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The Pint Glass is Half Empty

Molly Denver Takes On London for the Third Time

In essence, this trip was thirty years in the making. My good high school friend Catherine (who, I might mention, found me through Ape Culture after years of non-communication) decided to rally seven of her friends and hold her 30th birthday, which occurs concurrently with New Year’s, in London. I had never before met anyone who was going on the trip other than our host so it really promised to be an adventure (especially since I didn’t do any research, figuring I could plan the trip on the plane).

The trip itself began for me at my parents' house in Virginia. My brother and I drove back to New York City in time for me to catch my flight on the day after Christmas. I erroneously thought I had left plenty of time to get to JFK, but the bus from the subway to the terminal took much more time than I had anticipated--you would think I would know better as I have had to run to catch a flight more than once. By the time I arrived, I only had an hour to catch my flight--unfortunate due to the fact that there were easily 300 people in line in front of me at the British Airways desk. I grabbed a man who worked there and asked if there was anything that could be done. At first he shrugged, but he came back a minute later to lead me around the corner to an obscure business class desk which had perhaps 8 people on line in front of me. Moments later, the man came back again and led me to the even shorter first class line, telling me to tell them Jack had sent me. How cool was that?

The rest of the trip to London was a breeze--I have learned that if you plan on sleeping on the flight, always order a special meal because they’ll leave that on your tray whereas if you get the normal meal, they’ll just pass you by and you eventually wake up, not sure if you are still awaiting a meal or had totally missed it. Just a tip.

I arrived early Friday morning and caught a “Hotelink” bus to my hotel, the Regent Palace at Piccadilly Circus. It would be hours until check in, so I checked my luggage (for a fee of course) and aimlessly walked the streets. As you may have gleaned from my discussion on sleeping when the airline meal comes, I had not done the research I had planned on doing on the plane. I bought postcards for my family but unfortunately, I could not write them yet as nothing notable had happened--though you might debate this as I am already on my fourth paragraph. I wandered back to the hotel to check in. There were some problems as I had no voucher to give them, but I finally got a room. I asked if any of my travel-mates had arrived yet, but they had not. I retired to my room to research what I wanted to do while in London, but fell asleep almost immediately. I finally got up and showered, attempting to shave my legs which is no small feat in the small tube they call a shower. Just call me Molly the contortionist. After, I called the front desk to find out where Catherine and her friends were. I was informed that they had indeed checked in. Now, I was supposed to be sharing a room with one of them, so I was particularly surprised that no one had contacted me. I called Catherine’s room but was unable to find her. Driven by hunger, I went down to the lobby and struck up a conversation with the concierge, James. We chatted a bit--the first comfort I had since arriving. He sent me to a nearby pub for supper. I checked the front desk for messages first--not a one. I was feeling a bit down at this point.

I sat in the pub drinking a cider and writing poetry for Ape Culture. Eventually, loneliness drove me back to the hotel for an early bedtime. I stopped by the front desk again where there were no messages for me, however, they easily gave me Catherine’s room number (is that even legal?). I stopped by her room and found Catherine and her sister hanging out. They had been leaving messages for me since 2 PM and had been repeatedly told that I had not yet arrived. They had called my cell phone, my parents, and even my aunt and uncle to tell them I had gone missing. My roommate had even been given her own room since I apparently had never shown up. I went back to the front desk where I made sure they weren’t going to double charge us for their mistake, and I insisted they pay for me to call home to tell my family I was not indeed missing. They gave in to my American persistence (read: obnoxiousness).

The next morning I finally met my roommate Liz, a really fun NASA employee from Texas. I went down, as instructed by Catherine, to meet everyone for breakfast, but as they were not yet in the lobby, I exchanged pleasantries with James and awaited their arrival. After 15 minutes, Liz came out to let me know that they were already eating breakfast inside the hotel pub. Drat--another misunderstanding causing me to spend more time alone. I caught the end of breakfast, only to discover that they were going to start off shopping, a task I had no interest in, and so I agreed to meet later at the Victoria & Albert Museum. I wandered in the direction I would eventually meet the group. My first stop was to shop (yes, just after I said I had no interest) at a tailors and buy a shirt. I then meandered into St James to admire the Sir Christopher Wren detailing. Finally, I went to Apsley House and took their excellent tour, being pleasantly surprised by the art which included several Canova and Rubens works.

Finally, I went to meet up with Catherine, Judy, Lydia and Marne at the Victoria and Albert museum. I went inside the unassuming entrance and waited for about 15 minutes (is this beginning to sound familiar?). I finally approached the security guard to find out if there had been a group of Americans waiting there before me. He replied, “That’s odd--most people meet up at the main entrance.” Oh. Yeah. Moments after we met up, though, we went our separate ways--I headed towards the sculpture, costume jewelry and dress collections, and they to the Asian art collections. We reconvened successfully and headed over to Portobello Road Market, where I failed to find anything I wanted. I blame New York, actually. The first time I came to London, I was a teenager living in Idaho. London was fun, fascinating and perfect to me. I loved the shopping, the accents, the words the British used like “loo” and “queue." I even wrote a list of the words I intended to use when I got back to Idaho to impress everyone with my sophistication. The second time I went to London, I had just finished college in Indiana--as you can imagine, it had a similar effect on me. This was my third time, and after 7 ½ years in New York City, I am less easily impressed by the pace, which now seems painfully slow and the nights end so much earlier. Now I find it disconcerting when I find my friends using un-American phrases like “snogging” and calling a sweater a “jumper.” I will admit, though that I still love how the British use words like “whilst” on their street signs. And I love how they have a construction company called “Try Construction." Is it a command or a description?

Eventually, we all met up again, having lost each other amongst the many booths. We headed home to prepare to go see Reduced Shakespeare. In college, I focused a good amount of my non-architecture time on Shakespeare classes and plays and have always fostered an interest in his work. See--even just now I even nearly capitalized “His” in the previous sentence. I knew this production wouldn’t be high art, but I have learned to let go and accept non-traditional Shakespeare. That is how I was able to get through The Donkey Show, a disco version of A Midsummer Night's Dream performed in a club, which I had seen in New York. Well, apparently, I couldn’t let go enough, as three sophomoric Americans making fun of the bard’s work was really just annoying to me. I’m not saying that it wasn’t funny, merely that…Well, yes, I am saying it wasn’t funny. Goofy--yes. Dorky--yes. Funny? Not so much.

We headed out to an Italian restaurant recommended to us by James. We had a good time, and I was finally able to better get to know my fellow travelers. There was Lydia, a coworker of Catherine’s. Becky formerly worked with Catherine, and her husband Mike, the sole male on this trip, had never worked with Catherine. Mike was what my Grandma would call “a stitch.” Really funny and fun to be around. Marne works for UPS but met Catherine when they both first moved to DC and lived in a women’s dormitory. Catherine’s sister Judy also came and represented the twenty-something crowd for us.

Most of us went out for a drink at the Devonshire Arms, and then Catherine, Lydia and I continued on. Once, I visited Catherine in DC and talked her and her friend into using “going out” names. I was always “Effie”, but this never mattered because as soon as we met someone, I immediately forget my name as well as all of my companions’. This time we took on the Charlie’s Angel’s names-- I was Dylan the saucy redhead. Well, our names were never asked, the men we met were lame, and we were totally unsuccessful finding bars that were open after 11:00 that didn’t have a cover. We finally went to a club, Atlantic, where we claimed our boyfriends were waiting downstairs for us. It was my turn to buy a round. Here the drinks cost eight pounds a drink which translates to highway robbery. We declared the night a failure and headed off to our respective beds.

Sunday, I walked towards the Shakespeare Globe Theatre, stopping at a Salvador Dali exhibit on the way. I loved the science fiction feeling to his work--especially the three dimensional pieces. The rain eased up a bit (I forgot to mention it was raining--always assume it’s raining unless I mention otherwise) by the time I got my tour of the theatre. I didn’t really learn anything new, as I had already been on the tour on my previous two visits to London. I continued walking around the city with no goal in mind- by now I had done the proper research, but planned on doing the majority of the things I wanted to do on my last Wednesday since most of the houses I wanted to see were all around each other in West London. I returned in time to meet the group and go to see a comedy troupe perform. The show was structured much like the show “Whose Line Is It Anyway” and they were truly hilarious! We all celebrated our good moods at a Chinese restaurant nearby.

Monday, I went to Kensington Palace and wandered through the disappointing tour. As an architect, I wanted to hear more about the building, not just anecdotes like the one about Princess Anne who had tripped on her gown and oh how embarrassing it was to all involved. I wandered out and around Notting Hill Gate, stopping in a pub for a bowl of soup. The bread was served with a rather large, sharp knife, with which I cut myself quite deeply almost immediately. The pub generously provided me with “elastics” with cartoon characters on them. I continued on to read in a coffee shop until I later joined Lydia, Becky and Mike for dinner at Pizza Express. We headed back to the hotel where we met up with the entire group to hang out at Callahan’s, the hotel pub. There we were lucky enough to witness people from every country get up to represent their country in that world-wide humiliation called karaoke. Liz, Catherine and I wound up the evening going out to McDonalds and playing a new game they introduced me to: “Marry, F**k or Kill.” The game is to list three people who are related in some way, and must name which of the three you would kill, which you would marry and- you get the idea. For instance: Billy, Alec and Stephen Baldwin. Easy! I would kill Stephen, marry Billy and- you know. Then there are Shakespeare, Dickens and Twain. And don’t forget Charlie’s current angels…

Tuesday, I checked out Covent Garden and stopped in to a church in time to hear an incredible boys' choir sing. I was moved by the beautiful music, but much to my chagrin, so was a urine-smelling homeless person who was apparently pleasuring himself in the church while watching the boys. I rushed out of the church knowing there was only one thing that could cheer me up--Sir John Soane’s museum. There is no building in all of London that makes me nearly as happy! I wandered around in architectural ecstasy until I had to head over to meet the group for tea at Claridge’s. Though billed as the first Art Deco hotel in London, it was apparent that it was obviously built much earlier--perhaps in 1910, though the clean lines of the interior were still quite nice. We enjoyed a variety of tea, mini sandwiches (why do they seem more elegant when the crusts are cut off?) and fancy deserts. Catherine, forgetting that it was her birthday we were celebrating presented each of us with a gift--and what a gift! Catherine is well aware of my penchant for taking frequent baths and had given me this lavender ball to dissolve in my bath water--what heaven! We all parted once again and then met up at The Devonshire Arms once again to celebrate New Year's Eve. We left just before midnight to watch Big Ben bring in the New Year. We found a spot where we could watch the clock and huddled together waiting. We watched, but finally realized at perhaps two minutes past that we were too far to hear the bells and had thus missed midnight entirely. We really were that American and needed America’s “New Year’s for Dummies”--the ball dropping in Times Square. Defeated by midnight in another country, we returned to the hotel to retire.

I woke up, refreshed, and composed a list of the sights I wanted to see in West London. Marble Hill House, Orleans House, Han House, Chiswick House, Syon House, Osterly Park, Hampton Court Palace and if there was time, I would go past Charles Dickens’ house which was across town from the others. Armed with my list, I went to see James to verify the hours of these places, only to discover that though a Wednesday is a good day to see these museums, if that Wednesday also happens to be New Year’s Day, you are out of luck. My back up plan was to go to the bookstore, buy another book (the third I would read before the end of the trip) and proceed to read it in a pub, curled up by the fireplace. What I hadn’t counted on was the parade.

At first I was annoyed about the throngs of people getting in the way of my book expedition, but when I was inside the bookstore, I heard the bagpipes and really wanted to see the people playing them. I rushed out of Waterstones in an attempt to catch up with the bagpipers, but managed to get stuck walking along with a huge group of American cheerleaders. Every time I started to get ahead of them while they stopped to do a routine to Elvis’ "Viva Las Vegas," they would suddenly jump up, cheering and follow me. I finally saw some dramatically costumed people ahead and nearly caught up to them, when the parade abruptly turned the corner, but the crowd barricade did not. I had to go a few blocks out of the way. As I finally made it around the corner and made my way past 40 people in jumpers pushing the air out of a huge leprechaun, I reentered the parade--and met up with the cheerleaders again. I’m pretty sure that in hell the song “Viva Las Vegas” is played over and over again to the masses. And the cheerleaders managed to smile the entire length of the parade--a true feat in that horrible rain. I stopped to watch the rest of the parade noticing that band members were free to look as miserable as they wanted. Next came a huge balloon that looked like Dagwood, but wore a suit and carried a briefcase, which the Dagwood I know would never do. The Dagwood imposter was careening out of control in the wind and nearly took out some parade watchers on a balcony overlooking the spectacle. Next came a very bored looking ice queen and the sacrilegious looking all women’s bagpipe band. Then more American cheerleaders dancing to different Elvis tunes. Then a group of men in jumpsuits with little bits of garbage taped to them. I heard the woman huddled under the next umbrella tell her boyfriend, “Scott! Santa’s not IN this one!” and looked up to see some people in red coming up--obviously not Santa who would probably be tucked safely away at the North Pole still recovering from his recent holiday. A huge Babar came floating up the street, but his ear was deflated.

I met up with the group to go to see The Breath of Life, a play we had gotten advanced tickets to that starred Maggie Smith and Judi Dench. I don’t deny the acting was superb. I don’t deny that the play was well written. I don’t deny that I dozed off in the first act. But I loved the ice cream at intermission! By the time I got home and into bed, I knew that I would have the flu in a matter of hours. I had that feeling you get when you know you would rather someone remove your head than endure the sickness you are about to experience.

The next morning, I woke up early to steal all of the tissues, check out, send off my postcards and catch Hotelink back to the airport. I spent the rest of my euros on sore throat lozenges, couch drops and foreign Sudafed.

As I got on the plane, I let the steward know that I had a probably contagious illness coming on and it would be best if they moved my “neighbor” to another seat. Though he claimed that the flight was full, I noticed that the seat to my right remained empty. The flight began with the realization that the large British family in front of me had absolutely no social graces. The elder sister sang, “The wheels on the bus…” over and over again to the three rowdy kids and cooed at them whenever they jumped up on the seat and yelled out. The teenaged boy behind me apparently didn’t like when I put my seat back and so repeatedly kicked the seat. The drugs took effect and I fell asleep pretending that I was getting a massage. As you might have guessed from my notes on my trip over, I was awoken for every meal, but promptly passed out again afterwards.

I arrived in New York fully a flu victim. I was nearly delirious and truly miserable. The next four days were spent in recovery. I didn’t really feel as if I was back home until I got off the subway on the way home from the doctor’s and found a large homeless man wearing only an open ski jacket and sneakers pleasuring himself by my exit. Ahhhh--the Big Apple. I’m home!

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