“The Griswalds in London”

[MODERN DAY NOTE: This is possibly the first Griswald story – written when we lived in Brussels and traveled to London. It’s a letter to my mother. If it seems a bit naive and dated, that’s because it is – it was written in 1993!]

Monday, April 15th, 1993

Dear Bebe & Jay:

Vicky & I returned from London last night. We had a super time!

It all started with being the latest I have ever been for a flight! Vicky and I had waited until the morning of departure to pack. We failed to keep in mind that without overhead lights and lamps upstairs…packing is a real bitch! We were running around, tripping over and bumping into each other. This, coupled with the bad, rainy weather and heavy traffic, made us reach the gate at 9:31 (plane departs at 9:30.) The attendants at the gate had to call the airplane and ask if we could come aboard. Vicky normally would fly business class, but since I was traveling with her, we had booked the tickets in economy class. The airline had already filled economy class with standby passengers. If they were to let us on, it would be in the remaining seats of business class. Permission to board was granted; The gate attendant told us to sit anywhere; Onboard, it was a different story: Vicky and Wilbur Griswald, carrying their overpacked garment bags, camera and purse, stumbled into the dead silence of the plane as irritated passengers impatiently glared at them. Vicky, eyeing a set of seats in the third row of business class, immediately went for it. The stewardess, who looked as though she had been sucking on lemons all morning long, asked to see our boarding passes:

“Excuse me, I believe you are in economy class…”

Like unsure tourists, the Griswalds started for the back of the plane. The stewardess followed with a careful, guarding eye. Vicky’s jacket got caught on an armrest and she asked Wilbur to unhook it, at which he did while elbowing one of those sad (in addition to irritated and impatient) looking Belge businessmen in the face by accident. Wilbur then notices he can’t move anymore as he looks down behind himself to see his garment bag strap tied in a knot around the leg of one of the seats he was passing. He can’t quite maneuver to bend over and fix it without sticking his butt in someone’s face. He somehow manages. After untangling, Wilbur finds that there is no overhead storage space available; Vicky mentions to the sour-faced stewardess that they had told her to sit anywhere. She [the stewardess] gives in reluctantly; Wilbur looks over to Vicky who has finally found a seat in business class and is quickly stomping on her garment bag to conform it to the available space underneath the seat in front of her. Wilbur sees this and with amazing speed, follows suit. Phhhew !! The touristos barely made it and were exhausted already!

We first went to Hollington House, a country manor near Newbury, where Vicky’s meeting was. It’s an hour west of Heathrow Airport. The company was supposed to have someone pick us up, but there was some sort of a mix-up and no one showed. It might have been because our flight was 30 minutes delayed over London (they had a bomb scare.)

We took a taxi to the tune of $200 US! Fortunately, it is a business expense for Vicky. Heathrow had been hit with major traffic – the bomb scare, a double decker bus wreck, the rail workers were on strike, and the shitty weather in general. The ride was rather comical; the cabbie reminded me of Dudley Moore with a little heavier cockney accent. It was pouring down rain; He got lost and had to stop a few times to ask for directions. He kept asking me whatever road sign – we just passed – said. We were driving on tiny country roads. It was actually quite beautiful. Wooly sheep, that looked like they were in outdated ski jackets, grazed with their cute newborns. And the beautiful, colorful pheasants! They were about as timid as pigeons in an Old San Juan plaza – they were everywhere and acted as if thev were tame!

We finally got to Hollington House. It was pretty first class! The problem was that it was in the middle of beautiful English countryside (nowhere.) Vicky and I had figured on the hotel being centrally located in London; She would have her meetings; I would sightsee and fend for myself. I wished I had taken my portable watercolors. It would have given me something to do in the pretty surroundings. I did nothing more than walk around, take pictures, and read – from Thursday afternoon through Friday at about the same time. The gardens were classic and a friendly local cat joined me on my walks. Judging by the amount of bones I saw throughout the gardens, I took it that the cat frequently dined with pheasant on the grass.

And speaking of the food – it was really delicious. I was included with the company when they took their meals. Gourmet dinners and fine wines. I felt a little out of place being among the RJR people, but they were very nice and hospitable.

Friday, a Jaguar limo took us to our hotel in London. The hotel where we were to stay was considerably less expensive. We were with four other RJR employees from Sweden, Greece, and Belgium all of whom were staying over in London (in different hotels) as well. I kept joking with the driver to drop us off last to save us the embarrassment. I told him we were staying at the Salvation Army. When he said, “Here’s the YMCA, your hotel should be close by…,” I thought he was kidding. “You mean the mean the Salvation Army,” Vicky added, tickled by the joke. When I looked out the window PANIC set in, as I saw the YMCA pass by and felt the car slowly coming to a stop!

The hotel was actually fairly nice looking from the outside. Our room was tiny with one window overlooking a small interior courtyard which was used to house the ventilation system for the kitchen, which was located directly below us on the ground floor. Each morning we were awakened by the sweet sound of breakfast dishes clanging away. And all plumbing for the hotel, it seemed, was directed through our bathroom wall; Each time someone flushed his toilet, we would know about it! You could roll a quarter under the crack of our door and every departure or hallway conversation was heard by Vicky and Wilbur in room 110. London hoteIs are extremely overpriced but we weren’t there to relax in the room; we were there to see London – these things didn’t really matter.

Saturday, Vicky and I walked to Picadilly Circus, took some pictures, and went on down to the Royal Academy of Arts to see the exhibit, The Great Age of British Watercolours 1750-1880.

This was an exceptional show of the most famous watercolorists including Turner, Whistler, Constable, Blake, and Cotman. The paintings were very detailed yet painted in an interesting, almost abstract manner. They were the artists paving the way for Impressionism. These artists had to compete somewhat with the larger oil paintings popular of the day; thus, many were large with similar themes. In my opinion, however, the real gems were the smaller [anything under three by five feet] paintings and studies. They appeared more fresh.

Also at the Royal Academy was the exhibit, Georges Rouault: The Early Years 1903-1920. We took in this one as well. Excellent!

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at the half price ticket house to buy tickets to the theatre. We didn’t really research the plays very well and bought what ever was available, seeing that it was Saturday afternoon and we wanted to go to an 8:00 p.m. show. We ended up seeing No Man’s Land, a comedy. I didn’t find it funny; Vicky fell asleep. Vicky thought it should be changed on the advertising from a comedy – to a tragedy! Quel catastrophe!

After buying the tickets, we stopped into a pub to have a quick beer. The bartender didn’t seem too particularly happy about anything. I asked him which ale would he recommend; He replied that any of them were good. He waited impatiently as I retrieved money out of my pockets to pay him. Vicky asked him for a napkin and he slapped a used one on the bar. Vicky was totally surprised and asked if she couldn’t have a clean, unused one. He turned the other way and muttered something under his breath. I then asked him what his problem was. He responded: “Why’d it take you so bloody long to get your money out of your pocket?” We tried to shrug the incident off but neither of us could. We decided we must not leave as victims! I told Vicky to grab the shopping bag we had, as well as her purse and my camera bag, and to start for the door. I emptied both of our far-from-finished beers onto the bar and left the glasses upside down. “I hope you have a nicer day, sir,” I politely said as I scooted out the door. “Up yours!” was what I last heard as the door closed behind us.

Now the sad thing about this incident was that it spoiled our afternoon. And worse yet, I couldn’t get over the fact that an owner of a business – in a heavily populated tourist area – could behave like that! And equally annoying was that other people in the bar didn’t even seem to notice what an asshole this grump was! I assumed he was the owner because none of his coworkers reprimanded him.

Well, with one bad afternoon and a boring night at the theatre behind us, Sunday would be much better.

We strolled over to Soho, which was near our hotel (& the YMCA) and had breakfast at a simple, somewhat trendy, little bakery. We dined on croissants and cappuccino in artsy, sculpturesque, uncomfortable metal stools amongst a Hare Krishna, a skinhead in black motorcycle leathers, a couple of lesbians, and two guys with long hair and dark glasses – also in black motorcycle leathers. The skinhead was the only true motorcyclist. He looked like a robot as he methodically put on his helmet and mounted his bike (also black.)

London is full of these diverse styles. The punk rockers are still around, but not as much as I imagine there once was in the movement’s heyday. Rap has definitely crossed the ocean (and unfortunately, probably the world!) Being different seems to be the cool way to be. But it would be much to their surprise, for many of these “cool” people all look the same. I guess if you’re hip, you wear black [and so does everyone else.] And don’t forget to button your top shirt collar button! But you don’t see much of the L.A.-bad-boy-hair-in-a-ponytail-types. Grunge, as they call it, seems to be in full swing in London. I don’t know if that was an invention of the fashion designers or of the homeless…

The homeless abound like lemmings in London. Vicky and I were struck by how many young homeless there were. Despite the milder weather of spring, outdoor London must be an awful place to spend the entire night. We saw many people fixing their “nests” with old blankets and large pieces of cardboard. The homeless seem to have a pretty good network in London. They have their own newspaper and there appeared to be many social services available. There wasn’t as much begging as I thought there would be either.

Part of the London experience is to see its very diverse group of inhabitants. Vicky felt a little threatened by all the weirdos. I found them interesting to watch and they seemed to be harmless. London certainly feels a lot safer than any large U.S. city. In fact, robbery – and some mugging – seems to be the only crime prevalent.

We decided to walk back down to Picadillv Circus to browse in Tower Records, one of those mammoth record stores you find in big cities. It was pretty amazing. Afterwards, we took the underground to Covent Garden. You can’t be in London and not ride the Tube!

We were always impressed with the amount of people in London. It seemed like ninety percent of ’em were on the street too! Even late at night it’s like rush hour traffic with the sun turned down and the neon lights turned on.

We reached Covent Garden and were immediately surprised by the brisk morning activity. We had read that the market here was not so busy on Sundays. True, many neighboring shops and boutiques were closed but the market itself was bustling. Antiques, clothing, wares, food kiosks, outdoor cafes, shops, street performers, musicians and amusement rides (there was an interesting old carousel operating that I photographed) – all filled the old market area.

We looked around at everything. We had our names researched – or – shall I say – name; They found Pagán but not Leedy. Would you believe Pagán is a good old, aristocratic Scottish family? It made for a good laugh! And I’ve heard you can get the best tostones in this world not far from Edinburgh!

After a Tex-Mex meal and a beer in an outdoor café, we headed back to the hotel, where our driver, in his limo – this time a Mercedes – awaited us.

We drove past the London YMCA, waved goodbye and set off for the airport. Nothing exciting at the airport – just a lot of police with machineguns and German shepherds chatting in front of the gate for Tel Aviv. We boarded our plane and found our way to the most cramped seating of all airlines. Sabena, the Belgian carrier, gets my vote for the weirdest food served as well. Check out this breakfast menu we had on our way over: coffee, orange juice, liver pate on a cracker, fruitcake, fruitcup, some exotic fruit that looked like a parcha – but wasn’t, chocolate, and powerful breath mints. The Belge power breakfast, maybe?

We were dead tired and very glad to get home. We decided to take a hot bath, complete with a bottle of Champagne we were given as a housewarming present by Michel Bourgeois, my friend from Paris.

So much for our trip to London…hope all is well…I will write another letter to fill you in on everything else – this one’s gonna fill up my envelope!


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