With my love of travel, my love of Gilbert and Sullivan, and my love of “Chariots of Fire”, there is one important location that has not yet been mentioned. It Is a Glorious Thing – Old Lady Writing Did you guess London? If so, you guessed correctly. If not, I cannot fathom what you are thinking.
London was slightly elusive in my younger days. During my college summer in Europe, the Chunnel train was not yet in existence. While the British rail system was covered by the Eurail Pass, the passage from the continent to Albion was not. There was no way I was going if there was an extra charge.
Around the time of my last college spring break, my mother gifted me with enough free, rapidly expiring airline miles for two tickets to Europe. I could bring a companion. No catch. In what can only be described as a fit of temporary insanity, I invited Grandma. No, really, I was twenty one years old, and I went to London with my Grandma. I am expecting to be rewarded for this in my next life…
And so, I flew to New York, and Grandma and I set out on a cross-continental flight together. Our troubles started immediately when she set off a metal detector. The year was 1990, a kinder, gentler time when everyone could walk on to the departure gates, and TSA was only a vague concept—except in a case of an elderly, five feet tall woman who was bringing not only an apple for her long flight, but an accompanying knife wrapped in a handkerchief. Bizarrely, the TSA agent who confiscated Grandma’s best paring knife agreed to mail it back to her home address in Brooklyn. The potential loss of the knife caused Grandma considerable distress during our vacation, until we were informed by triumphant Grandpa, upon being picked up from our return flight, that the knife arrived safe and sound. No “How was your trip? How is London? Welcome home!”, but “Those bastards did not steal our knife after all!”
The flight itself was an unmitigated nightmare. Grandma, immeasurably energized by full access to me for the upcoming week, decided to start early on what we call “educating” me, but really the better term is “nagging”. I was treated to a seven-hour lecture about the various deficiencies of my character, my appearance, my behavior, my friends both male and female, and my overall prognosis for a productive life. As a graduating university senior heading to an Ivy League law school and holding down two jobs, I naively thought I might have had a right to feel sort of OK about myself. However, I was also overweight and single, two of the most cardinal of mortal sins in The World According to Grandma.
We were staying at the Forum Hotel, now Holiday Inn Kensington Forum. This is important, because this hotel is huge—900+ rooms and 27 stories. Upon arrival, after a sleepless night of “education”, I determined that I lost interest in my travel companion. We had a brief discussion and decided that, in order for each of us to preserve our own mental, emotional, and physical well-being, we will tour the city separately and only share sleeping quarters. I lived in a dorm—I could do it! Grandma was married for 45 years at that point—she could definitely do it! We each had our own money, room key, basics of the English language (some better than others), and I generously gave her one of my maps of London (this was when giant folding paper maps were all the rage). She stormed off. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Here is what I did next: (1) Called my mom as I still do during all important times, or really any time at all. She was supportive, as she generally tends to be. (2) Unpacked my suitcase and staked out my bed. (3) Took a shower, washed and blow-dried my hair, and changed clothes, because I needed a pick me up. (4) Opened the minibar and daringly consumed an adult beverage, because I needed a pick me up. (5) Ate a bar of chocolate, also from the minibar, because, well, isn’t it obvious? (6) Unfolded my giant paper map and determined that the first stop on my tour that day will be Harrod’s, which was the closest landmark to this hotel, and also made the most sense, given how the trip started.
The reason for these boring details is because I want to convey that I was only ready to depart the hotel quite a fair bit of time after Grandma. I mean, all of these activities took a while. I am not sure exactly how much, but long enough that when I heard a tentative knock at the door, I logically assumed that the day’s cleaning crew was arriving. Since this was my first time staying at a place fancy enough to be cleaned (and with a mini-bar—did I mention the minibar?), I grabbed my coat and rushed to the door, on my way toward my adventure in London, yelling encouragingly to whoever was behind the door that I am leaving and they can get down to business.
Behind the door was Grandma. All this time, she was trying to find her way out of the huge hotel, rode the elevator, stumbled on the underground garage, gift shop, and every other floor, but regrettably, never the lobby. She was exhausted, defeated, and ready to make peace.
The rest of the week actually went reasonably well, all things considered. We walked a lot (some of it was because Grandma was always a tireless walker her entire life, never having learned how to drive), saw all the main sites, including a day trip to Windsor Castle (where Grandma concluded that the tiny medieval royal beds are far inferior to her Italianate suite back in Brooklyn), and experienced our first (but far from my last) West End musical (“Me and My Girl” at the Adelphi theater). In those days, London was still boasting its terrible cuisine, though to be fair, the two of us, a college student and a Soviet retiree, were decidedly not “foodies”. We ate at McDonald’s and were excited. Once we had pastries at a cafe and felt rather sophisticated. I bought six decks of cards for my collection. I took only twice as many photos. Every night, after Grandma fell asleep, I watched British TV and treated myself to a beverage and chocolate from the mini bar.
It was not my best trip to London, but it was a decent first encounter with an exciting city which I came to know well in subsequent decades. Later, there came many laughs, many discoveries, and many unforgettable theater experiences. This was the slightly inauspicious start.