Monday 18 May 2015

London Lovely London

I have written 800 words on visiting the Benedictine Sisters of Saint Cecilia at Ryde for the Toronto Catholic Register, and now I can tell you all about wonderful London. I will tell you about Saint Cecilia's later, or link to CWR if I convince them they should pay me to tell them all about it. Frankly, I think they should because if there is something Catholic girls in the USA and Canada should know, it is that there is this WONDERFUL abbey in England where they can live safely and happily for the rest of their earthly lives singing to God, sewing habits, baking communion bread, reading theology and tending to bees. They can even see their worldly friends if the worldly friends come to visit on the right days. The worldly friends bring their babies, too, which seems to be a great treat for one lovely older nun I spoke to, who poked through the grille at a blond toddler as if she wished to eat him.

However, now I will tell you all about London, which was full of excitement and handsome men. But first I will ask the heavens why I knew so few handsome Single Catholic men when I was 27 but know so many now that I am 39++ and married to boot? Were they hiding under rocks until I was safely married to someone else? (I don't mean the current crop, who were still in school. I mean my generation of Single Catholic men; surely there were some good-lookers among them? Now that I think about it, I am reasonably sure there were.) I suppose what it is, is that the Handsome Single Catholic Men of the World now agree that I am a safe sort of woman to know, whereas perhaps I was not when I was in my twenties. Which, to be honest, was perfectly true.

Meanwhile, I am married to the sort of man all these young men like, which is also tremendously helpful. And to cut to the chase, when I was still on the train to London's Waterloo Station, I texted the famous Andrew Cusack and suggested we have a drink. Andrew very kindly dropped everything, met me under the big clock at 20.20 h, and whisked me away on foot through the drizzle to the Scooter Caffé. There he bought me a marvellously strong Gin and Tonic, and we got caught up on news.

When I realized I must check into my hotel, Andrew gallantly accompanied me back to Waterloo Station, helped me buy the Oyster (transportation) card so essential to London life, and taught me the way to King's Cross station.  That one Gin and Tonic had rendered me rather drunk, so it was a good thing I kept chanting his instructions in my mind. The London Underground is one of the wonders of the modern world and more complicated than the human digestive system.

My hotel was the Tune near King's Cross, and it is one of the cheapest options in London that is actually clean and safe with hot running water. I recommend its spartan joys wholeheartedly. By the way, I travelled only with a light knapsack, a small leather shoulder-bag and a plastic shopping bag with my sunhat in it. I put all my clothes in freezer bags, squished the air out, and put them in the knapsack. I brought only a guide book and my travel diary and no other books. The only way to travel, mes amis.

The next day was Friday and I woke up feeling excited and adventurous. My first port of call was Aux Pains de Papy, which has the best croissants outside France, and you can watch the bakers baking as they shout to each other in French. There is very little seating, but I managed to score a seat and write in my diary as I sipped and munched, watched and listened.

Then back in King's Cross Station, I met my dear friend Calvinist Cath, who commutes to London every day (!) from her new husband's home in the south of England. We went to South Kensington and sat outside a delightful looking café until the Victoria and Albert Museum opened, and then we went to its café. The service, dispensed resentfully by Continentals, was terrible, but the Morris Room, in which we sat, was very pretty. William Morris himself designed it, and I love his stuff, and I am sure he would have loved me on account of my hair.

We had a marvellous chat, I telling her all about Berenike being walled up alive in a Romish convent, and both of us pondering the obsession of traditionalist men with feminine modesty, our make-up and clothes, etc. Free Presbyterian ladies almost never wear make-up, which yet another contrast to Catholic me and my inconsistent attitude towards Aquinas on the issue. We said good-bye at 13.15. Cath scurried off to meet her husband for lunch, and I ambled up Exhibition Road to meet my dashing Polish Pretend Son at Ognisko.

Ognisko is a restaurant in the Polish Hearth Club, which was founded during the Second World War to house snazzier Polish refugees raising funds to help less snazzy Polish refugees. Naturally they were all penniless, but some were princes and princesses, which still meant something in 1940, and if you were a Polish princess, you had to raise funds for others, even if you yourself had nothing to eat. There is an exciting membership board out in front with the names of princes and princesses written on it. Today it is a good idea to become a member if you can, for then you get 20% off your bill at Ognisko, which is delicious but expensive. PPS surveyed the menu grumbling and then arguing that  pork crackling isn't Polish.

Being a super-trad, I have done the research, and in the Old Days you could drink animal broths on Friday and eat animal fat; you just couldn't eat animal flesh. And that is how I justify ordering the Polish pork crackling; truly one of the most delicious foodstuffs I know, and after eating some PPS slowly began to agree without giving up his central argument.  I also had chłodnik, which is a cold beet soup, whereas PPS had eel, and we both had the kopytka (dumplings) with forest mushrooms, and drank three shots of vodka each. PPS voiced some concern that this might be a lot of vodka for me, but I had had a heavy lunch and the only effect it had was to give me the courage to speak Polish, which I did slowly on the way to our postprandial café, like this:

"I would like--to go--to Ola's wedding--with B.A.--but--I fear--that we will not have--enough money. If--we will have--enough money--I will go--to Ola's wedding--with B.A.--but--if--we will not have--enough money--I will go only with [other female guest]."

I do not know where we had coffee, for I was thinking about Polish grammar and then about Polish politics and then about whether the chap beside us was listening to PPS's political opinions and then about how to get PPS to stop talking about them before we were torn apart by a mob. Anyway, PPS gallantly got the coffee, and it was very good coffee, and afterwards he saw me to South Kensington Station, for I had said, "Next--I wish--to go to--the swing-dancing shop--for shoes."

Sadly, the shoes I found at the swing-dancing shop were made in China, overpriced and of poor quality, so I didn't get any. Instead I got lost, but then I found myself and went for a walk down Oxford Street (very noisy, ugly and cheap), St James Street (I changed my heels for flat shoes), New Bond Street (much more my sort of thing) and Old Bond Street (over-the-top expensive) and along Pall Mall to Trafalgar Square where I found the National Portrait Gallery and had a glorious two hours. The Gallery was free, and the locker only £1.

At 19: 15 h I rushed to the Underground and went by various trains to Greenwich, to stay with a Polish physicist. She made me a lovely supper and gave me her bed, sleeping on the floor as the ultimate expression of Polish student hospitality, which deeply touched my Scottish-Canadian soul.

The next morning I met Seminarian Pretend Son at Liverpool Street Station, and we went to the "Pop-up Vintage Fair" in Old Spitalfields Market. We didn't think much of it, though, so we went to Brick Lane, and after a fruitless quest for swing dance shoes, we had a scrumptious lunch at the unassuming and very authentic  Amar Gaon: Authentic Bangladeshi Restaurant and Sweets. SPS paid, and he said it was very reasonable, so I recommend it as a nice cheap place to eat if you find yourself in Brick Lane. (No. 50 Brick Lane). Brick Lane has a bewildering number of curry houses, each claiming to have won various awards, including one for best curry house in Brick Lane. We picked Amar Gaon because of its picturesque cones of grains and dried fruit, plus the cafeteria-style counter and the men sitting in the back watching Bangladeshi TV.

Afterwards I said a fond good-bye to Seminarian Pretend Son, who would have made any one of you a good husband had you  thought to snaffle him before he went into the Sem, and don't say I never told you about him, because I did, photo and all, and went back to Greenwich.

In Greenwich I met a handsome (but engaged to my excellent Polish hostess of the night before) blond, blue-eyed Polish Astrophysicist for beer. After two half pints of good English beer, I was led through Greenwich Park and then showed the street to Maze Hill station and left to get on with it. And so I took various trains back to King's Cross station and got on the 18 h Virgin-East Coast train for Edinburgh. I went to the First Class Lounge, but the mean man said I had to pay £5 because I had an "advance" First Class ticket, so like any proper Scot I thought that was outrageous and went back downstairs to await my train for free.

It's really there!
And let me tell you I was so tired, I was deeply deeply grateful I had bought the £55 advance ticket for First Class, for when you go from London to Edinburgh by rail, First Class is the way to go. You get food and drink and space to move.

I have not yet worked out how much my London trip cost, for I know only the cost of the whole trip south overall, from Edinburgh to Southampton to Ryde to London to Edinburgh again. However, I can tell you that you are very fortunate if you can find a good London hotel room under £80. (Do reserve in advance.) I did not pay the £5 for a towel, by the way. I used my jolly old t-shirt and hung it up to dry. Next time, however, I will remember to bring a bit of soap.

My big luxury was lunch at Ognisko, which became a smaller luxury when PPS insisted on paying half. I strongly recommend buying sandwiches as you go; you can get good tasty sandwiches in any grocery store for £3 or less. Naturally your biggest expense--for many top museums and art galleries are free--is likely to be transportation. From Thursday night to Saturday evening, I spent approximately £22 on Tube trains and the Docklands Railway, £5 of that being the deposit for the Oyster card. Meanwhile, if anyone buys you a beer, cocktail, meal or anything else in London, you should express your sincere gratitude, for in general London is ex-pen-sive. And, thus, I thank Andrew, Calvinist Cath, Polish Pretend Son, my Polish Physicist Hostess, Seminarian Pretend Son and the Polish Astrophysicist for their kindness.  London is splendid, but what I really love best about world travel is sitting down at tables with friends.

P.S. Apparently I missed a King's Cross football riot by minutes.

Update:  Just remembered: the Ognisko waitress gave me the "Who are you?" double-take when PPS began to order in Polish, as if up to that moment she had taken me for his aunt/mother/older sister. Hee hee! What joys await my younger readers as you get older! Woot!

Update 2: Of course it might have been something he said, e.g. "Hrabina [Historical House] jest taka głupia, ona myśli, że skwarki to polskie." That would do it.


  1. Translation of update 2?

    Sounds like an awesome trip, and I look forward to reading the article about the nuns!

  2. Well, if I didn't make any horrible errors, it is roughly "Lady [Historical House] is so dumb she thinks pork cracklings are Polish." Naturally I live in hope that my young friends in London refer to B.A. and me behind our backs as Lord and Lady [Historical House], as we would certainly ask to be in the unlikely event we were raised to the Peerage.

    Naturally one abhors all worldly honours, but it would be great fun to appear in Tatler: "Seen at Ognisko, Lady [Historical House] in green Oliver Bonas frock." Polish Astrophysicist had his photo taken by Tatler when he was staying in the Historical House (well, he was at a charity ball at the time), and I still haven't gotten over it.

  3. Well I hope they publish your article. Always good to have an uplifting account of a monastery.


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