I came to London to see a concert. If it sounds a touch extravagant or like a middle-aged reach for a missed groupie youth, you wouldn't be entirely wrong. My husband however was already going to be in London for work - lodging solved! – and among other things, age has a way of drawing out one’s desire to make more effort to rally around passionate people, especially those who have done the work of their craft. I know nothing about music really but I'm getting better at recognizing the scent of authenticity in whatever form it comes by. Having seen the Brooklyn-born, now Seattle-based Augustines leave a part of themselves in Heidelberg this spring, something told me the trek to London for their last show of their current European tour would be worth the investment. It was.
My favorite part of the concert was the encore when the band came out to the middle of the crowd to perform a couple songs unplugged. Made possible by the iconic and intimate venue of London's Roundhouse, it wasn't just a "let's change up the set" decision but a reflection of the band's relationship with their fans - even though the choice further exposed what little voice singer Billy had left after weeks of pummeling. A woman pastor I heard on a podcast recently talked about how their church is set up in the round as an intention of sharing in the accountability of presence. These guys were the doing the same thing - giving of their grief and longing and joy and then receiving it back as a sort of collective offering. In that way, we were treated not just to a memorable show but also gifted a two hour hall pass from whatever ailed us when we walked in.
Grade A experiences have this way of giving you temporary water wings that carry you into the next day. My next day was still in London, on my own, until the meet up with my husband for dinner. Though aching for the American pancakes staring back at me from the hotel breakfast menu, I made a last minute commitment to the veggie works filling me with enough omega3 to power past any temptation to cede my walking agenda to the Underground. Credit: water wings. Normally in the morning company of global news where missives of despair come flying off the page, I am easy target. However in my buoyed and now nourished state, nothing landed dangerously.
With ear buds in for a second encore, I set out for a long unhurried walk to a photography exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. I could have chosen a hundred different destinations in London, but somehow returning to place I’d once been and enjoyed seemed like as good as any way to spend the day. Engrossed in my playlist and not trusting myself to look the wrong way, I fastidiously obeyed pedestrian signals or stuck close to the shoulder of trailblazers in the know.
Indeed there are lots of suits and the best looking prams money can buy, but London is a place where everything goes and everyone is welcome, if not for reals at least at first blush. English language schools round many neighborhood corners and coupling norms are as unexpected as a young Arab hipster offering to share his table with you. (I said “yes, thanks!”) While the common urban denominator may be scarves, the rest is an opportunity to see the world in six city blocks.
The day was cold in a way the weather report misrepresented, wind causing chill beneath layers of thoughtful preparation. After a while, I joined the chorus of people taking cover in coffee shops and tea salons for a mid-morning shot of warmth. Behind the glass case of my chosen pit stop, gingerbread men squatted on pillows of whipped frosting and cinnamon buns swirled freely in pronouncement of their hand crafted care. Not obliged to order my joe to go, I marked the moment by cracking open (what’s the Kindle word for that?) a new book and eavesdropping on conversations I could finally understand. It was lovely and totally unrevealing.
Back on the street, I slackened whatever pace I had to follow herds of people on side streets (most, I learned, on their way to an office building not a secret sample sale) or catch slices of sunlight breaking through (causing an erratic number of street crossings.) Like a cyclist obliged “Do Not Overtake Buses,” I had not overtaken a single soul who set out for the National Portrait Gallery at roughly the same time I did. This was meandering at its finest. Although even with my head partway in the clouds and partway in people watching mode, marketing muscle made it impossible for me to ignore: “Night of the Museum 3” will be in theatres soon.
Finally ducking in to the exhibit, I was treated to sixty portraits selected from over 4,000 submissions by a wide range of contemporary photographers. As remarkable photos can, these portraits revealed not just an interesting face but a flash of a life story. In the permanent collection, one particular amplified oil on canvas caught my attention as I noticed the subject and I shared birth years. Like me, her face was at the beginning of new groves but her gaze was confident and her teeth excellent. She also happened to be an Olympic sprinter, a stitch of reassurance that no amount of training can stem the tide of growing older.
Building on the healthy start to the day, I stopped in Soho for a Peruvian lunch of ceviche and causa (cold potato cakes.) I made conversation with the affable waiter from my counter stool resulting in the purchase of signed copy of their best-selling Peruvian cookbook and shamelessly listened in on an interesting conversation among three young Americans who’d come to London for acting school.
Revived by the late lunch, I turned my attention toward a little must do Christmas shopping along the circus that is Oxford Street. Nothing pops you out of your good cheer like a futile search of a soccer kit (Liverpool) not endorsed (hated) in these boroughs. Draining faster than a phone battery working overtime on maps and music, I did manage a minor success at the Nike Store and a few others. With the morning marvelousness of humans dimming in a late afternoon queue for the loo and the consumption chatter that all of a sudden surrounds you like an unwanted red bow, I soon veered off in search of a pump for my deflating wings.
Meeting up for a before dinner drink near my husband’s office, my spirit inflated with a taste of home in a bottled Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and in the company of my most cherished. From a Peruvian lunch to a Pakistani dinner we hustled across town to Whitechapel to make our 9pm booking.
Arriving at the largest, most chaotic queue I’ve ever seen at a restaurant – on a Tuesday night no less – I was glad for the reinforcement. Not yet with the benefit of having tasted the ridiculously good food or seen the ridiculously low 24 pound tab, it was good humor – not necessarily a booking – you needed to secure a seat. Whatever the case, it quickly became clear we were once again rallying around passionate people working incredibly hard and turning out naan faster than a prolific tweeter . Once seated we couldn’t help but notice that even in the sea of hungry diners, several of the wait staff had this practice of gently tapping my husband on the shoulder to make sure everything was ok. It most definitely was.
Travel is wonderful, and should you need any specific details on the above – ping me – but there is another kind of travel that comes in the wake of another soul’s exuberance for life. Go there.