Monday, November 28, 2005

Thanksgiving in London

I just had a wonderful Thanksgiving. You should read Jon Carroll’s column about Thanksgiving, as he describes pretty much perfectly why Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. Well, I suppose that as a vegetarian, I don’t exactly support roasted turkey as wholeheartedly as Mr. Carroll does, but other than that, he and I are on the same page. It's a holiday about being happy for what you have and about eating ridiculous quantities of good food. What's not to support about that? I also support leaving the country for Thanksgiving, as I have done for two years now. Our lovely American friend, Becca, and her charming English husband, Alex, can’t get canned pumpkin to make pies there, and I get two free days off of work, so it seems like the ideal time to pack my suitcase with canned pumpkin and other American delicacies (marshmallows and Tollhouse chocolate chips, among other things), as well as lots of warm clothes, and go for a visit. This year we had the added bonus of Christie escaping from work in India for a few days to join us for the holiday.


Wednesday morning I woke up on the plane as the flight attendants were bringing out breakfast. I was grateful for my comfy neck pillow and the nice headrests on British Airways flights that had allowed me to get a good five hours sleep on the plane. We landed smoothly at Heathrow, and I told The Husband that if I saw the captain on my way out, I would compliment him on the landing and thank him for not making me want to toss my cookies even once. Then the captain came over the speaker to say that he couldn't take credit for the smooth landing, as it had been done automatically by the plane. I don't know whether I like the idea of the plane landing itself, or whether it scares me a little bit. Maybe both.

We shuttled from the airport to the tube and then spent an hour on the train. Becca met us at the tube and we managed to get all our luggage on the bus back to her house. We had sort of intended to do some sightseeing that afternoon, but we were tired and it was good to just sit around the house, eat lunch, and catch up. We did make it out that evening to a favorite Indian restaurant, Rasa, for some delicious vegetarian curries. (I think I would like have a conversation in which I get to say, “Rasa is my favorite restaurant in London.” I haven’t been to all that many restaurants in London, but it sounds very cosmopolitan, don’t you think?) I don't think curry would have been Christie's first choice, as she was quite obviously homesick for some Western dishes, but whenever anyone had asked me what I was planning to do in London during the week leading up to the trip, my answer was, "Eat curry," and Christie humored us. We ordered what seemed like way too much food, and then ate every bit of it, using paratha and poori to mop up the delicious sauces from the serving dishes.


On Thanksgiving, I felt only slightly guilty taking off to go sightseeing with The Husband and Christie while Becca and Alex spent the day in the kitchen preparing the feast. But they assured us that they could go to St. Paul’s and the Tate Modern any time they wanted, and I rationalized that we’d all just be tripping over each other in the kitchen anyhow.

Last year’s Thanksgiving break was my first time in London, and I had resisted going into museums, as I wanted to get out and see the city itself. We had gone into the Tate Modern as we walked along the river from the Eye to St. Paul’s last year only to use the restrooms. This year Christie suggested actually viewing the exhibits, and given the cold, wet day, it seemed like a very good idea. The museum divides works by themes, rather than by time periods, so we visited the Nude/Action/Body and History/Memory/Society suites. I’m glad we went into both, as I would have selected the former if we were only to have picked one, and I actually preferred the art in the latter.

Before we entered either suite, we looked at the Rachel Whiteread installation in the Turbine Hall. “It looks like sugar cubes,” either Christie or The Husband said immediately, as we looked down at the piles of white cubes with people walking among them. It was the kind of art in which I liked what the artist was trying to say when I read about it, and the work appealed to me visually, but I couldn't instinctively make the connection, even when I knew what it was supposed to be. I think what I enjoyed the most about it was the feeling of smallness I got walking around among the thousands of white boxes. I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to take pictures, but I saw someone else do it right in front of a security guard without any consequences so I took a few myself.



My favorite piece of art was one of the first ones that we saw in History/Memory/Society, two carved trees by Giuseppe Penone. You can read about the piece and see pictures here. Penone carved two trees out of timber beams, leaving the beams intact at the base of each tree. It’s interesting to me to read about what Penone was trying to accomplish with his work, because I took away something very different. I was left struggling to put into words the idea of forming this beam out of a tree, only to try to carve it back with chainsaws and chisels to form an image of a tree. I looked at the carved tree rising from the squared off block of timber beam and it struck me that we often take from nature, try to force it into a shape that serves our purposes, and then try to force the more natural aspects back into the appearance.

It seems to me that I read something in a newspaper not too long ago about what sort of text museums provide for each piece of art. Some museums only tell the name of the piece, the artist, the date, and how the museum came into possession of the work. I prefer the Tate Modern’s approach, which also includes a few sentences describing the art, perhaps giving some context from the artist’s life or the time period. I can appreciate most visual art more if I am given some context, and reading even just a little bit about a piece makes me want to consider the art more carefully than I would otherwise.

Another room was filled with a piece on the Iraq war by Thomas Hirschorn. I walked around the work several times, looking at the faces of the US soldiers who surrounded a city built from every day objects, with political books and giant mushrooms rising from the streets. The text that was provided about the piece included a quotation from Hirschhorn that I copied down: “It is only when the eyes and the brain get exhausted that there are no lies and you can get to the truth.”

I contemplated Hirschorn’s words as I stood in the next room, a room that had no art, just chairs looking out over the river. It was raining and windy—the some of the narrow trees outside the museum looked as though they could break as they all leaned with the force of the wind. People were flowing back and forth across the Millennium Bridge between the museum and the Cathedral. I was pleased by the way the brightly lit art in the room I had just left contrasted with the dark day, the lines of the bridge, and Christopher Wren’s dome. I felt that I understood Hirschhorn, but I wasn’t sure I agreed with him.

Three other works really stood out to me. The first was one that Christie pointed out to me, Gerhard Richter’s Townscape Paris (sorry, no image there, and I couldn't find one using Google Images, either, leading me to the conclusion that it's just not on the internet at all), which to me captured the idea of a city perfectly, although I have never been to Paris, so I couldn't tell you how well it captures Paris. I didn’t write down the artist or title of the second one, and I have completely forgotten, although I can call up the image in my head: it was a photograph of a dark, empty room that appeared to be flooded, although according to the description, it was a trick of resin that gave the photo that appearance. I couldn’t say what it was about the photograph that struck such a deeply emotional chord for me, but I stood and stared at it for a long time, feeling very sad. The Husband suggested that the sadness came not simply from the photograph itself, but from the fact that I was connecting this particular image to the images in the news of this fall’s hurricanes. He could be right, but I do think that there was just a lot of sadness conveyed from the photo itself, even without that context. The last work was Rodin's The Kiss, which he apparently didn't like, but which amazes me as most sculpture does. The idea that a person can bring figures out of a piece of marble is awesome.

We walked back across the bridge to St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was my favorite part of last year’s trip. I still loved the Cathedral, but this year’s visit wasn’t as spectacular. Last year as we climbed to the Whispering Gallery, on the inside of the dome, organ music was playing and we reached the top in time to see a brightly-robed procession come through. Afterwards, we climbed up to the two outer galleries, and I was left with knees like jelly for an hour after we came down, as my terror of the heights was magnified by the narrow walkway and fragile-looking barrier on the uppermost level. In spite of that fear, I had wanted to climb up again this year, thinking I had built my tolerance for heights somewhat with all the towers we climbed in Italy in May, but they had closed the outer galleries due to the wind and rain just before we arrived. I was disappointed to miss out on the wonderful views of the city, but somewhat relieved to only have to deal with a little bit of nervousness peering down into the Cathedral from the first gallery.

St. Paul's and the Millenium Bridge

St. Paul's Cathedral

We went back to the house to find that Becca and Alex had a Thanksgiving feast ready to go on the table. With two vegetarians and two people who border on vegetarianism and don't like meat, we decided to forgo the turkey this year and filled up with side dishes: artichoke dip, tomato soup, green salad, spinach-cheese casserole, sweet potatoes (one of Becca's friends gave her what I think is the best sweet potato recipe ever), cranberry sauce, stuffed mushrooms, stuffing, and pumpkin pie (with a superb crust). Christie brought an excellent bottle of wine, and I think the next two bottles we drank were good too, although I can't really remember them at this point. Mostly I'm just proud that I managed to avoid getting drunk and passing out on the couch this year, breaking with what had become something of a Thanksgiving tradition.


On Friday we bundled up against the cold and took a train out to Oxford. We started our day there with lunch at the Eagle & Child pub, where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien once spent time. Mostly it was full of American tourists and American students studying at Oxford. After lunch (which was okay, even though English pubs aren’t the ideal place for vegetarians to find food), we explored Blackwell’s, a wonderful bookstore, so big you can easily get lost, with six miles of bookshelves. I was in book-nerd heaven.

Blackwell's bookstore

Next stop was Christ Church college, which I wanted to visit mostly because parts of some of the Harry Potter movies have been filmed there, and certain sets have been modeled after parts of the school. I loved seeing the Great Hall, although I was sad to see that candles don't actually float above the tables.

Christ Church College Great Hall

A couple of other pictures from Oxford:



When we returned from Oxford, we went to Covent Garden to look at the shops and drink mulled wine, but we were too late: the shops were closing and there was no mulled wine to be had. We went back to the house to eat our Thanksgiving leftovers and watch Shaolin Soccer (Note to Rachel: I kept thinking that you would get a kick out of it), which in Alex's words, was either the best or worst film I'd ever seen.


We intended to get an early start on Saturday, but somehow that didn't happen. Becca and I actually got up plenty early, but instead of getting ready, we sat in the kitchen and gabbed for over an hour until the boys started to wake up. Still, we managed to have a full day. We walked to the neighborhood Saturday market, and spent some time looking at the booths--organic coffees, some vegetables, pastries, jewelry, and prepared foods. The Husband had a spinach crepe from one booth, while the rest of us ate Ghanaian food. I haven't eaten much African food, but I can support anything that is spicy and comes with fried plantains.

Next we took the tube to Kensington to take a walking tour from a company that several friends recommended as we planned our trip last year, London Walks. Last year we hadn't made it on any of the walks, and with Alex as a tour guide I didn't feel that I'd missed much, but I'm glad we did it this year. We saw things we never would have found on our own, or even with Alex's help, including a one-and-a-half-acre roof garden, complete with real pink flamingoes. The guide, David, told us interesting stories about the people who had lived in various houses, and took us into the parish church. It was a long walk, and after two and a half hours, we clearly needed to spend some time at a pub. David recommended one that wasn't too far away from the walk's end point. It was cozy and nice, and I enjoyed watching some rugby on the television there--much more exciting than American football. Dinner was at a curry restaurant on Brick Lane--not as good as the food at Rasa, but still tasty.


St. Mary Abbots, the Kensington parish church


Sunday was another day when we intended to get an early start, with the hope of getting in a little more sightseeing before we had to leave, but we slept a bit late and moved rather slowly, and before too long we had to pack our bags and head for the airport.

The flight home was lousy. I suppose the flight to one's vacation is always better because despite the discomfort one has something to look forward to besides an empty refrigerator and spending the next day feeling jetlagged at work. I suppose none of the problems I had on the flight would have been an issue if I had just taken a nap, but I forced myself to stay awake on the way home in order to minimize jetlag. First, the man in front of me leaned his seat back further than I knew it was possible to lean any airline seat back. When the flight attendants brought lunches around, they asked him to raise his seat slightly, as I couldn't open my tray table at all, but as soon as they picked up the "rubbish," his seat was back again. I had to lean my seat back slightly, and then lean it back even more whenever I or either of the other women in my row wanted to get up. The headphone jack at my seat didn't work, so I couldn't watch movies (and I had wanted to see the newest Batman), but I had picked up the newest Patricia Cornwell novel in the airport (because on a plane, that's really the most serious book I'm prepare to handle, and even though I don't read many mysteries anymore, I am strangely addicted to the Kay Scarpetta series--The Husband suggests that the pages are coated in crack), but when the cabin lights were dimmed after the meal I discovered that my reading light was out, as were several others nearby. The flight attendants attempted to resolve the problem by resetting the lights, but only managed to turn out all the lights in the last 11 rows of the plane. One of the flight attendants found me a flashlight, so at least I got to finish my book (which, in case you're interested, is a big improvement on the last few Cornwell books, but still not up to the quality of the first ones in the series).

In spite of my whining and general crankiness, we made it home all in one piece, even having time to pick up some "take away" Thai on our way from the airport. (Normally a flight returning to Dulles is our excuse to eat at delicious curries at Amma Vegetarian Kitchen in Vienna, but I was not emotionally prepared to deal with the slow service.) I'm almost back to normal in terms of sleep. I did wake up at 3 am on Monday feeling wide awake, and I was so tired after work and my yoga class that night that I don't actually remember going to bed, but I have managed to have two somewhat productive days back at work, in spite of the time I spend thinking about next year's Thanksgiving.


Anonymous said...

I can't believe that while you were in Oxford you didn't take in the Purple Turtle, in honor of the Sister-in-Law.

Elizabeth said...

Hey, I asked her where to go, and she told me Eagle & Child. I totally would have gone to the Purple Turtle, but she didn't put it on her list.

Lauren said...

PT is only worth going to with a bunch of random americans breaking things, plus it isn't a pub, so besides 1 pound beer, they wouldn't have had much to do... The Eagle and Child was a much better choice... I totally forgot about Blackwells, I'm glad you found it... man those pics make me miss Oxford so much!