Return to Cleveland

Friday, December 30, 2005–London – Newark – Cleveland. The alarm went off at 7:15, although I was not ready to get up. After a quick shower and finishing packing, we had breakfast in the Hotel Montana “breakfast salon”–you can’t go too far wrong with rice crispies and white toast and jam. We left the hotel a little after 9:00 for Thameslink, and were at Gatwick a little after 10:00. Check-in and security were surprisingly expeditious (unlike our experiences later in the day in Newark.)

There is a huge passenger waiting lounge in Gatwick–a sort of “holding pen” until the flight is ready to board, so when the sign lights up, you can pretty much be assured of just getting right on the plane. Although our flight to London had been on a wide-body 777, this was a 757, in the 3 + 3 configuration, packed with people, so I knew it would be obnoxious. That was confirmed when the Indian mother behind us with two small boys asked the flight attendant to be re-seated near the bathroom, because the boys get airsick. The flight attendant couldn’t get anyone to trade, so she handed the woman a big stack of airsick bags. The idea of eight hours in the air with puking kids behind me set off my neuroses, and a felt myself getting a bit woozy. I did apparently pass out for a bit, because (although I don’t remember this), the next thing I knew, George was telling me to wake up, asking me if I was okay. Once I came to, I was just fine. But I gave him a scare.

After everyone was more or less loaded, some woman decided that she couldn’t travel on the flight (claustrophobia?), so she got off, which mean that her luggage had to be removed from the plane for security reasons. That slowed the departure by a good forty-five minutes, because they had to re-open the cargo hold and go through the bags.

The flight was long and miserable–crowded, turbulence, you name it. (Don’t know about the kids behind us–I kept my iPod headphones on for most of the flight.) Despite the late departure, we were not too late getting into Newark; however, we then did wait for an hour to collect our luggage so that we could go through U.S. Customs. By the time we did that, and went through TSA security again (Was it really necessary to check out ID and boarding passes three times within 10 yards?), we ran to the gate for our connecting flight, but the door was already closed. The gate agent was completely rude and unhelpful–there were five people from connecting international flights who arrived all at the same time. She wouldn’t even look at us–she just said, “You’ll have to go to Customer Service.” It was only after coaxing that we got her to tell us where it was. When we got there, they were equally rude. Not once from any Continental Airline employee’s lips pass the words, “I’m sorry for your inconvenience.” We got re-booked on the 8:30 PM flight to Cleveland. Not that it mattered too much–we didn’t have to be anywhere when we got home, but it had been a long day, and the fact that it took an hour to get the backs off of the London flight seemed excessive, especially since they dribbled out over a 45 minute period. We had dinner in a quasi-Portuguese restaurant in the Newark airport. (I think it was about as Portuguese as I am.) The eventual flight to Cleveland was unremarkable. Our luggage had made the 6:00 flight, so we just had to pick it up at the Continental baggage office. We caught a cab home, put our stuff down and collapsed in bed.

It’s too bad that the flight home was inconvenient, but we’d had a fantastic, memorable Christmas trips. It will be one of the highlights of the rest of my life. I’m glad we were able to do it.

Last full day–a social whirl

Thursday, December 29, 2005–London. This was our last full day in London, and turned out to be a very full day socially–seeing all of the people that we hadn’t yet seen during the trip. After breakfast, we took the Tube to Paddington Station and caught the train to Oxford. We were met by George’s friend (from a previous holiday vacation in France in 2000) Michael, who has with his partner Douglas, a home in the Cotswolds. He drove us around Oxford a little bit (since neither George nor I had been there before), and then we headed to their house in Ascot-under-Wychwood, in the Oxfordshire countryside. We passed through Woodstock and past Blenheim Palace (where, among other things, Winston Churchill was born) on the way. It is countryside such as one sees in the movies, and in many respects reminded me of the farm territory where I grew up in Iowa (minus the British hedgerows).

Douglas and Michael, who are documentary TV producers and writers, were gracious hosts (It was the first time I’d met either of them), and prepared a lovely lunch–roast beef, mash, braised cabbage, still-crisp carrots and green beans. Certainly a bit more lavish than George and I would have had if on our own, but beautifully prepared and presented and very tasty.

After lunch Douglas and Michael drove us to a nearby town, Burford, where we explored the local church and its churchyard cemetary. We also drove a bit more out in the countryside–beautiful. They dropped us back at the Oxford train station and we headed back to London at 5:00.

We had a 6:30 drinks date with our friends Paul and Daniel (to meet at the Covent Garden Tube stop). We were a bit late, but Paul was waiting for us, and Daniel was holding a table down for us until we arrived. It was good to see them, even briefly. Of all of the U.K. “connections” they are the ones I know the best, and I always enjoy spending time with them. (They had been out of town and incommunicado during the holidays, so we thought we might not see them on this trip, so I’m glad it worked out.)

We did have to rush off to a dinner engagement at 8:30 with two more friends, Michael (also one of the Christmas Day King’s guests) and his partner Sam, friends of Derek and Rory’s whom George had met at a party in Washington last year. They chose the restaurant–a very extraordinary place called Archipelago, which specializes in game and other more bizarre world dishes. (There was indeed a chocolate covered scorpion on the dessert menu.) Michael is a lawyer and Sam (a very handsome Indian man) is a singer (former choral scholar at St. John’s College, Cambridge) as well as a fundraiser. I had a chance to pick his brain about the music scene in London, and hear a little gossip about it as well. Quite entertaining for me. I’m not sure that George and Michael found it to be so. After such a large lunch, and not much activity, I confess that I wasn’t up to a large dinner, but I did my best. I had a kind of Ethiopian “sloppy joe” dish–very spicy ground lamb served with flatbread. It was delicious, but rich. We passed up the chocolate covered scorpions. We stayed until after the restaurant closed–finally leaving about 10:30–then walked back to the hotel, where I still had to pack up all my stuff so that we could take off first thing in the morning. It was 12:45 by the time I turned out the light.

A trip to Kew Gardens

Wednesday, December 28, 2005–London. The morning was leisurely. To our distress, we discovered that the Patisserie deux amis was closed for the whole we, so we had to settle for a decidedly lower-market coffee shop up the street.

We took the Tube to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, especially so that I could see the large exhibition of glass sculptures by the American artist Dale Chihuly interspersed with the plantings in the glass houses of Kew (particularly the Palm Court, the Temperate Building, and the Princess of Wales Conservatory). George had seen the show when he was in London in October, but he knew that I would like it. We took the “old lady tram ride” around the whole Kew Gardens facility, so that I could get a glimpse of the whole thing, but in late December, in the cold, there was not a whole lot to see outside of the buildings.

Chihuly’s work is amazing (although I’m told that the Brits find it contrived and don’t like it on the whole). It is as if alien brightly colored creatures are growing next to the plants. I think it is really quite organic and well-conceived.

By mid-afternoon we were cold, and ready to catch the Tube back to the city. We got off at Oxford Street and made our way among the immense crowds out shopping the sales. We made a stop at the John Lewis Stores (one of the large department stores on Oxford St.) It was really too crowded to be fun, but interesting to see the place in full array. We headed back to the hotel, changed clothes and went to dinner at a restaurant called Bank in Aldwych. Apparently a few years ago it was very trendy–the place to be seen. It’s now gotten past that, but is still an attractive place, with good service and excellent food–some of it re-inventions of traditional English cooking. I had Cumberland sausages and mash for my main course. For dessert it was a “sticky toffee pudding with caramel sauce.” I could have eaten three helpings. The restaurant was not too busy, which was a blessing, because even though we had a corner table, I think that the place would have been extremely loud and annoying had it been clear full.

It was quite cold outside after we walked back to the hotel, and the room was chilly, so it was a good excuse to go to bed.

Back to London

Tuesday, December 27, 2005–Cambridge to London. On Monday night, Tessa had told us that six inches of snow were expected overnight. When we got up on Tuesday morning, we had not had six inches, but there was a light dusting on Jesus Green and it was snowing steadily. Such beauty to look out the door and see it coming down, knowing that I did not have to drive in any of it. (Europeans don’t know how lucky they are to have workable train systems.)

After breakfast I went out to do a few errands. On Christmas Eve I had bought a U.K. SIM chip for my T-Mobile phone, so that I could more economically make local phone calls, pay-as-you-go. Well, somehow in the process I had ended up losing my USA T-Mobile SIM, which would mean that I would have to get a new one for my phone when I got home. I thought it was worth going back to the T-Mobile store to see if it had turned up there. I am sometimes an extremely lucky person, because the SIM had fallen out onto the floor of the shop and was still there three days later. As it turned out, I ended up going to a stand in the farmer’s market and getting my mobile unlocked and I bought an O2 mobile SIM, which is what George has. They have a plan that allows for cheap international calls. I also needed to exchange some underwear I’d bought at Marks & Spencer. After my weight loss in the last year, I definitely do NOT need extra-large. The exchange was painless.

At noon George and I went to the Fitzwilliam Museum to see a fabulous special exhibition of illuminated manuscripts. I think that every library in the city had been emptied of their treasures to put on display. One book went back to the 7th century. The highlight of the show was the Macclesfield Psalter, which had come onto the market a few years ago and been bought by the Getty Museum; however, the British authorities halted the purchase and invoked a law that allowed a British consortium to match the price to keep the volume in the U.K. It is a book native to East Anglia, so there is good reason for it to be in Cambridge. It is in the process of restoration, and has been disbound, so a large number of the leaves had been mounted a framed. It was therefore possible to see much more of the volume than had it been bound and just open to a couple of facing pages. It is a remarkable volume.

We came back to the flat for a bite of lunch, then got packed up to take the train back to London. Tessa gave us a ride in her car to the train station, and we got there just in time for a 6:00 train. We were at King’s Cross shortly after 7:00. We put our things down in our room at the Montana, then walked to Covent Garden for dinner at a French bistro on Wellington Street (across from Penhaligon’s) that we had tried last week, but it had been packed. Not busy at all this night. Among other things, I had some real, quality French onion soup–not the nasty stuff you get in most restaurants in the States. We were able to walk back to the hotel. (“What did you do on your trip, Tim?” “Spent the whole time walking back and forth to Argyle Square.”)

Boxing Day

Monday, December 26, 2005–Cambridge. The day after Christmas–Boxing Day–is almost as big a holiday in the U.K. as Christmas. Almost everything was closed again. It was sunny and crisply cold outside. For a change, we didn’t have any social engagements during the day, so we hung around the flat all morning, then about noon we left for a long walk around the area of Cambridge where we were staying. We ultimately made our way to the other side of the River Cam and followed the path along the back of the colleges. Very scenic–all we were missing were the cattle that browse the pasture in the summer.

Very few stores were open today, and most were the British branches of American concerns (The Gap, Borders). We looked around briefly in Waterstone’s Bookshop, but then headed home the long way around Jesus College and back across Jesus Green to Park Parade.

We were invited to dinner at our friend Tessa Gardner’s home, just down the street. She is a very gracious host, and I always look forward to seeing her and experiencing her hospitality. (Although she described dinner as her “leftovers”, they were better than most “first times”…. cold roasted stuff duck, roasted chicken, a lovely soup, and a salad with chicory and sliced oranges.) We stayed and chatted until well after midnight.

Christmas Day in Cambridge, all is quiet

Sunday, December 25, 2005 — Cambridge. Christmas Day dawned bright, sunny, crisp–a gorgeous day. We were again invited to King’s chapel for their 11:00 sung Eucharist. As we walked to the chapel, the streets were deserted and no traffic–only a few people on their way to church. (Unlike the United States, in England, everything closes down for Christmas, including transportation, so if you need to get somewhere you either have to walk or drive yourself.) Jim had already arranged the seats, so we met him at his rooms, along with his other guests, one of whom, Michael, George knew from a party at Derek and Rory’s in Washington.

The crowd had again queued up for admission, but not quite in the same numbers as Christmas Eve for the carol service. We were again ushered to the choir. Today we were on the Cantoris side, but not directly behind the choir, so the blend was better, and still a good view of Mr. Cleobury. The choir sang the Mozart Spatzenmesse for the Ordinary of the Mass. The congregational singing was Christmas carols. The place was packed again. The chaplain gave a rousing social-consciousness sermon in the person of Herod.

Jim’s entourage was going for a pint at the local pub, The Eagle. I wanted to take more pictures of the chapel in the bright sunlight, so I went out to do that. Christmas is one of the few times that the great west doors of the chapel are opened, so I was able to get a few shots of the interior and the organ. (Photography is not usually allowed in the chapel.) As we were getting ready to leave, Stephen Cleobury was heading back to the Gibbs Building, so Jim introduced us to him and mentioned that I was an organist from Cleveland. Mr. Cleobury and I had a brief conversation about Karen and Chick Holtkamp. (Karen is Cleobury’s artist manager in the U.S.)

A few drinks later, we got back to the flat about 3:00. We made a courtesy call at Tessa Gardner’s house to deliver some Christmas gifts from Derek and Rory. She introduced us to her guest, a lovely lady named Sylvia. We had a short time of civilized chat, then excused ourselves to come back and start our own Christmas dinner.

George took responsibility for the roasted pheasant, although in the process he managed to set off the smoke detector, to very loud noise. It is a fancy wired system, so taking a battery out was not an option. I did discover the buttons on the annunciator panel in the front hallway how to re-set the system and turn off the alarms, so we did not end up with the Cambridge Fire Department at our doorstep.

Besides the pheasant, the rest of the menu included roasted, smashed garlic potatoes (thanks, Nigella Lawson for the recipe); Brussels sprouts with chilis and garlic; a cranberry/port wine sauce (thanks, Sainsbury’s). The starter was smoked salmon, very mild, and we had our fancy steamed chocolate Christmas pudding with the liquid chocolate center for dessert.

We finally finished dinner about 10:30, and then washed dishes, so it was after midnight by the time we were able to go to bed.

Christmas Eve at King’s College – Miracles do happen…

The alarm went off at 7:15 AM so that we could make preparations to get into the queue at King’s College for the Festival of Lessons and Carols. Enrobed in our silk long underwear, corduroy trousers and heavy sweaters, scarves, coats and hats, we were in line by 9:00 AM. The King’s web site informed us that those in line before 10:30 were likely to get in. They start letting people in at 1:30 PM for a 3:00 PM service. The crowd was jovial. We had people from Somerset in front of us and a couple from Ottawa behind us, who just came in from London for the day to attend the service. The porters at King’s kept “scrunching” the line to get more people into the courtyard. Our friend Tessa Gardner came along to say hello to us while she was out on her errands.

About 11:00 Jim Trevithick came along, shopping bags in hand, and found us in the queue. While out on his marketing errands he ran into Martin Rees (that is, Lord Rees, the Astronomer Royal and Master of Trinity College, Cambridge) who told Jim that he and his wife were not using their reserved tickets for the carol service. Jim told us that he was going to go find the King’s Chapel Administrator and see if he could arrange things for us to use the vacant seats. “Don’t get too excited,” he said, “because I don’t know if I will succeed.” And off he went.

About twenty minutes later he came back with a white card bearing the King’s College letterhead, with a handwritten note from the Chapel Administrator, “Please admit two guests of Jim Trevithick to the choir stalls.” WOW! A miracle! It could not have been a better outcome–not only would we be in the chapel for the service, but right up with the action.

At that point, there was no reason to stand in line anymore, so we went to Jim’s rooms for coffee. He then had to start cooking the food for his Christmas lunch, so we went shopping. Back to the flat briefly, then at 2:30 met Jim and we were escorted into the chapel, into the choir stalls (past the hundreds of people who had waited outside all day). We were seated on the Decani side of the choir, in the row behind the basses and altos. I had a perfect view of Stephen Cleobury, the Director of Music, as he conducted the choir. (Very interesting to watch: minimal gestures, and unlike many choral conductors, he never “mouths” the words.) In point of fact–and not in any way to seem ungrateful for such an extraordinary opportunity–where we were sitting was not absolutely the best place to hear the blend of the choir. But who cares, here was little Tim Robson from Scranton, Iowa, in the famous King’s College, Cambridge, Chapel for the even more famous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. How could I be indifferent? It was truly an amazing experience.

After the service, I realized that a gentleman who had been wheeled in in a wheelchair shortly before the service was Stephen Hawking, the great physicist and cosmologist. The commissioned new Carol for the service (a setting of “Away in a Manger”) was by Sir John Tavener. (Not one of his greatest efforts, in my opinion.) He was seated on the other side of the choir. Sir David Willcocks was seated in the upper level on the other side next to Jim Trevithick. As we were filing out after the closing organ voluntary, a gentleman let us go before him. George and I were walking away, and then I realized that the man was Francis Pott, the composer of the commissioned closing organ voluntary, an “Improvisation on ‘Adeste fideles'”. So I turned around and said, “Excuse me, are you Mr. Pott?” He said, “Yes, I am, do I look particularly guilty this afternoon?” We had a brief chat, in which I said how much I admire his music, but how hard it is to come by in the U.S. and that it is not performed as much as it should be. The new organ word is brilliant, very difficult, but made a strong impression.

We were invited back to Jim’s rooms for champagne, joined by Jim’s guest, a lovely gentleman named Peter. We were later joined by the King’s chaplain, Richard Lloyd-Morgan. About 7:15 they all went to dinner in the King’s dining hall, and George and I came home, happy with our great good fortune of the day. I fixed Indian dal soup for Christmas Eve supper along with some excellent venison sausages from Waller’s.

The rest of the evening was spent quietly at home.

A grand shopping day in Cambridge

Friday, December 23, 2005 — Cambridge. The day was spent doing the various shopping tasks before everything closes down for Christmas: a trip to the farmers market for veg, then to Marks & Spencer for the Christmas pudding (and underwear and socks, on sale). In the afternoon there was a trip to Waller’s Master Butcher shop to pick up the pheasant for Christmas dinner, plus pork pies and some paté.

Later we went for drinks at the Gibbs Building in King’s College with Derek’s friend Jim Trevithick, a fellow in Economics at King’s. Very pleasant and entertaining. He had other plans, so he let us go about 5:00. Another quick stop at Sainsbury’s before we came home for the evening. Preparation for dinner of pork pies, mash, green beans.

Moving on to Cambridge

Thursday, December 22, 2005 — London – Cambridge. I hadn’t slept well, so it was a struggle to get out of bed, but we needed to get packed up and checked out of the hotel, so that we could go on to Cambridge. We left our luggage in the hotel’s closet and went out for a walk. Upon seeing a sign directing us toward it, on a whim we went to the Charles Dickens House Museum in Bloomsbury. It was a house that Dickens had lived fairly early in his writing career. Not a great museum, but the sitting room was decorated for Christmas in Victorian style, so it was mildly entertaining.

We retrieved our luggage at the Montana and walked the block to King’s Cross station. We caught the 2:15 fast train (i.e., non-stop) to Cambridge and were there by 3:30. We picked up a taxi to Park Parade to our friend Derek’s flat, lent to us for the next few days. It is a charming place in a wonderful and convenient location overlooking Jesus Green.

I wanted to visit my favorite music store, Brian Jordan Music, and I was afraid they might be closed, so we walked over there late in the afternoon. George left me to browse while he made a trip to Sainsbury’s (supermarket) for food supplies for the next few days.
Dinner was considerably less glamorous than in London–a trip to Pizza Express (although several steps above the usual pizza restaurant in the U.S.) I spent the rest of the evening on my Christmas card writing project.
The weather is cloudy, relatively mild temperatures, but with a damp, chilly breeze. Glad I have a warm woolen coat and a scarf. (Earlier in the week I had insisted on a trip to Marks and Spencer in London so that I could buy a stocking cap to keep my head warm.)

Culture Day in London

Wednesday, December 21, 2005 — George had a business appointment with someone at the British Library at 10:30, so after our breakfast (I should note that the Hotel Montana tariff includes “full English breakfast”; but it is more than I can gaze upon early in the morning, and the food isn’t very good) at the patisserie, we split up. I spent the morning at the British Museum seeing two special exhibitions: Forgotten Empire: the ancient world of Persia; and Samuel Palmer: Vision and Landscape.

The Persia exhibition contained a lot of antiquities lent by the government of Iran, which I am quite certain will never be seen in the U.S., so it was a good chance. It is a monumental exhibition, well executed. Samuel Palmer is a favorite Romantic landscape painter; however the majority of the paintings in this very large exhibition are quite small, so it was difficult to see them.

Of course, I did a bit of shopping in the British Museum gift shop before heading back up the road to meet George at the British Library. From there we took the Tube to St. Paul’s Cathedral. George had a second errand to run: delivery of a photograph to the librarian at the St. Bride Printing Library on Fleet Street. He’d had lunch with his host at the British Library, but I hadn’t, so he left me at a branch of my favorite British fast food establishment, Pret a manger, for a sandwich followed by a quick trip to the St. Paul’s Cathedral Bookstore.

When we met up again at 3:30 PM (already well into twilight on this shortest day of the year) we walked across the Millennium Bridge to the Tate Modern to see an exhibition of the paintings of Henri Rousseau, “Jungles in Paris.” These paintings of such things as tigers eating virgins must have been quite shocking in their day. What is more amazing is that Rousseau himself never set foot out of France–he absorbed the stores and pictures of others to create his images.

We had a leisurely walk back across the Blackfriars Bridge up to Covent Garden and a stop at Penhaligon’s perfume shop to stock up and buy several Christmas gifts for people.

We were read for dinner, but of course we were in the middle of the theatre district right before showtime, so every place was mobbed. We walked from Covent Garden to Soho and ended up eating at an old standby Balans, on Old Compton Street. It was packed and earshatteringly noisy, but we got a table quickly, and the food was good. It was a Thai chicken pasta dish for me, plus a rich chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream.

Since we had both been on our feet all day, I convinced George that we should take the Tube back to King’s Cross. I was extremely happy to take my shoes off. The weather had been chilly all day.