Monday, August 7, 2006

An offer of free admission on Mondays means that I start my day with a brief tour of the Courtauld Gallery, where I see Van Gogh’s famous self-portrait with a bandaged ear.  Then, because I missed the Changing of the Guard at WindsorCastle, I decide to brave it at BuckinghamPalace.  Sort of.  Instead of planting myself in front of the palace gates like other mere mortals, I arrive late and stand instead by the Wellington Barracks.  The band is playing an eclectic mix of music, from Sousa marches to Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma,” and even throw in a few pop songs.  I like it.  Who ever said the Brits were stuffy?  There is a highly evolved sense of humor here.   

After the guard is inspected, I follow them as they parade toward BuckinghamPalace, then pause for a picnic lunch in St. James’s Park, which I bought earlier at a Prêt a Manger.  By the time I finish eating, the old guard leaving the palace provides another nice photo opportunity.  Perhaps I missed the major action in front of the palace (although given my experience with the Queen’s Life Guard on Wednesday, I am not so sure about that) but it is a pleasing compromise given the crowds.  

In the afternoon, I head to the British Museumto see the Elgin Marbles and the Rosetta Stone, but enjoy the Enlightenment exhibit in the King’s Library best of all.   

I made reservations long ago for afternoon tea at the Ritz at 5:30 PM.  I arrive early enough to wander through the Burlington Arcade first, followed by a turn through Fortnum & Mason, which I like much better than Harrods.  I am just in time to see their mechanical clock spring into action at the top of the hour.   

Tea at the Ritz is sublime.  I am a convert, now convinced that tea bags are the root of all evil.  The sandwiches are pretty good, too.  The clotted cream is not quite what I expected (less sweet), but a very nice accompaniment to the scones and jam nevertheless.  I chat with two lovely English ladies seated at the table next to mine, Judy and Gill, and take a picture for them.  It is their first visit to the Ritz, too, in honor of Gill’s birthday.   

Following tea, I tube to Leicester Square and walk to the Prince Edward theatre for an evening performance of “Mary Poppins.” I sit in the Orchestra Stalls, Row K, and have a fabulous view of the stage.  It is costing me a small fortune, but thankfully it is worth every pence!  The special effects are astounding.  How did they do that?  Just as appealing to me is the emotional range of the show.  It is much deeper and more satisfying than the Walt Disney movie, especially in the characterization of the adult actors.  When a statue in the park named Nelius comes alive by magic, I am reminded of the street performers in Covent Garden.  I love every minute of it, especially the choreography of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” which, needless to say, is far more ambitious than what the Village People did to spell Y-M-C-A back in the 70s. On my feet, I join the rest of audience in applauding wildly at the end.  

Tuesday, August 8, 2006

I am heading home today, but not before one last morning out and about in London.  I walk down Kensington Church Street in search of antique shops, but find few open for business on a Tuesday.  I wander towards KensingtonPalaceand the sunken garden, and then over to the Princess of Wales playground, before returning to the palace grounds in time for lunch at The Orangery.  Finally, there is iced tea on the menu.  The American rejoices!  It is a lovely concoction made with sparkling water, infused with rosemary and lemon.  I have an open-faced sandwich of York ham and piccalilli, and a slice of their signature cake for good measure.  It is a sweet ending to a very sweet trip.  From here it is back to the hotel for my luggage, then back to Heathrow for the long journey home.   

After arriving in Philadelphia, an immigration officer barrages me with a standard set of questions about my trip, asking me at one point if I am travelling alone.  When I answer “yes,” he breaks visibly from protocol, looks up and says, as if in disbelief: “Really?”  I nod, and then say with a smile, “and I had a great time, too”!  He waves me through, shaking his head.