a friendly reunion of old friends, Soho, and my favorite bookshop

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So my two childhood friends, Kathy and Claire, came to meet me at my hotel. We hugged, kissed and chortled in the foyer. And then we stepped back and had a good look at one another. It’s a strange sensation re-uniting with friends after an absence of nearly three decades. Despite the fact that I’m not as slim as I was and we had all – ahem – aged, we were all recognizable to one another. I gave them a quick tour of the hotel then we trudged up the flight of stairs to my room. We sat down, started talking, and a funny thing happened: it was as if those three decades melted away. Oh, sure, each of us had lots of news and events to recount (sadly, the deaths of all of our parents); but the ease and familiarity and feel-good sensation was definitely present. It was a nice feeling.

I was very spoiled that day (and the next day.) It happened to be my birthday. Kathy and Claire showered me with gifts then took me to the theater (The Barbican) to see The Merry Wives of Windsor, a Shakespearian ‘bawdy’ comedy set in a modern-day setting. It was lively and spirited and silly at times, and thoroughly enjoyable. I love going to the theater … why don’t I go more often?

The next day Kathy and her husband took me to lunch to a fab restaurant called The Lighterman (link below.) Their daughter joined us and we were four. It was a British menu, so it seemed fitting to order a large platter of fish and chips. Christmas Day was spent at Kathy’s house. Her husband cooked the entire meal. Bravo, M! The turkey was succulent.

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On another day, I wandered round Soho looking for The Photographers’ Gallery. I wanted to view a photo exhibition entitled Roman Vishniac Rediscovered. As I studied the black and white street photos of Berlin, Vienna and other European cities during the mid to late-1930s, the two words that came to mind were “disturbing” and “important.” Russian-born Vishniac used his camera to document his surroundings. His photographs chronicle the rise of Nazism in Germany, the insidious propaganda swastika flags and military parades, which were taking over both the streets and daily life. There’s a sense of menace and foreboding in the photos. I always think that photographs and other testimonies from that era are a marvellous history lesson. Schoolkids should be taken to these exhibitions.

Later on, I visited one of my favorite bookshops located in Bloomsbury. There’s a tea salon on the premises. I had a slice of boozy fruitcake served with brandy cream sauce and tea. Other cakes were called lemon myrtle sponge with bourbon-soaked kumquats and chamomile cream, and gluten-free pomegranate almond cake with citrus frosting.

Do you want to know something?

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I eat better in London than I do in Paris. Food in London is international and inventive, whereas in Paris it’s either same-old, same-old trad (yawn) or burgers. (A burger-fries trend hit the country about six years ago.) What’s the most popular eating establishment on the Champs-Elysées right now? Five Guys. Oh, and now a Mexican tacos trend is hitting the country, especially among young people. London is a world-class, innovative and cosmopolitan city. Which is why Brexit perplexes me. It runs counter to an outward-looking global perspective. (By an overwhelming majority, Londoners voted to stay in Europe.) Why does this nation want to turn inwards and cut itself off from the EU? What’s so awful about being European?

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Books! Books! Books!

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The British Museum is at the foot of this street. While in Soho, I stumbled across another great restaurant located at 135 Wardour Street. I recommend it. It’s called Princi (Eat, drink and live Italian). You walk in, select your meal from the counter, then carry it to a table. There are Princi locations in the States too. Link below.

https://thelighterman.co.uk/

https://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/

https://www.londonreviewbookshop.co.uk/

http://www.princi.com

a church, Richard Ford’s new memoir, and East West Street

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This is one of my favorite churches in London. It’s called the Parish Church of St. Luke, it’s Anglican, and it’s located on Sydney Street, just off the King’s Road. Guess who married here in 1836? Charles Dickens!

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I love to sit in the adjoining garden, as well as in the café on the church porch. On my way from the Fulham Road to the King’s Road, this is the route I take while walking through Chelsea. I like looking at the different architectural styles. And the foliage. As I mentioned in another post, London is an amazingly green city.

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On the Fulham Road I popped into Daunt Books. I wanted to buy Richard Ford’s new memoir, Between Them: Remembering My Parents. It’s a gentle and tender read, a slim volume, and full of love for his mother and father. An only child, he was raised in Arkansas throughout the late 1940s and 50s. Ford has a slow, measured cadence to his writing. I wonder if growing up in the South has something to do with that.

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I had a long chat with the woman in the photo below. She works at Daunt and she gave me lots of recommendations. As we moved around the tables, she picked up books and asked if I had read them or knew the author. At one point she asked if I liked Rachel Cusk. “Yes,” I said. “I read Transit and another book she wrote about the end of her marriage, I can’t remember the title.”

“I’m the cousin of Cusk’s ex-husband,” said the Daunt bookseller, a tad defiantly.

“Oh,” I said. An awkward pause ensued and then I added feebly, “Well, the book was very good.”

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And now I’ll give you a book recommendation. I purchased many books in London, but the best one of all, which I found on my own at the Eurostar terminal just minutes before boarding the train for Paris, is this: East West Street by Philippe Sands. Throughout the entire train journey and afterwards, I didn’t put it down for a second. It’s a compelling read, and masterly written

Winner of the 2016 Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction

the King’s Road, shopping and strolling – London, June 2017

For one year I lived at the foot of the King’s Road, called the New King’s Road, in the district of Fulham. The best bit for shopping along the King’s Road, however, runs through the posh district of Chelsea. It’s one of London’s best shopping streets.

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If you go, I suggest that you start at Sloane Square. Pop into the department store, Peter Jones, located right on the square. There’s nothing fancy or trendy about Peter Jones, but it’s well-loved by Londoners. There’s something comforting about this store, like a nice cup of tea. There’s a restaurant on the top floor. I always head to their kitchenware department (in the basement) and glassware department (main floor). Each time I visit, I bring something back with me to Paris. This year it was Royal Doulton mugs and matching cereal bowls.

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this collection is called Pacific Splash

Located across the road from Peter Jones is COS, part of the Swedish H&M Group. I love COS clothes; great for the office and otherwise. Clean lines, modern and functional. And here’s a tip: if you walk out the back door of COS, you’ll find yourself in a pedestrian-only area called the Duke of York Square. It’s filled with eating places, more shops, and the Saatchi Gallery of Contemporary Art.

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And here’s Reebok, located at number 37 King’s Road, where I purchased my extraordinary walking shoes last year. Thank you, thank you, Reebok! Thanks to your fabulous CLOUDRIDE DMX shoes, for which I paid only £59, I am able to walk eight hours a day in total comfort.

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the best!! you can purchase them via the internet

Conveniently located right beside this Reebok store is PRET A MANGER, an amazing fast food place. Years ago, PRET was just your average, run of the mill sandwich shop chain. And then a new CEO took over and revolutionized the brand. Today, PRET shops are scattered all over. At very reasonable prices, they serve up delicious natural food, beverages and organic coffee.

As I moved around the city, I found myself popping into the nearest PRET at different times of the day, picking up a yogurt-berry-granola bowl, a juice or coffee and a sarny (sandwich).

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This vegetarian cheese sandwich and the berry-yogurt cost me less than a fiver (five pounds). The King’s Road store has a pleasant, air-conditioned seating area downstairs where you can sit and refuel in comfort. They also do wraps, salads, and lots of other things.

Located much further down King’s Road, well, a lot further down, is Chelsea Quarter, another favorite fuel stop of mine. If you don’t want to walk, then simply jump onto the number 22 bus and get off at number 219 King’s Road. Then take the number 22 back in the other direction.

I like to sit at Chelsea Quarter’s large communal table strewn with a selection of the daily newspapers. I invariably end up talking with someone sharing the table. There are also smaller, individual tables.

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There’s a reason why I come this far down along the King’s Road. Here it is –

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I’ve only just recently discovered this shop (a smaller one is on the Marylebone High Street). What can I say, other than it’s fabulous. Design ideas galore. A home and lifestyle company, Designers Guild designs and sells fabrics, bedlinen, wall coverings, furniture, upholstery, bed and bath collections, etc. A huge selection of gorgeous sheets …

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Kensington Gardens, the Serpentine, and Planet Organic

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On another beautiful day I set out across Kensington Gardens in search of the Serpentine Gallery. For someone who’s normally stuck in an office all day, I revelled in my freedom and in the great outdoors with the grass, trees and big sky surrounding me. And such magnificent trees! Oak, plane, chestnut and maple, some very old and very large. It is the height of summer, a hot wind blows across the lawns, and in the Royal Parks of London the air shimmers in the sunlight.

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And then I came across this interesting structure which turned out to be a temporary pavilion in the middle of the park. The designer is Danish architect Bjarke Ingels.  Inside was a swank espresso bar.

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From Kensington Gardens I walked north to Bayswater Road then up Queensway to Westbourne Grove and to my favorite organic restaurant, supermarket, juice bar called PLANET ORGANIC. There are seven locations in London. I had a Fatigue Fighter juice because I love the color (beetroot, green apple, carrot, ginger and celery) and a salad combo.

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Back through the park to the Royal Albert concert hall (beloved by Londoners) when I saw an extraordinary sight. People were lined up for miles on this ordinary Monday evening, some sitting on the sidewalk reading, chatting in groups and even eating an early supper, picnic-style on the pavement. I approached a group. “Excuse me,” I said, “Why are people queuing around the block?” I felt like an anthropologist conducting research on the behavior of Londoners. 

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They explained something about lottery tickets to the summer season of concerts called the BBC Promenade Concerts, otherwise known as “The Proms”. I admit that I walked away slightly baffled.

Right beside the Royal Albert Hall is this imposing Victorian Gothic-looking edifice called Queen Alexandra’s House. Built in 1884, it’s a residence for female students attending the Royal College of Music, Royal College of Art and Royal College of Science. When I was 19 or 20, I stayed here for a week during the summer when all the students were away on vacation. It was a spooky place, creaky and empty. I swear I was the only guest there; it was just me and a strict Housemistress who rattled her keys as she strode the empty halls. I remember watching a late-night movie on the black and white TV set, alone in the common room, before creeping back to my room at midnight. The next morning a thin, gruel-like porridge was served to me in the basement refectory. Weak tea and cold toast followed. I swear, the scene could have been straight out of Oliver Twist or Rebecca with the strict Housemistress playing Mrs. Danvers.

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more to come!

London 2016 … part one

Just back from ten fabulous days in London. I feel energized, invigorated, inspired and just plain glad to be living a short train ride away from such a grand city. London is more than a world-class capital, London is the world. Utterly cosmopolitan, it continues to amaze and bedazzle the traveler with its constant transforming, trending, creating and modernizing.

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The food in London is outstanding. The quality, variety and availability of first-class international food far surpasses that in Paris (as a food-centric Parisian, that’s my honest opinion). Not to mention the service. Smiling, helpful, professional. What a joy to just walk around before popping into a café or cake shop for afternoon tea or coffee. Below are pastries from Carluccio’s, a chain of Italian restaurants offering superb food at reasonable prices in a casual family-friendly environment. That chocolate cake is to die for.

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One day I visited the Geffrye Museum in Shoreditch, East London, just minutes from the City of London. It showcases the history of British homes and gardens. The grounds are beautiful.

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Another day, a stunningly beautiful day, I went to the Tate Modern art gallery to see the retrospective of American artist Georgia O’Keeffe. Tube to Mansion House then a 5-minute walk to the Millenium Bridge, officially known as the London Millennium Footbridge. It’s a steel suspension bridge for pedestrians stretching across the River Thames. Crossing it, with the sun blazing down, a cool breeze blowing in, and the river traffic coursing underneath, was a truly exhilarating experience.

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My favorite is this one, entitled The Barns, Lake George (1926).

LOTS MORE TO COME!

loving London – teashop, Alice in Wonderland, the Bishopsgate

According to the French Consulate, there are approximately 300,000 to 400,000 French people living in England. And I kept bumping into them as I made my way around the country’s capital. And here’s the funny thing – they’re far more friendly and garrulous in London than they are in Paris.

Walking along the Fulham Road one sunny morning, I spied the relatively new Whole Foods Market across the road. Starving because I hadn’t yet eaten breakfast, I popped in to have a look around. The first thing I saw was this gleaming espresso machine. I ordered a double espresso with whole milk.

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As I walked around with my coffee, I saw a bar with counter service offering charcuterie, cheese and pickles. It looked like my kind of place. I climbed onto a high stool, glanced at the menu and ordered a grilled cheese sandwich with onion chutney. And – quelle surprise – the man standing before me was a Frenchman. We chatted while I ate. Pascal is originally from Brittany, but has been living in London for a decade and a half. Like most of the French people I’ve talked to, he’s in no hurry to return to France. By the way, the sandwich, served with pickles, was extra. Merci, Pascal !

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According to a BBC article, here are a few reasons why the French stay in the U.K. 

a gateway to globalization and also as a way of breaking away from stifling French bureacracy.

far more choice and flexibility

If you want security and beautiful long vacations, stay in France.  But if you’re seeking adventure and wanting to learn new skills, come to London.

I pondered that last comment and decided that, at this stage in my life and my career, I preferred beautiful long vacations.  But there’s no job security in France or elsewhere.  Believe me, I know.

Here are three French teenagers on their way to the Lycée Français Charles De Gaulle, wholly owned by the French Government, in South Kensington.

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A friend of mine told me about a book event scheduled to take place in one of my favourite London bookshops. I went early for late-afternoon tea in their renowned cake shop. The London Review Bookshop is located in Bloomsbury, just down the road from the British Museum.

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Their cakes are divine. Here’s a slice of “no-wheat rose and pistachio” and below that a “deeply satisfying chocolate and Guinness” slice. Oh my!

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I chose Apple and Earl Grey cake served with Iron Buddha, “an intensely floral Oolong tea”.

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To celebrate the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s, Alice in Wonderland, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, Professor of English Literature at Oxford University, led a talk about his latest book entitled The Story of Alice. It’s a double biography of the author Lewis Carroll and his subject, Alice Liddell. Joining him was Vanessa Tait, author of The Looking Glass House. Ms. Tait is the great grand-daughter of Alice Liddell. As you know, Alice Liddell was the real-life inspiration for Alice. Here’s Ms. Tait here, the woman standing on the left.

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SPITALFIELDS

Straddling central London (The City district) and London’s East End, the Spitalfields quarter is old, historical and interesting.  The problem though, as is clearly evident, is that important bits of this fascinating district are being eaten away by land developers and, as a sad result, its history is being erased.  I had been talking about the subject with a staff member of Raven Row, an art exhibition centre that I had visited, located at the end of a Spitalfield’s lane. As The City (London’s financial district) expands, old brick houses, lanes and shops are being demolished to make way for soulless office towers.  Below are a few of these narrow lanes and brick buildings.  What you can’t see are the office towers that literally surround and dwarf the diminishing historical area.  It makes for an odd architectural juxtaposition.

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BISHOPSGATE INSTITUTE

Now this place is after my own heart.  If I lived in London, I would be a member.  If I had a lot of money, I would make a generous donation.

Every city in the entire world should have a place like this!

Bishopsgate Institute’s vision: Dedicated to opening minds, challenging perceptions and enriching lives.

Since 1895 we have been a home for ideas and debate, learning and enquiry; a place where culture, heritage and learning meet, and where independent thought is cherished.

Our mission is to provide welcoming and inspiring spaces for people with a thirst for knowledge to learn and flourish. Through our library, historic collections, courses and cultural events, we enrich, entertain, and stimulate independent thought in a vibrant city environment.

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As I walked down the halls stopping and staring at the then-provocative quotes uttered by visionaries, free-thinkers, authors and activists, some from a hundred years ago, I thought how relevant and topical they still are today.

I wrote down some of my favourites –

The word heretic ought to be a term of honour. (Charles Bradlaugh, politician and freethinker, 1833-1891)

Too proud to be enslaved to any, even a God, the Atheist obeys no Command but that of his conscience. (Charles Bradlaugh)

Our ignorance of history causes us to slander our own times. (Gustave Flaubert)

Always walk through life as if you have something new to learn and you will. (Vernon Howard)

There’s a wonderful library, open to all. Seeking refuge from the heat, and also to rest my weary feet, I went into the cool, hushed interior and sat at a desk. I ended up viewing slides of mid-19th century London – landmarks, buildings, streets, social and cultural scenes. They were, in fact, old glass sides that had been digitized and transformed into a slideshow. Fascinating!

I could spend hours in this place.  Below is the institute’s website.   Please go.  Londoners reading this:  please make a donation.  Because what’s more important than opening minds?  There are interesting lectures, courses, and cultural events.  There is also a cafe on-site.

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http://www.bishopsgate.org.uk

http://www.ravenrow.org/about/

A last favourite quote by Alvin Toffler – The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.

“My country is my world, and my religion is to do good.”  Thomas Paine, 1737 – 1809, English-American political activist, philosopher, political theorist and revolutionary. One of the Founding Fathers of the United States.

loving London – Part II

One of my greatest pleasures is urban walking.  When I’m in a city on vacation, I usually walk 6 to 7 hours a day.  But this time my knees ached, so I had to slow up a little bit.  While walking I like to gaze at beautiful buildings and streetscapes. Sometimes I’ll stop in front of a building just to admire its style and character.  And if it’s an old building, I try to imagine who lived there and what it must have been like a hundred or a hundred and sixty years ago when horses and carriages were parked out front instead of cars.  Ennismore Gardens is one such place, a gorgeous square I stumbled upon while exploring South Kensington.

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Intrigued by the beauty and history of the square, I did a bit of research and came up with the following.  In the late 19th century, the first residents were aristocrats and statesmen; in the 20th century they were joined by artists and actors. Development began in the 1840s and decades later the rest of Ennismore Gardens, including the private garden square at its centre, was laid out in the 1870s. The five-storey houses, referred to as “town mansions”, have porticos with Corinthian columns and a continuous railing creating a first floor balcony.  Of course in those days each house was occupied by one single family and its domestic staff.  But throughout the first five decades of the 1900s they were gradually converted into apartments.  You can’t really appreciate the grandeur of this square by these photos.

Ava Gardner lived at 34 Ennismore Gardens until her death in 1990. In 2011, the average house price in Ennismore Gardens was £3,345,000.

Running behind Ennismore Gardens is a row of mews houses (mews are converted stables and carriage houses). I had read that Michael Caine and Terence Stamp lived here (not together). I imagined how fun it would be to see one of them out watering his geraniums.  But I saw no-one as I walked along the cobblestones.  All I heard was birdsong and the distant drone of a passing airplane. It was a beautiful sunny morning and I was on my way to my most favorite of all museums, the Victoria and Albert.

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The V and A is one of London’s most beloved museums. Founded in 1852 and named after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, it’s also the world’s greatest museum of decorative arts and design. Entrance to the museum is free, however some exhibitions you have to pay for.

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The gift shop alone is worth visiting and there are several excellent restaurants and cafeterias on-site. The gift shop showcases contemporary jewellery designers from all over the world.  I purchased this ring for its originality. A fusion of Turkish and Colombian styles, the turquoise and magenta agate gemstones are set in gold-plated bronze. The artist’s name is Karla Diaz Cano.

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Every time I walk in to this museum, I admire the gorgeous sculpture of blown glass and steel that hangs in the grand entrance. The designer is named Dale Chihuly and he was inspired by Venetian chandeliers. The sculpture was made in Seattle.  The last photo here is of the gift shop.

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NEXT AND LAST POST COMING UP – a literary evening to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland; a grilled cheese sarny (sandwich) at Whole Foods (made for me by a Frenchman); and the noble-minded Bishopsgate Institute.