Wallace Collection

The other day I went to up London and met my friend’s friend Patricia, in London, and she suggested we check out the Wallace Collection http://www.wallacecollection.org, a privately-owned house in Bloomsbury loaded with French 18th century art and furniture. I’d also been told that the armor there was the best collection in town, and while I’m far from being an expert, I have always enjoyed the occasional suit of armor or decorated sword.

So. I did the usual: I had an hour and fifteen minutes before I needed to be at the train station, and sat in my pajamas for forty-five minutes and puttered around online, and then frantically whipped some clothes on five minutes before I had to leave, frantically rummaged around for my Oyster card (for Tube http://www.visitlondon.com/travel/oyster/), grabbed my phone, cash, water, umbrella, and warm clothes for later in the evening, etc., and then, like always, I had exactly eight minutes before my train left and I’m running down the street, embarrassed, thinking “I’m going to be sweaty on the train. This sucks.”

Except that today I didn’t have to run. Can we count this as progress, gentle readers? Oh, you are the kindest readers ever.

I made the train–have only missed one so far–but wouldn’t it be amazing to arrive with a few minutes to spare instead of the panic? It would be amazing.

In the city, I soon realize that students are on a week-long break from school, which means that Oxford Station, near a major intersection packed with extra big versions of trendy mall stores like H&M, Top Shop, and department stores like Selfridges, are so slammed that I find a long line just to get up the tube exit escalator. On the street, a big crowd of dazed teenage girls and their friends gathers on the sidewalk, everyone barely shuffling. I’m so surrounded by zombies in leggings and long belted shirts that I get survival panic, “I will not die this way!” and shoulder my way out.

Whew.

Heading out of SoHo and walking through Marylebone, I pass a very cool-looking button store to check out some other time: http://www.thebuttonqueen.co.uk and also see some very nice shops that I must never, ever go in, or I’ll starve to death. Tweed and leather and lots of jackets in the windows that I do not need but for which I could definitely provide a good home.

At the museum, Patricia and I sat down for lunch before browsing. We had a nice visit although I definitely felt self-conscious. The crowd was pretty posh, and I forgot whether or not Tuna Nicoise had a silent or non-silent s. (The horror!) It was one of those lunches where things like one’s nails, sweater, haircut, or jewelry all seem up for scrutiny, and sometimes I don’t feel like I pass muster. I’m not very into wearing lots of makeup, hair product, and the like, and feel self-conscious about it in posh places. I’m currently sporting a haircut of my own doing, too, which actually seems to bring me more complements than when I have it done, but sometimes there’s a fine line between a rock ‘n roll look and mange. British women seem feminine in a very traditional way, too, and being a tomboy doesn’t appear to be a popular choice. If it is, I haven’t yet found the tomboy hangouts.

Strangely enough, conversation turned to politics and the class system in the UK vs. the divisions in the US. (Patricia’s originally from the States.) I certainly haven’t been here long enough to even pretend to know anything about local politics, but I have been thinking about the sense of shame in the US. The Dalai Lama was reported to have said, after a visit to the US, that he couldn’t believe so many people had such shame, and he didn’t understand why.*

If you don’t have a lot of money in the States, and you’re an adult, there’s this underlying sense that in some way, it’s sort of your fault, especially if you come from any situation where you might have overcome your circumstances. Of course this is not overt. It’s not like you’re told to feel bad about not being in a different situation. You just do. Mild embarrassment, at least. Kids often feel bad because they can’t dress a certain way. They can’t afford certain things, like expensive sneakers or an iPod, and they’ll feel bad about it. When you get older it’s your car or your house, where you go on vacation, or whether or not you go at all. In the Puritan era (ok, here I go again, but really, given some of the Tea Party comments lately, can one not think about America’s Puritan roots??), material prosperity was considered to be a sign of being chosen by God, of being predestined for a blissful afterlife. Is America really over such distorted thinking, or are you “good” when you’re earning lots of money, no matter where it comes from?

Where I’m from, in the industrious Chicagoland, people usually work hard and strive for some degree of prosperity. It’s very survival of the fittest, and sometimes harsh. On the other hand, big opportunities do exist in US cities, which can make for a vibrant quality in the air. You can surpass your upbringing, your birth, if you have the right kind of ambitions and the right kind of luck. How often does that happen here, especially in Medway? Doesn’t seem like it happens as often, but then again, I’m new to town.

Patricia and I enjoyed our chat so much that we had to move through the Wallace Collection pretty quickly. One of the rooms held Marie Antoinette’s furniture, which was decadent and over the top, as one would expect. Most rooms were covered with stripey silk wallpaper, and then the walls coated with prints in heavy, elaborate frames. Everything was too much–very Versailles–haven’t been but that’s the feeling. Sort of like you just ate way too many chocolates.

There was too much to see, and I was anxious to get down to the armor. I just had time for a glance, but it was incredible, and I’ll be back to imagine the lives of the men in the suits, how they may have died, and how they may have lived.

*Certainly I could go on here for eternity about all the things that Americans are ashamed about, and all the things they could or should be ashamed about–a culture that enforces rampant consumption and materialism, the religious right’s insistence that knowledge is somehow “bad,” etc. I could go on, but I’m sure you know and I know what words would go here….

Wardour Street

Tonight I was coming home from an event in Soho near Wardour Street while chatting on the phone, and when I looked up I found myself in Chinatown.   I thought I was headed towards Oxford St. but had been walking in the exact opposite direction of where I was supposed to be going, something I still do often in London.  Lit up with dozens of red lanterns and a gigantic dragon perfectly backlit high on a wall, it was all I could do to not abort my Victoria Station mission and get lost in the lanterns.   I didn’t want to be stranded after the last train though, and told myself I could come back, even though it probably wouldn’t look quite the same.

Or maybe Chinatown is always that luminous.  I don’t understand the magic of London yet, but on a few occasions now, walking by myself through the city well after ten, it’s palpable.  The streets are sort of foggy and misty, it’s not cold and not too hot at all–perfect for endless walking.  The huge, antique street lamps glow under window boxes of lush green ivy and bright flowers with names unknown to me.   Pub goers mill about in doorways, holding amber-filled glasses, casting occasional, appraising glances at walkersby.   Further along, towards the Picadilly Tube station, I pass a drag queen with a pancaked face and a black, curly wig.   Twenty-something girls wobble down the sidewalk wearing impossibly short dresses and even more impossible heels.  It’s near midnight on a Tuesday, but people seem immune to sleep.

Okay.  I could fall in love with this city.

“Canadian?” someone asked tonight for the third time.  “You don’t sound like you’re from the U.S.”

I don’t know the ways that I do or don’t sound American, only that there’s more than a bit of self-consciousness about it.   I don’t come into contact with many Americans here–have only chatted with two in my interactions out and about–and haven’t found any all the way out in Kent, where I live.   Clerks in stores often stare for a second after I out myself with speech.  They seem to be trying to place me.  If they figure it out, I hope they let me in on the answer.  I’ve left the US, perhaps permanently, having married a Brit, but I still have a lot to do to settle in here.  The lanterns in Chinatown hover, but their suspension seems much more elegant and serene than my ghosty limbo.

Despite the vast opportunity to explore London, most days I miss the sun, the trees, and the birds of Virginia–my home for the last nine years– the views, miss being able to hop in my car and drive somewhere, miss friends and coworkers, but I’m slowly coming to love watching the people on the Tube, or just walking down the street.  At night when it’s not so crowded I like to try and enter the thoughts of those waiting on the platform, especially the natty business men who seem like they have never gushed about anything in their lives.

Hummingbird Bakery, Pho, Scribbler.   The cheer of whimsy in the windows.   I am probably too old to even be on this street, I quipped to my husband when we first sauntered down Wardour.   I am craving something sweet, something decadent.   Skinny men chomp down sandwiches wrapped in foil and I envy their ease.  (Finding a non-sandwich option when one has food allergies can be tough after ten.)  Londoners don’t seem to eat out as much as US folks, which may be why so many stay so thin…?  Do they go to the pub, or eat–is it one or the other?   I consider what it would be like, in my chocoholic universe, to receive rations of butter, meat, coffee. Charlie Bucket’s one precious, gold-covered chocolate bar.   A constant rumbling belly.   But then a girl walks by with a black and white mod coat and bag, two different prints at once, and I’m in Greenwich Village, pre-Gulliani.  It’s the eighties all over again, and I’ll take it.

The promise of Wardour Street is the antithesis of deprivation.  It’s a hedonistic spree of neon cupcakes, outrageous footware and fun, natural fun.   After all the stresses of relocation, it’s just this sort of fantasy that makes me think that maybe, just maybe, there are still adventures, even past thirty (or, ahem, uh, maybe a little over that), and even wild possibility still sprouting up for no reason.  For now, this is one fantasy that I’m keeping alive.

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