London, December 1998


Here starts the Michaelmas Term visit to my old university haunts in London. (Parenthetically, I got a bit of an early start this year due to a last minute pass on the 1998 Elephant Polo games. But, that is another story.) However, this year's tail end "in-chief-holidays" will again find me with Becky, but this time in Paris.


Thursday, 10 December 1998

Close to ten years ago, enroute from Ulan Bator to Hanoi, Jean and I spent a few days in Harbin. This is a bit of a "ho-hum" city: a major manufacturing site for ball bearings, wires, cables and tractors. From the turn of the century it has been "administered" variously by Russians, Chinese, warlords, and the Japanese. Due, perhaps, to this eclectic leadership lineage the local population has developed a few out of the mainstream interests. Readers of the Condé Nast publications will be all too familiar with the Harbin Ice Carving Exhibition. But, another local seasonal "show" has gone less noticed in the west. Jean and I stumbled upon it quite innocently on our way to lunch at the local Friendship restaurant and we would like to share this near decade old appetite depressor. Welcome to the "Dead Damaged Baby Exhibit of Harbin".

The casual spectator to this awful pre-prandial spread is welcomed to the display by a helpful cork board upon which are pinned photographs of the curator's offerings. Dead Damaged Baby Mercifully, the guiding prints are in black and white. However, they are detailed enough to allow the curious to easily find his or her way to the appropriate jar for an in depth inspection of the colorful contents.

Unlike many art exhibits it does not appear that the Harbin organizers of this event gave any though to exhibit rotation…..thus, once you have had a gander at the stuff on display there is no hope for a peek at fresh meat at a later day. Incidentally, there was no indication on the jars as to the viewing "shelf life" of the contents. Presumably, the pickling process was "state of the art". In any event, it is probably safe to assume that future generations of Harbin residents can be "educated" with some current or future womb contents that, too, will have gone awry.

Enough of that! Suffice to say that, in the future, when it appears to be a "slow" journal day I just might have to dip into the past for something "savory."

Susan Cassone phoned a few minutes ago. Dear Reader, do you remember her? Last year she spent Christmas and New Year's with Becky and me in Bangkok. Yes, go click on our adventures in that sin city. She also graced the pages of this year's Chateau d'Oex journal ... where on one terrifying afternoon her only concern was whether her film of our flight could be extracted from the mangled ruins of our fall from the sky.

Whatever, Susan has been concerned about London winter weather. My gushy assurances that she need only pack a few sweaters fell on unconvinced ears. The latest word from the shops is that she has prepared herself for Nordic conditions. Tomorrow will prove one of us either right….or wrong.


Friday, 11 December 1998

For the past many years I have decided not to stay home for Christmas. Not that I have anything against either one of these things; it’s just that I do not think that they mix very well. For starters there is that whole card and greeting thing. The Twelve Days of Christmas drag out into a personal hell ... each bulk mail day brings a fresh supply of square shaped envelopes stuffed with holiday greetings from banks, real estate agents and brokerage houses ... friends and family simultaneously clog the answering machine with more and longer messages of good cheer ... and, it all ends with an obligatory turkey and a mess in the kitchen. And, this doesn’t even begin to address the issue of unwanted gifts and what to do with all that fucking wrapping paper.

The sensible solution for me lies thousands of miles away in any luxury hotel, a place where all the Christmas stuff is carefully screened for suitability by the staff.

Susan and I joined up at the Miami International Airport about 90 minutes before our 20:45 scheduled departure for London on BA #208. With time to kill we shared a boring bottle of $9.00 airport food hall water. It probably wasn’t even imported mountain spring H2O; more likely it was something out of a South Florida water purification plant. But, we were definitely on our way.

Flying in the front of a BA 747 is like being transported in a very small apartment. Each "seat" has a seat, a recliner, a bed, a foot stool, a guest seat, a table for two, a video machine, various lights and lots of little buttons that make the whole thing work.

I was in apartment 3K. Susan was next door in 4K. Both places had starboard views of the Atlantic Ocean for much of the journey: the journey, however, was unusually swift due to 150 MPH tail winds. It was barely enough time to finish off the two meals that made a sandwich out of the nap.


Saturday, 12 December 1998

As we approached Hounslow West, it was not with much surprise that our starboard view prepared us for raincoats rather than sun screen. And, Terminal 4 was its normal cheery self: all bubbling with early morning glee as dumped loads of 747s mingled around empty twirling carousels. Since we had paid a bit of a premium to get from there to here our luggage tumbled off the belt at the head of the queue ... which meant that we were first in line at the taxi stall ... which didn’t make all that much difference because it was a Saturday and most people weren’t going anywhere anyway.

Whatever, forty five minutes later the warmth of the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel was doing its best to reheat the contents of our super chilled suitcases. But, it was a further hour and a half before we were able to unpack the same. The prior tenants of #416 and #418 had inconsiderately slept in ... which act forced us to linger over so much coffee that we became nervous bi-polar wrecks way before lunch.

Yes, I said lunch ... one of those most welcome of meals, falling neatly between breakfast and dinner. Not far from our hotel, and just across from the Green Park tube station, there perches a superb Lebanese restaurant: Fakhreldine. This place is an old friend of mine. Today Susan and I made it to a table overlooking the park at a little after 15:00. Crispy cold crunchy salad tidbits went very well with the hot and cold bowls of crushed and uncrushed hommos (chickpeas) that were offered up as starters. Blandness was not an ingredient as the chickpeas were mixed with sesame oil and lemon juice. We each had a different version of garlic chicken for the main dish.

After lunch, as we were thousands of miles from the Elbo Room, I wasn’t able to buy Susan a post-prandial liter of Becks beer. So, she had to settle for a navy blue rain coat from Burberry’s. Dear Reader, this is an inside joke between us so please unquestioningly "fast forward" to the next paragraph where you will be more at home.

In need of exercise, and in quest of some spiritual guidance, Susan and I then walked back up Piccadilly, past our hotel, and continued down the Brompton Road, past Harrods, to the Brompton Oratory. Ninety minutes here in a smoke filled room was the down side of the up side.

Getting back to the more steamy side of London: during our walk back from Knightsbridge I noticed that the people who operate the British telephone system were still in a losing battle with the "working girls" of the city. I am thoroughly convinced that one of the largest printing operations in the UK must owe its bottom line to the millions of little sex cards that find their way into local phone kiosks. Apparently, the runners whose job it is to "refresh" the billboards must be under strict orders to pay close attention to postal zones. I mean, for example, Miss Candy who offers "obedience training" in a flat near the Aldgate tube stop would surely be wasting precious paper by posting her phone number somewhere near Earl’s Court.

As we had a different kind of menu in mind we continued our walk.

The New Taj Mahal restaurant in Mayfair was our last stop of the evening ... for a Tandoori finale, of course. This was a culinary cap on Susan’s 39 years of out of house dining; up to now she had never forked down either Indian or Lebanese cuisine. She liked them both.

At this point I think that we had been awake for something just shy of 38 hours. Time to close.


Sunday, 13 December 1998

Hmmm. A proper English breakfast in bed. At the Four Seasons Hotel. With the Sunday Times. Life can’t get much better than that, can it?

Later, a peek out the window revealed a crisp blue sky hanging over Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. Certainly not stuffy church weather. It was just the perfect morning for a longish walk. Which we did. Any visitor who comes to London must take advantage of the services of a little company known as "The Original LONDON WALKS." It offers loads of historical, interesting and fun walks all over London. They range from a tour of the places where Jack the Ripper ripped apart whores to the spots where Christopher Wren built tall steeples. An up to the minute web site of the complete menu of LONDON WALKS can be found at http://london.walks.com.

Dear Reader, the Four Seasons Hotel chain is well known throughout the world for the comfort of its beds. And, since today is a Sunday, afternoon naps are in order. Forget lunch! So be it.

So it was.

A whisper from a food savvy Four Seasons employee suggested that we visit a competing property for dinner. By this time we were very hungry. It seems that the Metropolitan Hotel (next door) is the home of Nobu, a Japanese restaurant recently imported from Area Code 212, USA. The Met (if they call it that) is a severely decorated destination that is peopled by a staff dressed in black and more black. This theme did not abate at the stairs to the sushi bar.

In keeping with sushi bar economics we were seated at the very far end of the narrow ledge that separated the stools from the glass enclosed offerings of the sea. The next couple, in an otherwise empty restaurant, were seated directly next to us. And, the next-next couple were positioned right next to them. This cozy "nextness" guaranteed that the sushi bar was never left with any empty unusable seats. It was rather like filling up a bottle ... there was never any room for "air bubbles" that would short a full fill. Mercifully, however, we were spared the usual Tokyo inconvenience of having to shift our seats, chop sticks and bowls of soy sauce sideways when quicker diners left a gap in the otherwise fully occupied row.

Later, in the Borough of Chelsea, as we walked down Flood Street we reached a point of choice. On the west side of the road a cheery and well lit pub operated by Inn Cooper invited us in to enjoy something from the pump. On the east side of the street the dimly lit "Hall of Remembrance" offered a flight of stairs to a paint chipped basement. Where should we go: toward the clink of friendly glasses or in the direction of words of woe? Would it be pints of creamy headed Guinness or Styrofoam cups of instant coffee laced with skim milk?

Guess!

Ninety minutes later, and feeling a little peckish, we double dipped at a local Benihana before returning to the beds of the Four Seasons.


Monday, 14 December 1998

After a brisk walk in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens Susan and I headed down Piccadilly toward the Economist Bookstore. It was again that time of the year to replace my rarely if ever used, but handsomely bound, annual diaries. After a short but obligatory time on this south appendage of Regent Street we veered north to do some very serious Christmas shopping on the proper end of Regent Street.

Fortunately, this serious effort at Christmas-time looking and poking halted quite abruptly, just after noon, when we came within sniffing distance of Gallery Rendezvous, a Chinese restaurant on Beak Street that has been one of my favorite haunts since my student days in London ... almost thirty years ago. The place hasn’t changed a bit: the table where I used to dine as a "party of one" is still there; as is the large round table where and when we dined in the family mode. However, the current manager is still wet behind the ears ... being only eighteen years in service to his master.

As Susan and I had tickets for the late evening performance of Miss Saigon [www.miss-saigon.com], we both mentally booked preparatory naps at the Four Seasons Hotel ... and, further Christmas shopping was then shoved aside for the balance of the day.

Hey, this London nap habit is becoming a very pleasant addiction.

The hike this evening to the Drury Lane Theater took us through Covent Garden. Just a few blocks shy of Catherine Street, the precise location of the theater, we chanced a glance at the menu of Plummers Restaurant on King Street. We could not resist tasting the steamed Sea Bass before pressing on. Don’t pass this place by if you are in the neighborhood.

Though Miss Saigon has been playing in various places around the world for nine years, my travels have not been in tune, for one reason or another, with attendance at any performance. Tonight’s performance was well worth that "wait", if I can describe the delay as such. This play has only been at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane for a little over two months, though it was performed in London at another West End theater in the early ‘90’s.

By the way, the Drury Lane Theater, along with another nine or so London theaters, is operated by STOLL MOSS THEATRES [www.stoll-moss.com].


Tuesday, 15 December 1998

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING ENTIRELY DIFFERENT ... FROM THE INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE:

Susan and I wanted to go to Selfridges on Oxford Street for entirely different reasons. I was looking for a small multi-pocketed piece of carry-on luggage and something to go in it. Susan was just looking for something to go in it. Both of us found things that we were not looking for.

Pleased with our good fortune we immediately repaired to Chungs Chinese Restaurant: a Pekinese and Cantonese restaurant just on the other side of Duke Street. This, too, is a London establishment where I am well known ... for unfortunate reasons. Without even having to place an order for anything, a large dish of crispy seaweed appeared in front of us. After that, we followed owner Peter’s suggestion that two double dishes of steamed scallops would round out things nicely. They did.

For our post prandial exercises Susan went shopping at Harrods while I took a walking tour at dusk of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. Since this is the office Christmas party season our walks took us past a lot of well dressed people who, instead of being obediently queueful for transportation home, were barfing into litter bins and onto their shoes.

Something untoward happened to us on our the way to the theater this evening. It started to rain like it does in Madras during the monsoon season. Well, almost. Anyway, it was s most un-London like downpour. After speculating on whether a Disney musical was worth this chill-and-wet factor we about-faced ourselves and sloshed back to Mayfair where we discovered a wonderful Lebanese restaurant (Al Sultan ... 51 Hertford Street, W1). This was yet another example of when "so-so" things turn out much better than expected.

This was the first night that Susan and I made it back to our rooms before midnight.


Wednesday, 16 December 1998

I need to add a post script to yesterday’s journal. While walking up to and around Selfridges we visited a couple of other London sites. Just before lunch we went to Thayer Street; a road next to which my daughter, Lisa, had a small apartment while she was a student at the Cordon Bleu Cooking School. We also visited Gray’s Antique Market and stopped in to see David Hogg, from whom I have purchased a large number of corkscrews in the past. One sad note: his dog, Pontiac, who had been his stall mascot for many years, died.

After a late morning five mile walk through the two parks adjacent to our hotel Susan and I went back to Oxford Street for some additional shopping and fooding. This orgy was again followed by napping. What else is new?

However, this evening we aborted ourselves midway through the performance of The Phantom of the Opera. The music was wonderful but it could have done without the play; in short, the soundtrack was all that was needed ... though the crashing chandelier scene made a nice exclamation point at the end of Act 1.


Thursday, 17 December 1998

MORE FROM THE INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE

After a very late wake up call Susan and I made our way over to Victoria Station in order to book her Saturday trip from downtown London to Gatwick Airport. The Gatwick Express [www.gatwickexpress.co.uk] is clearly the quickest and easiest way to get to this airport. Trains leave every fifteen minutes and the non-stop journey takes but half an hour.

After a further walk which took us by a pro-Iraq demonstration near Number 10 Downing Street we coursed our way back to Mayfair for seconds at Al Sultan. Yes, we again had the spicy sea bass.

The conscientious reader will have no trouble guessing what we did next.

Passing on dinner, seven o’clock found us, vouchers in hand, heading toward the Adelphi Theater to catch the 8PM performance of CHICAGO [www.chicagothemusical.com]. This time we did not short the show.


Friday, 18 December 1998

Our final full day in London was very low key. The high point today was definitely the afternoon movie: "Dancing at Lughnasa," starring Meryl Streep and Michael Gambon. It was conveniently billed at the Curzon Theater, just around the corner from our hotel. Hey, in my opinion, all of those West End legitimate theaters, especially the Drury Lane, should check out the comfort and safety level of the seating at the Curzon. Incidentally, this Drury Lane place that I am talking about has burned down to the ground at least three times in the last few centuries. And, not much thought has ever been given to the public need to get out of the way of licking flames ... as most of the ticket refunds were paid to the heirs of the cinders and dental records. Apparently the successive rebuilders of the Drury Lane have stuck to the old blueprints, at least when it comes to seat and row design. Perhaps it will take another hellish fire and a fresh set of 21st century architects to make the stalls and dress circle seats more worthy of the price that is extracted for entry.

Susan and I had our last London dinner at Wheeler’s of St. James’s ... oysters and lobsters, of course. By the way, the seating here is very comfortable. Lore has it that this centuries old establishment has also had its own share of fires. Apparently, after having poked among the ashes while sorting the guests from the chops, the owners of Wheeler’s decided a bit more leg room would ease future exits if the cooking oil again boiled up out of control.

Tomorrow I am off to Paris, while Susan is scheduled to fly back to Florida. We have had a really wonderful time together.

Susan, dear, you always have an open invitation to join me on any trip. Thanks for being such a great friend.

Dear Reader, from tomorrow until the 3rd of January Becky and I shall NOT be at the Paris apartment. Instead, we’ll be at Le Parc Hotel, 55 Avenue Raymond Poincare, 75116 Paris (phone=33144056666). Rather than spend the holiday fortnight in our apartment I thought it would be a pleasant treat to continue this European stay in a hotel. Hey, the room service habit is hard to give up.

Until Paris ...


Next: The Paris Journal!

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