29 March 2015

Tradition Honored: TG Class of '15 in London

At 2:55 a.m. on Friday, 20 March 2015, I boarded the N5 bus at Hendon Central (towards Trafalgar Square) in black sweatpants with six Estonians. In 2007, -08, and -09, I also boarded the N5 very early in the morning at Hendon Central with Estonians. Back then, we all got off at Golders Green, and we all took a coach to Stansted Airport. This year, we all rode as far as Euston, connected with the N205 (towards Draper Fields), and alighted at the Liverpool Street Station, but just the Estonians took the 4:11 a.m. Stansted Express to the airport. I boarded the N205 back (towards Cleveland Terrace) by myself at about 4:30 a.m., transferred to the N5 (towards Edgware) and got off at Hendon Central. And went back to sleep.

To the best of my recollection, I had never been on a London Transport bus at 4 a.m. in sweatpants. The week of 15 March in London, although one of many for me since 1982, the sixth with Estonians, the fourth with students from Tapa Gümnaasium (TG), and the second with one of my high school classmates, was a week of many fantastic firsts.

On Sunday morning, after slapping our faces with cold water from the faucet of the Royal National in Bloomsbury (a first), Ed and Rita, my two Chicago travel companions, and I attended prayer services in the chapel at Lincoln's Inn (a first). John "No Man Is an Island" Dunne was a preacher at Lincoln's Inn, and the 15 March service was in his honor; the choir sang some of his metaphysical poems. It was also "Refreshments Sunday," which got us into the Great Hall, where we chatted with the preacher, glasses of complimentary red wine in hand. (Guess Anglicans don't do coffee and donuts like us Catholics.)

From Lincoln's Inn we headed to the Barbican to see Juliette Binoche in the Ivo van Hove production of Antigone (a first). Now I know of Greek tragedies and I know of Sophocles and Antigone, but I had no friggin' idea that, as the tale begins, Antigone's brothers have been killed, battling each other, and that, in 100 minutes with no intermission, Antigone either commits suicide or is buried alive (on her father's order), her fiance stabs himself to death, and her mother commits suicide. Heavy sigh. Little chuckle.

Fortunately, we were rescued by Rukiya, a London native, who whisked us away to Mangal, a Turkish restaurant in Dalston, where we were joined by five young men whom I had met in Chicago during the Windsor Fellowship's UK-US Youth Dialogue Programme.

But where are the Estonians, you are wondering? They arrived Monday afternoon, 16 March. I met the six of them, including two teachers (a first) at Stansted, and we all took the train back to Liverpool (a first; in 2007, -08, and -09 we went by coach), where my Chicago friends met us at 15.00. By 18.00, all nine of us had taken the tube north to Hendon Central, had checked into the London Backpackers Hostel, had gone back south to Waterloo, and had ordered fish and chips from a Polish waitress at the Fishcotheque (another first). So that the Estonians could luxuriate in a proper English accent, Sammy, one of the UK-US program guys, ate with us (another first for Kevin's TG excursions to London).

Masters Super Fish is the other "chippie" near Waterloo that I have had fish and chips from - to go, of course, to go and eat in the Waterloo train station like I was waiting for the 13.12 to Basingstoke. Truthfully, I think they taste better wrapped up in paper, sort of like Harold's Chicken with the slice of white bread at the bottom of the container. I had fish and chips again on this trip from Poppies in Camden Town (another first). They served them in a box, and while it was a bit easier to eat and walk, I still prefer my take-away in grease-soaked paper.

Tuesday morning, Estonians and Americans together paid a visit to Sir John Soane's Museum. (Be sure to see A Rake's Progress; stay for the presentation if it's given by an elderly gentleman wearing the white gloves.) From the Soane museum we popped over to the British Museum, where I learned serendipitously from a gilded cup that Procopius proposed to Saint Agnes, who declined and was consequently imprisoned in a brothel. When determined Procopius tried to rape her, he was strangled to death by a demon, but Saint Agnes revived and forgave him. The story is unexpectedly scandalous for a museum piece from the 14th century, and I stopped to look at it and stayed and read it only because there is a St. Agnes parish in North Lawndale and St. Procopius in Pilsen, close to where I work.

Tuesday afternoon, we snaked in between glass office towers on the Docklands Light Rail to the Cutty Sark (a first), and then we walked back to the days of Henry VIII at the Old Royal Naval College (a first again). Guided tours can be tedious, particularly when English is a second or third language, especially when there's 600 years to recount. Lizzie Loveridge, however, was as erudite as a Cambridge professor but as candid as Benita Butrell as she recreated the royals' lives along the Thames from memory with an endearing English accent. I tuned in and out as the cast of characters grew and interbred and won fame and fortune and lost it. Yet Ms. Loveridge's vivid story-telling, loaded with enthusiasm, as we stood outside, beneath Wren's twin domes with the white Queen's House to the south and the mocha river to the north, eerily surrounded me with people from the past. Ms. Loveridge's lively tales broke Nelson from his concrete shell in Trafalgar Square and floated him ceremoniously in a coffin down to the Naval College's Water Gate as if it were 1806 again.

Wednesday morning, we - well, they, not me, of course - took more pictures of Big Ben, walked up Whitehall, past groups of Italian school children outside No. 10 Downing Street, and into the House Guards Parade for the daily ceremony that I could not convince Rita, my Mexican co-worker-turned-Anglophile, was better than the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace. I mean, Rita, you get to be so close that the butts of the Life Guards' horses are literally in your face.

My first time to Horse Guards was in the fall of 1982 as a college senior enrolled in the Rosary-in-London program (see the picture at the beginning of this post on the left), and here I was again (yes, on the right) 33 years later.

Shahin, another UK-US program participant, met us in Trafalgar Square Wednesday afternoon and escorted us to the Saatchi Gallery (a first), an unexpectedly free contemporary art museum in the splendidly re-purposed Royal Military Asylum in the tony Chelsea neighborhood. I wanted to see the giant ants. In addition, there were paintings of Soviet times for Rita and Eve, the two middle-age, Estonian teachers, and Ed, a history buff; paintings by Mexican and Spanish artists for Rita, my co-worker; and a few titties for the boys. Rita taught English with me; Eve is an art teacher whose Russian is better than her English. I purposefully juxtaposed - seriously - the walk through the Saatchi Gallery with our peek into the National Gallery in the morning, and so I asked Eve in rusty Estonian which museum she liked better. She was adamant that she liked it all, like a kid who had ridden the log flume, the ferris wheel, and the roller coaster and had fun on all of them!

From Whitehall during the day to Whitechapel in the evening, where Jack the Ripper slit the throats of prostitutes - this is how we roll in London. Shahin had booked us a table at the Needoo Grill, famous for "authentic Punjabi cuisine". Now Estonians rarely wander too far outside their culinary comfort zone of baked pork and boiled potatoes. These six Estonians, however, immediately picked up on the energy of the packed restaurant and delighted in the waiter's apathy in taking our orders and his brusqueness in delivering our food.

Everyone cleaned their plates and even agreed to try more when Shahin suggested dessert...back on Whitechapel Road...from a refrigerated case embedded in a storefront. Shahin ordered, and what we got, surprisingly, were milk-based products: balls of flour soaked in milk and little Twinkies-like cakes saturated with milk. We ate them standing right there alongside Whitechapel Road like we had all just been handed a million dollars. A variation of the little cakes had what I thought might be flakes of coconut on it, but, as I bit into it, I felt the texture of Parmesan cheese. I don't know what kind of face I made as the topping touched my lips, but, honestly, in 40 years of knowing Ed, I had never seen him laugh so hard.

Thursday morning, half of us walked to the Brent Crossing Shopping Centre, where I got a nice, strong Americano at a Caffe Nero, and the other half took the tube one stop north to the Royal Air Force Museum. We met back at the hostel at noon or so and then headed, together, to museum row: the free Natural History Museum, the free Science Museum, and the free V and A. (I even stumbled onto the campus of the Imperial College London (another first), looking for free wifi.) When at 5 p.m. I told everyone we had one more hour until Arvand, another UK-US program participant and our Thursday night dinner guide, could meet up with us, they all dashed back into the museums (maybe because they were warm inside).

I went to the South Kensington tube station to meet Arvand. Ummm. Rush hour is at 5 p.m. in London, too, and London is a city of about eight million people who have to get home from work. At South Kensington a few thousand extra people poured into the station because all three museums closed at six. A few more thousand extra people were bubbling up from the escalators for drinks or dinner in Kensington and/or a performance at Royal Albert Hall. White, black, brown, tall, short, young, old, casually dressed, smartly dressed, elegantly dressed, chatty, confused, ambivalent  - my eyes bounced from each of them as I tried to spot Arvand, whom I hadn't seen for nine months. If the 12 o'clock position were the turnstiles for the "Way Out" directly in front of me, I caught Arvand in the corner of my eye at 8 o'clock, rushing past me. I stopped him dead in his tracks with a tight hug of relief.

Dusk turned us all into shameless voyeurs as Arvand led us through the winding residential streets of Chelsea. One woman apologized for impeding our forward progress on the sidewalk as she guided a car out of a gated driveway onto the roadway. I believe she confided to us that the driver was not that adept at backing out.

We were met at the Italian restaurant Buona Sera with its interesting "treehouse" seating by Suraj, one of the first UK-US participants I hosted in Chicago. We sang "Happy Birthday" in Estonian to Suraj even though it had really been Arvand's birthday (my bad). Outside the restaurant, Rita, my colleague, asked a tall man with long shoes and a short cigarette to take the official commemorative photo of Tapa Gumnaasium 12.kl Kevadvaheaeg 2015 Ekskursioon.

Back at the hostel, with both Ritas under the covers already, we popped open the bottle of champagne that Sammy had brought to Mangal and toasted to the fulfillment of a tradition I had started in 2007 with my English students, to the intersection of my lives in Chicago and Estonia, and, most importantly, to a fantastic week across London. Sadly, 2:55 was just a few hours away.