Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Christmas in London

Elizabeth Zelvin

My husband and I are having a quiet Christmas Day this year, opening presents, eating a good brunch and a good dinner, and zoning out in front of the Christmas tree. Oh, and lighting red and green candles and saying a b’rucha for the fifth night of Chanukah in our ecumenical household. So I’d like to take you back three years to our Christmas in London in 2005.

Several years ago, my stepdaughter married a Brit whom she met on the Internet, after a prolonged transatlantic courtship. (You can listen to my song about it, Online Loving, to get an idea of how that went.) They currently live in Bromley, a suburban town in Kent within commuting distance of what I want to call the Big Teapot. So off we went to London for the holidays, neither of us having visited England for thirty years or so and both with our minds crammed full of English history and English literature.

If we were looking for a Dickensian Christmas, we were a century too late. The Brits don’t eat roast goose anymore: the centerpiece of Christmas dinner is a turkey. Nobody came caroling to the door of our Bayswater hotel (on a little square off Queensway, down the block from the Whiteley’s shopping mall that figured in Elizabeth George’s What Came Before He Killed Her, to my retroactive amused horror when I read it later). And our attempts to “do London” were hampered by the fact that the whole city shuts down on Christmas, not for one day but for three: Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day. Forget museums and theaters, and on Christmas Day itself, the Underground doesn’t run at all.

Thanks to the Internet, we were forewarned, so we did our museum and theater going before and after the holiday and had all our plans in place long before Christmas Eve. We even attended a pantomime, the traditional holiday entertainment we’d read about all our lives, which is so weird that the fact that kids are brought up on it goes a long way toward explaining the fabled British eccentricity. I don’t think my husband has recovered yet from the spectacle of Ian McKellen, his beloved Gandalf, camping it up in a dress as Aladdin’s mother, the Widow Twankey.

But on to the holiday itself.
On Christmas Eve, we went out to visit the kids in Bromley, starting early so we could catch a train back to London before the railroad shut down. There was a festive outdoor mall with lots to buy and trees festooned with strings of what the Brits call fairy lights, all blue in this case and making a fine display against a spectacular sunset. We ate dinner in a Mediterranean restaurant and got to pull our first Christmas crackers. Another revelation: everybody in the UK actually wears his or her gold paper crown. In public.

On Christmas Day, we had our holiday dinner at a restaurant in Drury Lane with what in Yiddish we call the whole mishpocheh: the extended family, consisting, besides us and the kids, of my stepson-in-law’s parents, most of his many brothers with their wives and partners and a child or two, and my stepdaughter’s other parents, ie my husband’s ex and her current hubby. One of the brothers picked us up by car, solving the day’s transportation problem.

The kids had picked another Mediterranean restaurant, this one looking even more like a Turkish bordello with dark red velvet draped everywhere, a lot of glitter, and dim hanging lanterns. Probably because we were in the theater district, we were serenaded by a group of players in Restoration dress, including a King Charles II in full dark curly wig. Everybody got along fine. The only near contretemps was when my husband had to kick me under the table as I apologized to the Brits for current US policy. I hadn’t realized his ex’s hubby was quite so far from us on the political spectrum. It was Christmas, so I was good and changed the subject.

Boxing Day was best of all. I started the day, as I did most mornings there, with a three-mile run in Kensington Gardens while my husband slept in. We had a mid-afternoon reservation for tea at Claridge’s. Research on the Internet had suggested this magnificent old hotel was a better bet than the Ritz, where the teas have become so popular that customers are overcrowded and rushed through. We were treated like royalty at Claridge’s and had a leisurely, sumptuous tea with finger sandwiches, scones, and pastries. My favorite moment was when our server shook his head over my choice of tea on an extensive menu. I was dying to try Silver Needles, a white tea that until recently only the emperor got to drink. The leaves are picked only two days of the year by virgins with golden scissors (my memory may exaggerate, but not by much). “Unfortunately, madam,” he said, “that particular tea goes best with a fine cigar.” I chose another tea.

We then strolled down Regent Street, another fairyland of blue lights, where all the shops were open to bargain-seeking Londoners and those returning their Christmas presents. We went into Hamley’s, a toystore I’d read about in novels, and bought a Paddington Bear. (Well, two, but one was a very small one.) We ended up in Trafalgar Square, where we had tickets for the perfect concert: Boxing Day Baroque at St. Martin’s in the Fields.(Yes, there were taxis: we got back to Bayswater with no difficulty.) The kids still live in Bromley, and if the dollar ever goes up again, I’d be glad to spend another Christmas the exact same way.


Sheila Connolly said...

How lovely, Liz!

I once spent a summer working in London, and used my days off to treat myself to little excursions--like tea at the Ritz. As I remember it, there were only two tables filled, mine (I was alone), and another across the room occupied by a delightful youngish Indian with a turban, regaling two doting old ladies with his tales. I felt like I had walked into an Agatha Christie novel, and eavesdropped shamelessly.

As for Claridges, that same summer the mother of a close friend of mine was visiting her other daughter, who was working as an au pair. Mother and I did some sightseeing and were trying to decide where to eat dinner. We dared each other to venture into Claridge's--after all, she said, she had her white gloves with her (she did). Thus prepared, we set forth; the staff were delightful to us; and I still treasure the memory of my first creme brulee there.

Anonymous said...

I loved the blue lights. Tea at either the Ritz or Claridges is my idea of nirvana. Maybe one day I'll make it to tea at the Banff Springs Hotel, which was one of the original elegant Victorian hotels in the Canadian Pacific Railway chain.

Lonnie Cruse said...

Sounds lovely, Liz, and I'd like a shot at some tea in London.

Thankfully, we celebrated Christmas with our family yesterday as today got off to a rather rocky start. Our son called us to meet him at the ER and take charge of our grandsons. Our daughters-in-law woke up with chest pains and sick at her stomach. Hour or two later the ER doctor diagnoses not a heart attach but a virus which apparently causes the symptoms and is spreading to other people. One of our neighbors has the exact same symptoms. Eeeek.

Merry Christmas everyone and STAY WELL! And maybe out of airports?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I knew you guys would enjoy my recollections. As I explained to my husband, mystery readers have heard of Claridge's, panto, Turkish bordellos, and anything else I might mention. Sharon, I've always wanted to visit Banff. Let's make it a date for tea at the Banff Springs Hotel one of these days!

Patricia A. Guthrie said...

I've been meaning to come to your site for quitea while and finally was able to make it today. Fasscinating article about Christmas in London. I've always wanted to got to London, but as far as I got was switzerland, France and Germany (oh yeah and Luxenberg. Cannot for get Luxemburg. Being English, myself, I have a ingrown passion for English tradions.

Anyway, happy holidas to all of you, your families, friends and all your animal buddies.

Patricia A. Guthrie
Author romantic suspense
Waterlilies Over My Grave
In the Arms of the Enemy


Patricia A. Guthrie said...

Oh dear. Seems as my idetity is having a problem andI can fix it until I leave a comment.

Here's hoping it works

Julia Buckley said...

Liz, what a beautiful reflection!

I can't get over the 3 mile run, though. I can't even make it down the block, so I envy you the ability to perform this routine. :)

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