there selling high end umbrellas to tourists and wealthier clients alike. England even invented a word that is used everywhere today – brolly.
So where was my tiny umbrella from Muji made? Muji is a Japanese store and my pens most certainly are made in Japan – but you guessed it, my umbrella has gone back to its roots and is made in China. This likely is also where every single short version umbrella in any city sold by any number of people comes from. When you dash into a store or buy an umbrella from a guy that just happens to show up because it is raining (and let’s face it, you need it), remember that he is simply following a 4,000 year old custom practiced over the years and built to perfection for an English climate. But if you fancy a high end experience, go to James Smith and treat yourself to the real deal – a brolly for the ages.
Every time that I go to London, I try to see a play. Last time I was there, I went to The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the indoor Globe theatre. I saw Shakespeare’s Cymbeline . It is still playing actually. At the Wanamaker, there is no electrical lighting inside of the theatre and only candles and candelabras on pulleys. It is classic London Theatere: good old Elizabethan fare served up on bare sets with traditional music in the background. Catch any performance there if you can. It is like no experience I have experienced.
This time, I was invited by a friend of mine, Lee Curran, to go see a play at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square. Lee is the lighting director; a “creative artistic type” that lights up much of London and Stratford with his art. The play was Linda, a play by Penelope Skinner and starring Noma Dumezweni. She plays an award-winning business woman promoting beauty products while facing the hypocrisy of how beauty is marketed to women. This was a play originally starring Kim Cattrall of Sex in the City fame but she pulled out with just a week to go before preview. Noma stepped in out of the blue, out of nowhere really, and pulled off one of the greatest tour de forces in acting. Talk about a crash course in learning lines. She was amazing, as was the play.
For me the real buzz was that I got to sit in the tech box with Lee high above the performance and watch the play through his critical eye. That was a first. It felt a bit like being in the cockpit of an airplane next to the pilot. We saw the next to last performance of the play. I got to meet the star and even got to grab an Indian meal afterwards. A truly perfect night in London.
The funny thing about the holidays in the USA is that everything seems to begin around Veteran’s Day. The Christmas music starts to rear its ugly head and while decorations do not go full-in until the week around Thanksgiving, there is that sense of a relentless march towards the big day. It is the holiday season after all– Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas – it just requires a couple of months to sell its various brands. But what it does not need is global warming which seems to have happened while we were all sleeping, driving our diesel and gas cars, ignoring calls for solar and wind power and maxing on our air conditioning use. Now, as I sit in Boston, watching somebody skateboarding by in a t-shirt, I wonder if I will ever see snow again!
On the other hand, London seems to embrace Christmas like no other place. It has the people (lots of them), every street in the center is full-on lit up with beautiful or funky lights, there is the huge Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square, and big bonus, no sun and it gets dark so fabulously early that the entire city is in nighttime glow most of the time. It’s cozy! While there is absolutely no snow ever to be seen and lots of rain, it somehow feels Christmassy. It is probably because London has so many shops and every shop has a Christmas window and everybody walking around London seems to be holding bags that indicate they have been shopping. There are pubs on every other corner jammed with revelers and the occasional jolly drunk and all of the restaurants have Christmas menus in addition to the usual a la carte stuff. This place full-on celebrates!
So grab a Christmas cracker, put your paper crown on, grab a piece of Christmas pudding or mince pie, or even go to Pret-A-Mange (the popular take-out place) for a Christmas lunch sandwich – yes, Christmas lunch complete with stuffing can be contained within two pieces of sliced white bread! While you are at it, grab a bag of Christmas crisps and then take the kids to see Father Christmas and a Pantomime. It’s the most popular entertainment over the holiday period. I grew up on them. Based in history on 17th century Commedia dell’arte characters, panto means to imitate all in Greek. Everyone has fun, kids laugh, men dress up as woman and woman as men. Shakespearean really! Although it’s mainly for kids, it’s huge! It involves music, topical and saucy jokes, and slapstick comedy and is usually based on a fairy tale or nursery story. Plus everyone gets to go to the theatre!! Good for the soul!
Image Credit: londonconnection.com
Image Credit: VisitLondon.com & Featured Image: LondonTown.com
Held every year in London’s east metropolis full of new buildings that dot themselves around the river, the World Travel Market is like a huge bazaar, a maze-like walk across the world. I love the fact that you get to start your day in London Town and end your day in the far reaches of Bhutan. In between, you have every single country in the world – even Saudi Arabia that does not want you to come! They are all here.
More than 20,000 people visit the World Travel Market. There are seminars and exhibitions, but for me, the biggest thrill of all is to walk across the world and listen to thousands of languages being spoken from stand to stand. There are roughly 6,500 languages spoken in the world today although 2,000 have less than 1,000 speakers. However, at the World Travel Market everybody seemed well equipped with English. It was absolutely brilliant to walk through Italy, then Greece, to Turkey, and then France, and onto the Arab countries. Entrance into the World Travel Market for trade is free which means that you can travel around the world for nothing. As it turns out, the good old London Underground was on strike and so Emirates airlines was transporting everybody across the eastern London sky in their Emirates cable cars.
London’s Soho House recently opened its new house on Dean Street and, even though it has an early closing limitation because of the neighbors – yes people actually do live in Soho – it’s a little bit of a jewel in the ever-so-crowded craziness of a Soho evening. It has a small rooftop bar, along with its Greek Street counterpart and the notoriously fun Shoreditch house. It seems like Soho House is heading for rooftop views all over London. Despite the weather it’s kind of cool to look above the chimney tops of London and get a Mary Poppins view of both Old London and the scintillating New London popping up towards the East. Soho House is a private members’ only club and a genuine respite from the madding crowds in post-theater West End. If you happen to know somebody, who knows somebody, who knows somebody, who can take you in there, it’s a great place to hang out. If you don’t know anyone, oh well…
Looking for a special roof outside of London? Other memorable rooftop bars I’ve visited:
Michelin Star Dining. That a tire manufacturer would define THE rating system for fine dining is suspect – until you hear the definition of the ratings. 1-star means that it’s a very good restaurant. 2-stars means the restaurant is worth a detour and 3-stars means it’s worth a special trip.
Out of 690 restaurants listed – there are only 2 Michelin 3-starred restaurants in all of Greater London! I’ve eaten at 1-star, 2-star, but never 3-star restaurants over the course of my travel career. I’ve always found these places to be uptight and the dining experience to be about as relaxing as sleeping on a bed of nails (if you don’t happen to be a trained yogi). But of course, never able to resist the temptation of an almost impossible to obtain reservation, I found myself trying once more.
I got lured in with a friend to a 2-star restaurant in the English countryside. He had heard that it was difficult to get into, and that always drags me in. So my two cents on 2-star places – it’s a lot of fluffing around. It’s all about foam and froth and portions that are so complicated that you hate to put them in your mouth. It’s not that I like a starter and a main course and a dessert; I actually enjoy several appetizers and sometimes skip the main course. And I like presentation but it almost feels that I’m intruding on somebody else’s domain. They call it “plating” and it’s not so much about eating as it is about art. Much like the haute couture that makes its way down Parisian runways, this food is inedible by the commoners. It’s about savoring tiny tastes, complementing wines to courses, and I realize that I’m just not up for that kind of eating. I get that the chef took a lot of time to prepare this stuff. And most of it was delicious. But all the pomp, it just seemed to get in the way of the circumstance, if you know what I mean!
Food in the end should be inviting – it should be enjoyed. I guess the whole Michelin star experience is too formal for me, too much about the chemical, and not so much about the chemistry of a restaurant. The ambience and the waiters are too uptight, the sommelier is too disapproving. Yah I’m glad I returned to the high class star experience just one more time to remind myself that it’s just too good for me. I’m just too much of a common guy to truly appreciate the complexity of the stuff that’s placed in front of me. I would’ve been just as happy with a pork pie or a bacon sandwich. Or a very lovely piece of Dover Sole. Oh well, I know my place.
Heading to London to celebrate my mums 90th. Of all days British Airways elects to not run their day flight from Boston to London. So, my worst nightmare. An overnight flight with no sleep time and only confirmed in premium economy. Have a couple of plays lined up and with some luck London will feel like the Caribbean after the Siberian winter we are having here. 3 days of work, fun and theater. And staying at a great hotel at the 7 dials in covent garden. The most central point for all the great stuff you care to do in London.
I love what the Brits do for the Holidays. They light the streets with elaborate displays, the shops are full of angels, snowmen and Father Christmases. London is home to Hamleys, the world’s oldest toy shop. Every holiday season Hamleys is alive with elaborate Christmas displays and the pubs are full of festive decorations and early afternoon revelers. This place takes Christmas seriously.
Pretty much the entire continent of Europe closes for two weeks and the traditional English Christmas food fare is plastered on every restaurant menu you could find. There are Christmas markets in the middle of Hyde Park and the fabulous Borough market at London Bridge steps up a notch over this period. Not to be outdone I had a rather lordly lunch at the House of Lords, eating off of their Christmas lunch menu with my friend, the Baroness!
I took the London cured smoked salmon as a starter, but having just taken the turkey at Thanksgiving I elected for an off-the- menu decision and went a la carte with the Fish Pie. Fish Pie, for those of us with a love of England will know that this is one of the great delicacies of the world. White fish in a béchamel sauce with mashed potatoes and melted cheese on top, served piping hot in its own little earthenware pot. It’s almost as good as a bacon sandwich! Yes, life at the House is good when you’re on the inside.
I popped into London for a couple of days, primarily to check in with mum and to do some other business. I love London! I had arranged to meet with her over by Hampstead Heath, a feast of childhood memories for me. Hampstead Heath is a real wonder in the center of London. It dates back to 986, was bought by the City of London in the 19th century and has been protected land for Londoners to enjoy ever since.
I jumped on the 24 bus and jumped off at the bottom of the hill that leads to the Heath itself. Unlike the Royal parks, Hampstead is a wild and rambling forest-like place, beset with a necklace of ponds nestled amongst the hills and valleys that comprise acres and acres of endless walking paths. My mum used to swim in the ponds of Hampstead Heath. In those days the ponds were separated into male and female. In these most liberal days they are now mixed! This is where Londoners retreated in the 17th Century to avoid the Great Plague. They even called one of the ponds, the “Vale of Health.”
We walked to the top of Parliament Hill, from the Heath side, and there was the view I almost remembered as a kid. The skyline has changed so much, modern buildings like the Shard and the Gherkin, provide a spectacular vista of the new London. London’s skyline in the distance, only 4 miles away and yet we could have been in another world.
Nowadays the houses that abut the ponds have this wonderful disheveled upmarket feel to them. The stately house of Kenwood serves as an anchor on one side of the Heath, while on the other is the running track and open air swimming pool, providing recreational space for London’s summer needs. I remember the fairs at Hampstead Heath, fishing in the ponds, long walks through the acres and acres of woodland and biking clear across to Highgate. All of these places became my backyard. We had no garden; we didn’t need one. We had Hampstead.
We finished our day at the pub by the railway station and I took the 24 double-decker back into town. I thought to myself what a wonder it is to have a space like this in a busy metropolis like London. There’s a whole debate right now about the new Garden Bridge project in London. On one hand you have the desire to protect London’s cherished architectural landscape, on the other hand you have the greening of London. The Garden Bridge promises to be an iconic tourist attraction and something for Londoners to enjoy as they cross from North to South on a lazy Sunday afternoon. I love this idea. It’s probably one of the most exciting concepts out there at the moment. It’s funny really. Hampstead was probably its inspiration.