LONDON JOURNAL, Part 1 by Kim Trotto September 13, 2010, 6:45 p.m., Newark Liberty Airport: Travel Day: My husband and I are on our way to England. Or the UK as the posh set would have it. Going there has been a longing of mine from way back. We’ve already been through the confusion of checking in with passports that, according to a harried airline employee, will slow us down because they’ve never been scanned. Now, they’ve been properly scanned and we’re waiting to board the large airplane that will spend seven hours taking us thousands of miles eastward and five hours into the future. I’m tempted to set my watch ahead, even before I board the plane to London.
By now, we’ve enjoyed some of travel’s special humor. Our flight is delayed by a leak—in the plane’s coffee machine, of all things—and it’s further delayed by a thunderstorm booming over Newark, New Jersey. James says “we’ve been begging for thunderstorms all summer and now we get one? What’s up with that?”
I agree with him and think it’s wonderful. Just the sort of little adventure to remind us that other, and one hopes, equally amusing experiences, lie ahead. The downpour gives us another reason for utter delight when the jetway doesn’t quite connect to the plane. Heavy rain is creating the illusion of a waterfall in front of the plane’s entrance door. I watch the flight attendant motioning me through the water curtain. She’s in a hurry, other passengers are queuing up behind me, after all. But I pause to open my umbrella and calmly pass through the shower, my spirit already British.September 14, 2010, 8 a.m. London, Heathrow: Arrival: We’re here an hour late because of the storm in New Jersey. We’ve passed the night enjoying meal service, watching movies, reading and generally goofing off. When you’re confined by seatbelts and there’s no place to go anyway, you’ve an excuse to get absolutely nothing done, the real blessing in airplane travel.
Now though, we need to find the Piccadilly “underground” train line to South Ealing Station, and our guesthouse in Kew Village. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, but our plan to lug our suitcases onto the train wasn’t well-thought out. It appears certain underground stations have lots of stairs but no lifts. Then there’s the gap.
The trains are a bit taller than the platforms, leaving a wide gulf to cross. The automatic announcements won’t let us forget this, of course. Every time the train stops and the doors open, a cultured British voice reminds us to please, mind the gap. Sometimes it’s just mind the gap, or mind the gap, please or do mind the gap. I’m waiting for “mind the gap for the sake of queen and country.”
At South Ealing Station the gap becomes a real problem. I tell James I’ll just toss my suitcases across the space and jump after them. Only way to do it efficiently. Lucky for me though, I don’t need to make that leap of faith. I polite young man sets them on the platform for me, saying—and I’m really crazy about this—“There you go, Love.” We get to Kew at last, a suburb of London, at about eleven in the a.m. Our host, Maura, says we’ve done well, considering. She offers tea and a biscuit. What could be more English?
Our room is quaint. But, after sitting on the bed, I wonder if it’s really a piece of the Rock of Gibraltar, hauled to the guest room to remind us of Britain’s stability. Then there’s the bath. You need to flip a switch to get enough water for a decent shower. I recall a novel where a British traveler to New York City is stunned by how much water comes out when he turns the handle of his hotel shower. That novel was written in 1979. I see things haven’t much changed.
Unfortunately, there’s no equivalent power switch for the toilet. The number of times or the duration one is required to hold down the handle in order to get a sufficient flush is a fascination for James throughout the trip. Considering that we didn’t sleep the previous night, we decide to stay within walking distance of the guesthouse and spend the day exploring Kew. Maura tells us we should try to stay up. “The Americans who don’t go to bed until night do the best, you know,” she says. I don’t think I could sleep anyway.
We head for the village and the Maura-recommended Kew Gardens Hotel. The neighborhood is lovely, all brick homes with bow windows and neat front gardens. We pass a postbox, which looks a bit like a giant red mushroom and I stop to take a picture of it. The young couple walking in the other direction kindly don’t comment on my strange desire to photograph postboxes.
A short five blocks takes us to the village center. This is one of those amazing environments many Americans and, I assume, less wealthy British are said to long for. Gracious homes are within walking distance of a picturesque village with its own train line, next-door-to-the-train-station pub, fresh farm market, butcher, bakery, bookshop, stationary, coffee shop,—in this case, and many others in England, a Starbucks—apothecary, café, and estate agent’s office.
Life in Kew seems slow paced, not just because we’re on vacation. People, both old and young, often very young—there’s a perfect tidal wave of babies and their strollers—are enjoying peaceful walks around the village. They’re shopping for books, stopping for a coffee at Starbucks or lunch and a chat at the café.
The hotel pub has the wood and antique décor favored by all the pubs I will enter in England. The atmosphere here is casual and relaxed. There’s no loud rock music, in fact, no music at all. It feels good to converse in peace. I note that, while young people share a lively conversation at a nearby table, there’s a very old lady nursing a pint of Guinness toward the back of the room. She has a book open in front of her and she belongs here just as much as the kids. I think of American bars, often dark, the air pierced with music so loud you need to shout at you drinking partner. If you’re elderly and drinking in that sort of bar, you’re probably considered a pitiable old lush. But, our old lady seems quite at home and everyone else in the pub appears to approve of her.
Ordering beer isn’t as easy as I thought it would be. I’ve a well developed taste for Newcastle Brown, a British ale often available in New Jersey restaurants and I’d planned to order it at most of my pub stops. But, there’s no “Newky” Brown on tap here. There’s London Pride and four others, all unfamiliar. I try to memorize the brands, after asking the barman which is an ale and which a lager. I’m hoping to request my favorite at future pub visits. Later, I’ll learn that that this is fruitless since every pub has its own collection. London Pride is the only one I will find in another pub, and I’ll only see it one other time.
Finally, we settle on Fosters, poured from a bottle. It’s a lager, which means it’s always served cold. I’ve discovered a myth about British beer. Even the ales and bitters aren’t really served warm. It’s just that people stop in at the pub most nights, winter or summer, and who wants to drink an ice cold brew when it’s foggy, damp and chill outside?