Friday, June 12, 2009

The United Republic of Texas.

I have a love/hate relationship with blogs. Part of me wants to think of escape cville... as a book - I'll travel, jot down where the stories are as they happen, then immediately post once I get back. But the mind doesn't work that way. I get home, write about a few, then grow tired. I get tired of waxing poetic about whatever trip I've just been on. So I file the rest away in a drawer somewhere and forget.

Inevitably though, something will happen to remind me of a great travel story and I'll think, "Damn, I should've written about that the minute I got BACK! That's a GREAT story, why didn't I write about that? " My linear mind wants to write them all down one by one, right then, pretty little memories all in a row. But my real mind jumps around. I remember certain things, forget others - only to remember again in a flash much later when I'm lying awake at 3am. Or doing laundry. Or listening to the radio. Which I guess is what a blog does, jump around, offer some insight into how a person's mind can work. But I just can't seem to get past the satisfaction of looking at the escape cville... archives and seeing all London entries in January, all Breckenridge entries in February....Sigh. Maybe I should just relax and go with the flow. Hell, I haven't posted here in eons after all.

In any case, something happened today, June 2009, which reminded me of a great travel story that happened last YEAR. I hadn't even THOUGHT about it until today. It took Jay Thomas on his Sirius/XM radio show to remind me of it. It was just one statement, but the minute he said it, my mind reeled, flashing back to a sunny day last June on London's Portobello Road. Jay said, "Chuck Norris wants to become President of the United Republic of Texas!"

And there it was. The United Republic of Texas. That statement sent my head Wayne's World reeling, complete with flapping hands and Doodle-do noises, flashing back to an image of two scruffy, grizzled, elderly gentlemen in dirty suits, one brown, the other gray. They wore brogues on their feet, fedoras atop their heads. Sitting outside a pub on Portobello Road on worn wooden chairs. The table in front of them has been gouged with pocket knife carvings and is covered in pint glass water rings. One is strumming a guitar, the other it is humming and playing drums with the tabletop. Both are drunk, guzzling Guinness like it is water...

Hubby and I had headed out that afternoon to meet friends. Telling them to meet us at the corner pub, we grabbed the only two chairs left on a busy happy hour Tuesday. Two chairs immediately adjacent to said grizzled guys. Humming, strumming, drinking along without a care in the world. Waving to anyone who looks and generally being genial in a "I'm drunk and cannot really harm you," kind of way. Most people would've maybe chosen a seat inside, but I figured, what the hell. We're traveling. Let's make some friends.

So we sit. Offer the gentlemen a Guinness which they gladly accept. Small talk is exchanged. And that's when it happens. The older gentleman of the two, his face covered in gray frazzled beard, his eyes just on the verge of rheumy, but jolly all the same, his teeth yellowing, reaches into his jacket and offers me his card.

A business card. Handmade. Like something a child who was just learning computer software would create. The edges were dirty, like he had fingered its edges many times, offering it to people to look at, but never keep. The words were typed in mismatched fonts, the map below was badly pixelated and some of the words were misspelled. It said, in all caps:


With a colorful map of the Republic underneath. Mr. Grizzled then began a long diatribe about how he came to be a proud citizen of this Republic, and in his American accent (getting slurrier by the minute) talked about what brought him to that stretch of London on that particular afternoon. Or day. Or month. Or year. It kinda didn't matter. Mr. Grizzled Two just sat and strummed his guitar and grinned. Grinned like he'd heard this speech many times before. Too many times to count, so why not just strum the day away. Playing nothing in particular.

I think I may have actually whipped around to make sure that 1) I wasn't dreaming and 2) ol' John Singer wasn't about to come walking around the corner because right then I was sure I had somehow dropped right into a Carson McCullers novel.

But no, Mr. Grizzled was real. And he was passionate about his cause. He talked and talked about why this Republic needed to happen. And why it needed to happen NOW. I wanted to ask if he was so passionate about it, then why was he sitting on a London streetcorner instead of protesting down the Main Street in Dallas, but he kinda wouldn't let me get in a word edgewise. It's as if the card was attached to an invisible string which led to his sternum, and once it was pulled, he would talk until that string rode back up inside him. However many hours that took.

Our friends arrived a while later and so we left these gentlemen. One strummed, and one talked. Even as we stood to leave, Mr. Republic of Texas just smiled, waved, and kept spewing his passion all over Portobello Road. Later on that week we saw them both, one strumming, the other just sipping, this time seated at the front of a different pub on a different street in the same neighborhood. I caught the eye of Mr. Texas and he just smiled. Pointed his index finger at me like it was a gun and with a wink of his eye pulled the trigger. But in a genial way. Like we had shared a secret joke.

So is this travel story accurate? For the most part. But like all travel stories you file away in a drawer for a year, it is probably the victim of embellishment. Maybe forgetting for a while makes it better? Maybe not. Nevertheless, it definitely makes it mine...

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Ski Food.

I’ve made a recent rather sad discovery about traveling. When I was younger I used travel and vacation-time as an excuse to eat every bad food on the planet from burgers to nachos to mile-high sundaes. Plying myself with everything I had denied myself back home, and washing it down with an armada of boat drinks. But now, I find I just can’t do it. Not even a little bit. My whole body rebels. It's awful.

I tried to do it in Breckenridge on our trip there last month – loading up on burgers, chili, mashed potatoes. Carbing it up for the snowboard lesson the next day. Hey, doesn’t matter right? You’ll burn off all those calories anyway. But when I tried it, my body freaked out. When into rebellion. Instant carb coma. It was yelling at me things like, "Go a day without fruit? A day without some sort of vegetable? All right - just TRY it, and see what happens. And TRUST me, it won't be pretty."

I carbed it up and tried to tell myself that trail mix with chocolate chips and yogurt covered pretzels mixed in was healthy. And an hour before my snowboard lesson, I got the jitters. The sugar shakes. And it wasn’t just from nerves. My body was going into veggie withdrawal. Lack of fruit convulsions. Or maybe it was veggie withdrawal mixed with altitude sickness. In any case I didn’t feel better until I had some miso with seaweed and sushi that night. Real food with omega 3’s and vitamins. Now instead of going whole hog (sometimes LITERALLY) on vacation, I’m going to have to eat like I do at home. Search out healthy but tasty things while at the same time treating myself ONLY every once in awhile. This REALLY sucks.

Where before I'd use vacation as an excuse to leap from the diet without looking back, particularly in hotspots like Vegas where food and boat drinks are king, now the travel journey has changed. No longer will I have to workout extra because I jumped headlong into a vacation mode - the high-fat abyss. Now I'll have to change the paradigm. Look at why I love to travel so much from a whole different angle. This will be difficult for someone who plans her entire trip around the cuisine of the region she's traveling to. Damn. And pigging out was so much fun too.

Before reaching this epiphany, I *did* do some pigging out at the Breckenridge Brewery. Even though their burger sent me into a high-carb-coma and my guts felt like they were being wrenched out of my body, it wasn't because the food was bad. On the contrary, the burger was OUTSTANDING. Especially when washed down with a yummy Vanilla Porter. I just paid the price afterward.

Oddly enough, I did find some incredibly tasty, healthy options in Breckenridge. Maybe these restaurants are meant for those few non-skiers out there who don't need 5,000-calorie pancake suppers to fuel their trips down the mountain? Nonetheless, they were pretty damn tasty.

That miso and sushi I talked about was wolfed down at Mountain Flying Fish, an unassuming little place upstairs on Main Street near Peak 9. They promote themselves as the "Highest Altitude Sushi Bar in the World!" Not sure about that, but I wolfed down the stuff because I can't remember when I've had better sushi. It was superb. The yellowtail belly nigiri was sublime, the grilled yellowtail cheek was a revelation of crunchy skin and sweet, tender flesh. And yes, it was a yellowtail kind of night. The service was friendly, the miso was tasty, and all that sushi after a carb coma was very very welcome. Afterward we kept talking about how good it was and couldn't stop. In fact, it was SO good we went back to eat two nights later, the snow pounding down all around us - the first heavy snowstorm of our trip. Not sure if it was because we were eating sushi during a snowstorm, which is strange, or if it tasted so yummy after all the carbs, or what. All I know is that it tasted like the freshest, bestest sushi we'd ever had.

After the wonderfullness of the sushi, I was determined the next day to find myself something healthy for lunch. Hubby went skiiing, but I had given up snowboarding by then (and yes, there is definitely a forthcoming travel story there). The snow was still falling heavily as I ventured forth in my ski jacket and big boots. Crunching my way along Main Street, then down the narrow side streets, just wandering and exploring. Taking pictures of the quaint Christmas village that is Breckenridge, and marveling at how rugged and old all the houses looked. Like something out of and old western movie. Happened upon this little house on a corner. The sign said, "Amazing Grace" and so I went in. That's what you do in my world anyway. You see amazing grace you check it out.

Inside I found an adorable little three-room house full of mismatched furniture, not unlike the restaurant slash houses I used to frequent during my college days in The Fan (Richmond, VA). A shiny silver woodstove was roaring in one corner, the glass-encased counter near the kitchen was full of baked goods, and the entire place seemed to invite you in to take off your coat and stay a spell. I did, ordering their spicy tofu salad rapidly, like a man in the desert. I needed veggies! I was starving for sustenance and vitamins. That sushi the night before had only wakened the beast. Now the beast was hungry for greens.

The salad didn't disappoint - a HUGE portion of greens, carrots, peppers, and other yummy vegetables with a spicy tofu salad atop it. The spicy tofu had the consistency of something like tuna salad. It had a great kick of heat which paired nicely with the great crunch of the greens. I swear as I ate more of the stuff I felt my body sighing with relief. Which made me stay a longer while, open my laptop, do some writing, and sip a chai while watching the owner stoke the fire. Watching the snow fall. Listening as the mother and daughter in the corner (other non-skiers?) laughed over a huge book called, "What Does Your Birthday Mean?" It was a perfect afternoon, so perfect I decided to pack up a little of it to take with me. Bought two huge lemon raspberry ginger scones to drink with coffee the following morning. My "once in awhile" treat. They were out of this world good.

So what's the travel story here? Just a little ditty about how a middle age woman had a not-so-pleasant food epiphany while on vacation in Breckenridge, Colorado. How she came to realize that maybe food doesn't have to be the epicenter of the entire trip. Maybe by having to put a little more effort into finding tasty, healthy food (while at the same time leaving room for some delicious banned items) she can have an even more delightful culinary adventure. Weirder things have happened...

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So I went on vacation with Hubby to Colorado last week, and ever since, I've been asking myself where the story is. Where is the story here? What strikes me the most?

Hubby and I stayed in Breckenridge, a quaint little ski town way up in the mountains west of Denver. Don't get me started about Denver. I've never visited, and not sure I'd ever want to go on first glance. Nice airport, but the city itself is so FLAT. From the highway at least, Denver appeared to be a smoggy sprawl-filled industrial complex. High rises in the distance promised something more, some change in the desert-like scenery, but it came across like Charlotte, NC does. Flat, flat, flat, then BAM! High rises. Not aesthetically pleasing.

Breckenridge, on the other hand, is beautiful, albeit in a Swiss-chalet-rugged-Rocky-Mountain-High-meets-tiny-Thomas-Kinkade-Christmas-village kind of way. There's great looking abandoned houses there. I say great looking because they're all rugged and windblown like a derelict, falling-down homestead you'd find out on the prairie in Butch Cassidy or something. Buildings left over from when Breckenridge was a gold mining town. We passed a high school in Idaho Springs (on the way to Breck) and on the football field in huge letters was written, "Idaho Springs Goldiggers!" How awesome is that? Evidently the theme carries. Great beer in Idaho Springs by the way. Stop off at the Tommyknocker Brewery and Pub on your way to Breck and order a porter. You won't regret it.

The town of Breckenridge definitely has a Christmas-ey feel to it. Blue lights on the trees - lights everywhere actually. They looked beautiful against the constant snow falling each day we were there. Tiny flakes of constant light fluffy snow that packed well so you crunched when you walked. And you could walk everywhere as most of the restaurants, coffee shops, and ski gear and "crap" stores were located on Main Street. A crap store is a store you find in any vacation town. They sell souvenirs, tee shirts, ugly art that you love with three hot toddies in you but when you hang it up at home later you think, "CRAP!" You know, CRAP stores?

As I said, the whole town was adorned in tiny Christmas lights. Some shops even had holiday wreaths still on the doors, in February, and one coffee shop had a small Santa by the register. Which is where the story is. Finally. HERE is the travel story I've been searching for.

Every store, every street, every lane, every condo, light post, and sign had their holiday finery on. Christmas lights up. In February. It's like beneath the cheery veneer, Breckenridge is lost in time. As far as they were concerned, it was still December. Are they so lethargic they can't take down their holiday crap? (there's that word again) or are they trying to attract some form of tourist who seeks out stores like The Christmas Mouse, where they celebrate Jesus's birth every single day of the frikkin' year? Is it a ploy to attract business? Desire a magical Christmas ski village for your next vacatin? Why, step right this way!

It might be a ploy, because you see, no one was IN Breckenridge. Breckenridge was dead. Dead as a doornail. No one was there - yet another vacation town hit by the tanked economy. My husband skiied all day while I trolled the main drag, going into coffee shops for a latte, eating lunch (in an adorable little vegan restaurant called Amazing Grace, but more on that later). And everywhere I went, I was the only person in the place. Maybe 10-15 people on the street at the most.

Now you could argue it was because most people were skiing. This is a ski town after all, the weather was pretty good, so why wouldn't you be on the slopes? Except Hubby agreed the town was dead. He'd been here at the same time in previous years when it was positively PACKED with skiers. But this time? The lines at the lifts were non-existent. Trails uncrowded. We'd go to eat somewhere at 8pm and be the only people in the place, the proprietors giving us looks like they wanted to close up. I can't remember the last time I stayed so long in a restaurant I closed it down, but here we were doing it regularly. By going out to eat at 7:30! Very weird.

We would ask these proprietors if they had been hit hard because of the economy and they'd give us a look like they didn't know what we were talking about. Store clerks shrugging their shoulders like we were speaking Latin. I asked the concierge at the hotel if business was slow, and he gave me a look like, "No. We're fine. Just FINE," before saying just as much. But what I saw in his face tells me something else. Everything is clearly NOT fine.

Underneath all the Christmas-ey lights was a quiet desperation. A pleading. See the pretty snow? See the pretty lights? Doesn't it make you happy? Doesn't it make you want to spend money? Lots of money? This vibe of desperation that settled over everything like the constant snow depressed me. Because every day I explored Breckenridge I met so many super-friendly local people, business owners ekeing out a living in this small rugged little mountain town. Cut off from the rest of the world by the craggy Rocky Mountains. Moving here to rake in the dough from the rich Denver-ites and tourists who crave that ski rush. And here they are at the height of season sitting on their hands.

These folks are so genuine too. Really chatty and helpful and generous with their time and their courtesy. Small-town friendliness in a vacation spot? How often do you see that? Hubby and I remarked that we met not one rude person the whole week we were there. Breckenridgers exude a, "We're all in this together, so let's make it work," kind of feeling, despite the desperation of these times. It makes you want them to succeed. To win in this crap economy.

It was the snow and the skiing, and the natural beauty that took us to Breckenridge, but it was the people that will take us back. I just hope when we go, that I don't find my favorite coffee shops have closed. Because that would be a damn shame.

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Monday, February 2, 2009

Westminster Abbey.

Westminster Abbey with Procession, by Canaletto, 1749.

While in London this past June, Hubby and I of course visited Westminster Abbey. Along with Big Ben and the Tower of London, it's in the triumvirate of "must see" tourist sites.

I wanted to show it to him because of a magical day I spent there back in 1996. Unfortunately, the best laid plans and all that. This day was cold, rainy where before it had been beautiful sunny, strolling weather. I remember I walked the length of the Thames that day - all the way to the Tate, past the Rodin sculpture of The Burghers of Calais.

Where before I had the whole day before me to explore every nook and cranny of the abbey, this visit saw us rushing about like mad tourists on a 3-hour visa. We hadn't kept good track of the time, and so were left with the prospect of trying to see a centuries-old cathedral the size of three city blocks in an hour. We couldn't try again tomorrow - we were leaving tomorrow. Sigh. A short visit is better than nothing I suppose. It made me sad because I wanted Hubby to experience Westminster the same way I had - slowly, gradually, letting the grandiose beauty and weighty history settle over you like a warm comforter. Instead we tried to see as much of the history, the stony tombs and smell the earthy granite and wet earth of the inner Cloisters before the security guards could shoo us out. I remember we searched frantically to see the shrine to Sir Isaac Newton (Hubby is a physicist) before realizing the golden monstrosity right before our eyes was actually it. Kind of a letdown after so much "treasure" hunting.

I had first visited Westminster in April 1996. I was down from Glasgow where I was sharing a flat with two friends, playing the expatriate card until the money ran out. Visiting my friend Carter who was living in Piccadilly Circus in a tiny two-room apartment above a porn theater and a butcher. Just down the alley from the main square. We'd leave his building and see dead rabbits hanging by their ears next to a window full of purple dildoes. The red neon would seep into his apartment at night when the lights were out giving the place a bordello-like air. The LOUDEST apartment I've ever visited, because not only could you hear all the foot traffic from Piccadilly, but there was a major market in this alley every day and so at 4am on the dot, merchants would bang together pipes to form their stalls. Between the red neon and the banging, I didn't sleep.

My friend shared the place with his Japanese girlfriend whose father was a vice president at Nissan or something. She lived in Covent Garden and bought all her clothes at full price designer shops and had her shoes made to fit. When I asked where she got the fabulous pair of laceup shoes she was wearing, she replied they were handmade in Florence for only $1000. For someone who had worked two jobs for a year to spend six months traveling the UK, this was beyond extravagant.

A highlight of this trip was going to Westminster. Carter and girlfriend worked at World Bank, and while they have lived in London almost 2 years, they had never visited and had no interest in starting the tourist thing now. So I was left to my own devices which I preferred anyway. I remember being nervous I wouldn't be able to handle the Tube or even find the place. I needn't have worried - the Tube is so easy a child could handle it (once you get by which branches are closed on which days). And Westminster is so huge there's no mistaking it.

Two enormous brown towers rising from the banks of the Thames - so heavily garreted as to not look even real. Like the gargoyles you see living on the tops of churches decided to make the most of their free time instead of just sitting around. Carving out little curlicued garrets in the dark of night - beautiful things that emerge with sunrise. I was astounded by how large it was. And how old. Remembering it now, it actually *was* the first cathedral I had ever seen up close. I was awestruck.

Going inside was even better. The abbey is so large you literally feel as if your whole world has been reduced to miniature. Every footfall echoes. Every touch of my hand on stone tombs or wooden rails brought history forth when I thought of the hundreds of thousands who had walked this walk and touched these things before me. Purposely I took no map, wanting to discover on my own. Here was the tomb of William Gladstone the great statesman. There is one of an actual knight, clutching a sword to his chest, buried in 1152. With each room I entered I let the history wash over me. Overwhelming, but in a fantastic way.

What I liked most was how much I learned by wandering. Entering one room, I found a great tomb encased in marble with a golden roof and black stone pillars. Almost as if the tomb itself was a throne. Here was Queen Mary Tudor buried underneath Queen Elizabeth I (her half-sister). You mean they were buried on TOP of one another? But they HATED each other! I was floored to discover this. In another room, up high, sat the throne on which every king and queen of England had been crowned since the year 700. A simple wooden chair. Heavily scarred by years of graffiti because before people realized its importance to history, it had been used in the school for boys as a classroom chair. It was pure function before they realized it just might be priceless. I was left wondering who had carved what into its mangled arms before they became king. Picturing Henry VIII carving "H's" when he should've been studying his Latin.

Wandering in another part of the Abbey I discovered Poet's Corner. Here were memorials to all the greats: Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Yeats, the Brownings, and of course, Shakespeare. A scowling bust of William Blake stared down at me. I felt as if I'd reached my Mecca. My place of worship. So many memorials to so many important authors. So many of their words molded and shaped my writing and love of reading today. I felt as if I had to sit down right then and take in the enormity of it all. It was so overwhelming the only thing I could think to do was write about it.

As I found a seat in a pew and pulled out my journal, a man with a soft, echoing voice announced it was now noon. At noon, the abbey bells toll in memory for all those lost in war. If we could please maintain silence for the next 15 minutes we would honor those forever lost. And then the bells began to toll. Large and looming. Booming sounds full of wholeness and clarity and longing. It was stunningly beautiful. And for the next 15 minutes, as I sat recording my thoughts, the only sounds heard in that massive place were soft echoing footfalls. People tiptoeing through history. Muffled whispers which ceased the minute they were uttered when the speakers realized how much sound carried in this thunderous abbey of wood and stone.

I tried to take it all in. To breathe the history into my pores. To feel the vibrations of voices past pass through me. The kings, queens, scientists and statesmen, lords and ladies, knights and monks. All of whom had worshipped here or been crowned here or been buried here. It was unfathomable. Listening for the past. I'll never forget what it felt like. It must be what "being in the moment" feels like because for those 15 minutes there was nowhere else on earth I wanted to be.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

National Portrait Gallery.

I've written extensively here about my family's trip to London last summer. And I find I have more stories to tell. Digging out my scribbled notes, the ink running because somehow in my pocket, the notes got wet, I find the words, "Socialite. Debutante. Adventuress. Advocate. Journalist." Immediately my mind goes to the portrait of Lady Colin Campbell that I saw in the National Portrait Gallery. These were the words after her name and I was struck by first the simplicity then the varied nature of the words and the image they created when shoved together like that.

It made me want to be described in that way. To have a painting hanging somewhere of me after I died with those words plastered beneath it like an epitaph. It made me envious. It made me want to be more like the lady in the picture wearing a flowing black dress, looking all the world like something Whistler had painted - all grays and shadows. Who was this person? What was she like?

The National Portrait Gallery was visited by Hubby and me purely by accident. It was on an afternoon towards the end of our trip. We had just stuffed ourselves with dim sum in Chinatown with most of the family and were by turns feeling satiated and weary. Satiated from the food, weary from the company. When you've spent the past few hours fielding complaints about first being lost, then being hungry then finally getting all 12 people to a table and fed, you tend to feel a sense of relief, then weariness. What had been intended to be a brunch for just Hubby and me had turned into a goat rodeo of trying to gather young and elderly first onto the Tube, then off. People shouting, "It's this way, no it's THIS way," made my head spin, then hurt.

But I digress. Short version we were tired from the meal, went our separate ways, and were looking for a short
diversion to take our mind off things before heading back to the flat for an afternoon nap (there would be more family fun at dinner you see). We were wandering, meandering, wondering what to do. That's when we saw the sign for the National Portrait Gallery, followed by "FREE". Sounds good. We wandered in.

What had looked from the outside like a smallish gallery was actually quite large - 3 or 4 floors of nothing but portraits. Kings, ladies, painters, authors, society types, and statesmen. Everyone from Charles Dickens to Prince Charles. Also interesting were the amount of rare portraits located in this gallery. The only known portrait of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters in existence, for example. It was incredible. What I enjoyed the most is the chronological arrangement. So first you encountered fragile tatters of medieval portraits, some of them so old you could barely
regard the image. Later on you enter a room to find modern interpretations bordering on Picasso bizarre.

Early on we entered a room to find ourselves completely surrounded by Tudors. Here were King Henry the VIII when he was young, then old. Here was Anne Boleyn, Catherine of Aragon, Bloody Mary. The entire crew. I think I actually said, "Look! It's the entire cast of The Tudors!" (a favorite show, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is yummy). But of course, these weren't actors. This was the real deal. The people who lived it. They seemed so much smaller than on telly, with their foreshortened limbs and flat appearance indicative of the painting of that period. All the elaborate finery and lace. It was fascinating to have them all in one place surrounding you like that.

I loved the painter self-portraits as well. Sir Joshua Reynolds (pictured) painted himself with his hand raised before his eyes like he was either blocking out the sun, or searching for something precious in himself.
Rembrandt painted himself at different ages and with different facial expressions. All were so different and yet all had that same quality - as if the painter were looking in a mirror, searching for something within his eyes.

I stared at one portrait so long at one point I felt I had known him. So transfixed I forgot to scribble down the name or the artist. But I do remember searching for a postcard of this painting in the gift shop in vain. Why is it they NEVER have postcards of the paintings you love? Just the famous ones. This gentleman was an early 19th century dandy, dressed in a flouncy puffy shirt with a jacket. Like something straight out of Jane Austen. He looked like a right rogue, one eyebrow raised, his hair curling on his forehead like he was up to no good. The eyes were so real I felt he was watching me. They followed me no matter where I walked. Not sure why this particular portrait got to me, but it did. Stared and stared and then didn't want to walk away. Felt like he was trying to tell me something. Or that he was going to climb down from the wall any minute and take my hand - lead me somewhere. Very strange.

After finally making our way through the museum, I was thrilled to stumble upon a major new exhibition - The Best New Portrait of 2008. Galleries here were filled with current artists who had rendered their friends and loved ones in oils, charcoal, what have you. Visitors could vote on which one they liked best and from those votes a winner would be selected. I'm still kicking myself for not buying the companion book because these paintings were spectacular. Some were abstract, but most were photo realist depictions done in extreme closeup. From the point of view of a fly sitting on the end of the sitter's nose (except a fly has like 64 gazillion eyes or something like that).

But seriously, these were extreme closeups. Just incredible work. In one painting, the artist's daughter was wearing geisha makeup - the composition an extreme closeup of her face. At first I shrugged, what's the big deal? It's just a photograph of his daughter's face. Then I realized, no, this was a PAINTING. It was so real, every pore was depicted. Her eyelashes were perfect. The red on her lips stunning. And you couldn't see ANY brush strokes no matter how close you got up to the painting. Not even with a spy glass. In another painting a woman was scrubbing her face with soap. Every soap bubble was rendered perfectly, nary a brush stroke in sight. I marveled at the talent. I was completely floored that what I had taken to be photographs were in fact paintings.

After much deliberation, I voted for the soap bubble painting simply because I had never seen a painting of soap bubbles. And because I remembered my mother, who painted a lot before a car accident took that away from her, saying that soap bubbles and glass were the hardest objects to depict realistically in oils. She used to compose her paintings in an "up close" way as well. I remember looking at one, thinking it was a lovely purple abstract. But it was in fact a close up of a perfume bottle. She gave me the bottle, I put it to the end of my nose, looked at it, and there was her painting. Standing here looking at these winning portraits I felt wistful - she would have loved to have seen this.

I left the museum feeling as if we had discovered a London treasure. Hidden away just outside of Chinatown. Unassuming, on a quiet corner. But inside are treasures to behold. Portraits of people long gone, all staring at you. Trying to tell you something. Something important if only you'll listen.

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Shiny Shiny Harrods.

I love this picture. LOVE it. Not only does it remind me of my favorite store in the whole world, Harrods, it reminds me of the woman who showed it to me. My girl Shiny (her Ya-Ya nickname). I could see her doin' that very thing. Vacuuming the sand in some fierce high heels from Harrods. That's just the kind of broad she is. Frikkin' awesome. Nothing but brass, sass, and class.

Hubby and I had many adventures in London this past June, most of them I've spent months writing about in this very space. But the most memorable was the weekend we spent tooling about town with Shiny and her husband. In a brand new Jag rented for the weekend (Shiny's husband has a VERY cool hobby wouldn't you say?) Talk about feeling like a rock star. This is one way to do the town and do it right. You should have seen the men and boys getting whiplash as we zoomed past.

I had been to London once before long ago on a 4-day spree. I had literally run past Harrods on my way to the Victoria Albert, but had promised myself I would visit this mecca of shopping someday. Someday soon. Little did I know it would take me 12 years before I'd make it back there. But now I think maybe I was supposed to see Harrods for the first time in this way. With an English tour guide who specializes in high-end shopping. Or at least high-end window shopping slash gawking. That's definitely what you do at Harrods - GAWK.

Let me back up a bit. My friend Shiny is from Manchester and as I said, she drove down with her hubby for the weekend, specifically so she could finally meet her stateside friend. We've always emailed or left voice messages, texts, or sent Facebook wine as part of our Ya-Ya group, but up until this point we'd never actually met. None of the Ya-Ya's had met Shiny. So, this trip was a litmus test of sorts to prove Shiny was for real, and not some horny 15-year-old boy typing away in a basement. No, she's for real all right. A true Ya-Ya spitfire.

My husband and I met up with both of them at a pub near our flat - where we proceeded to go directly to Snockerville via the way of Guinness. Not a bad place by the way. Particularly when you're meeting a new friend that you KNOW you already like, and has exceeded all your expectations immediately. Shiny was awesome - I was howling with laughter the minute we arrived. My hubby on the other hand was gawking with wonder because not only is she vivacious, she's gorgeous. He took a sudden interest in all our Ya-Ya gatherings that somehow hadn't been present before. It was pretty funny to watch him fall all over himself to say the least (he looked like a Tex Avery cartoon, lol!)

The four of us ended up stumbling out the pub and stumbling into a local Italian place where we stuffed our faces, drank wine, and stayed until the owner threw us out. Seriously, they were putting the chairs on the tables and looking at their watches with a tsk-tsk motion. She was like another sister, a kindred spirit. We talked and talked and talked. About shoes, clothes, Britpop, Manchester, her three children, everything. It made me happy yet sad because I wished all the other Ya-Ya's could be there. We create so much good energy at our gatherings - can you imagine if Shiny was there too? Remember that song with the lyric, "The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire...." (you know the rest ;) yeah, it would probably be like that.

After being thrown out, it was back to the pub where we sang Radiohead at the top of our lungs (I'll never listen to "Creep" the same way again) until they threw us out of THAT place too. Then talk of plans to meet the next day. It went down like this - Shiny, in her ever-so-elegant, lilting Manchester accent says, "So, would you fancy a drive about town in the new Jag tomorrow?" Uh, yeah. Twist my arm. Damn! I wish I could say things like that! It was so cool, like a Bond film or something.

We squired about Knightsbridge in the swanky new car that day - Shiny pointing out the Royal Albert Hall, Hyde Park, the Savoy. We were *so* the gawking tourists let me tell you. Shiny fussed and cussed at her son on the phone and I sighed, wishing I could talk like that. Never has tearing your son a new asshole sounded so elegant, so proper. Think about it. You could be saying something like, "Dang! Y'all sho is country!" but when you say it with a British accent, you sound like an aristocrat.

Eventually we stopped squiring and headed toward Harrods. Shiny's husband pulled up to the parking garage and I was thinking, "Oh yeah, we're bad. We're bad. We're SUPERbad!" It was sooooooo cool. I suddenly wished I had worn a fancier outfit. No worries, because that car made an entrance for us. We exited and all heads turned (or I imagined them turning). What VIP is valeting his new Jag over there? Why, that'd be US!

Immediately upon entering Harrods you feel as if you've entered another world. A world of wealth. Dripping oozing wealth. Some rich place I've never been and will probably ever live in, but it sure is funner than hell to visit. The bags! All the bags you've ever seen in magazines, on the arms of celebrities, and then some. These were not the knockoffs I search for in vain at street markets. These were the real deal - all lit up in glass cases like rare jewels. It made me sigh. The leather, the shiny buckles. Purdy please can't I have just one?

I wanted to just look at bags all day long, but Shiny insisted we see the shoes. The husbands were dragged along under protest, but Shiny didn't care. Her new girlfriend must see the place where the priceless shoes reside. The heaven of shoes. The shoe mecca. Shoe dreams. And she was right. Harrods shoe department makes Nordstrom look like Payless after a Bogo sale. Hey, Payless is cool. I love Bogo. But these were shoes that GODDESSES wore. I actually gasped. I had only imagined a place like this. So beautiful. I wanted to fall down and thank the lord. Pray a la Carrie Bradshaw. This one slinky black number was so dainty and beautiful. Manolo Blahnik of course. I handled it so carefully, like it would break in my hands. It was weird - I felt like these shoes were too good for me to actually try on. I could only look at them and sigh. Hold them like something precious. They weren't actually for wearing.

We all turned when there was commotion from the other end of the shoe department - a short bald man was walking quickly toward us, surrounded by HUGE bodyguards, all wearing earpieces. Some sort of VIP. This was that kind of place. No hillbillies in this joint. Just dignitaries and a lot of women wearing burkas and fingering Dior bags. So very surreal, unlike any world I'd seen. I wanted to live in it for just a week. Not forever - I don't think I'd like it. Just a week to experience it for myself. It seemed so luxurious. So exotic. And I loved Shiny even more for showing it to me.

After being physically pulled away from the shoes by our husbands, we headed to Harrods Food Court. When we walked through the doors, I swear I heard angels singing. As a foodie, you dream of places like this. It ruined me for any kind of schlock you'd ever eat at a mall food court. I can never go near one again because in my head I'll say, "Sigh. It isn't Harrods. I'll save my money and eat when I get home." You can't BELIEVE this place. An oyster bar with champagne. A sushi bar with the greatest toro I'd ever seen. Duck, guinea hen, buffalo, every kind of fish. Iberico ham in the deli. My husband had a sample and swooned. I'm not kidding, he SWOONED. Foie gras by the pound. Salumi from Tuscany. A caviar bar with every variety you could imagine, served with the finest vodka. Full desserts like napoleons and tiramisu - just imagine your favorite dessert and it was there. The liquor store was incredible - none of it was anything I had ever seen. Exotic bitters from Spain and absinthe from France. *Real* absinthe with the wormwood. Prepared meals and sandwiches, and tortas, and other yummies to take home and pop in the oven. It made Ukrop's look like pig slop.

Total. Complete. Food. Sensory. Overload. The place was huge - department store size. And this was just one floor of a 7-story store. Unbelievable. Completely overwhelmed by my foodie dreamland, I bought a water to calm myself down and then saw a sign that said, "Chocolate."

Chocolate? I looked at Shiny. Oh yes, her eyes beamed. Follow me. Again, the angels sang Hallelujah! You've seen Willy Wonka right? This was like that except bigger, more elaborate. Very HIGH-END. Chocolates mixed with rosewater. Chocolates mixed with violet. Belgian chocolate dipped in gold leaf. A tiny replica of Harrods made out of chocolate. Chocolate bars with hazlenut bits, macadamia bits, toffee bits. You name a bit, they wrapped chocolate about it. I didn't know where to start. I might not be able to afford caviar. But chocolate? Hell YES I'd be buying something here. We spent many minutes looking, sampling, swooning before I settled on several Belgian Galler bars of the most exotic varieties with marzipan, hazlenut, pistachio and framboise fillings. Then another box of floral chocolates - violet, rose, jasmine. They tasted heavenly, the chocolate melting in your mouth and then a sudden taste of rose flooding your tastebuds. Yeah, I know, it was weird. This chocolate tasted like a rose smelled. It was a sensory explosion.

We spent hours exploring Harrods - from the pet store where they carried beds that looked like tiny chaise lounges to teeny leather jackets for your Pomeranian on-the-go. From the stylish luggage on the top floor to the designer clothes to the furniture to the EXTREMELY high-end bathroom fixtures. Bathtubs built for Cleopatra. Showers that Caesar might use with steam and spray from every angle. It was gawking at its finest. Window shopping like you've never seen. And always tucked away in some far corner where you least expect it - yet another restaurant. A restaurant serving nothing but variations of chocolate. Another serving high tea complete with scones and clotted cream.

I was in a daze. I felt like I was dreaming. We rode down the golden escalator and I heard music. Was I in a Harrods haze? No, there was an opera singer hanging out a window, testing the acoustics. Was this place for real? Or was the merchandise just sitting there for tourists to gawk at like an animal in a really rich, really exotic zoo? No, I actually saw people shopping. What planet must you be from to afford anything here? Not our planet obviously. But one I'd like to live on for a week.

Shiny and I, husbands in tow, had so much fun that weekend. She told me from the start that her husband and she would sometimes travel to London on the weekend and hit all the hotspots, Harrods included. I felt right then like she had included us in their special weekend trip and it made me grateful I had met them both. What gracious hosts they were. What genuine people. That whole weekend, it didn't feel like a "getting to know you" trip, but more like a "where have you been, we've missed you" one.

I miss Shiny still. I hope when I grow up I can have one TENTH of the style and charisma she possesses. We've gone back to sending each other shout-outs on Facebook, regaling each other with promises about how we'll all meet at a Punta Cana resort one day. I hope so. I hope we stay friends for life. And I know one thing - okay two things. If I ever get back to Harrods, I'm going to buy those shoes. And if I'm ever in the same room as Shiny again, I'm going to wear them. I'll have to. Just to keep up with her Shiny, badass self...

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