The first thing I noticed was the noise. Then the toothy smiles. And the collegial laughter. For an American living in Paris, traveling to London can feel like a homecoming of sorts, where much is familiar and yet nothing is quite the same. The fact that it’s worlds away from Paris – despite a deceptively brief Eurostar ride of just over two hours – is obvious from the moment of setting foot on British soil.
After living in Paris for more than a year, our kid-free weekend visit to London (to celebrate our 12th wedding anniversary) proved just how accustomed I’ve become to the ways of the French — their discretion, rigid politesse, hushed voices and trim, chic ways. As much as I love Paris, a little British cheer felt like just what was needed.
After checking in to our hotel, our first stop was ThePhoenix, a gastropub in Westminster where we enjoyed a simple lunch. Both Greg and I ordered Eggs Benedict with sides of creamed spinach and fries. Mmm, good. And not a baguette in sight.
I couldn’t stop noticing how un-French everything felt. Influenced, no doubt, by the summer-like weather, many Londoners (already much less formal than their Gallic neighbors), had adopted a clothing-optional policy, with men walking shirtless around the city and people strolling barefoot through the streets and parks. I couldn’t help but stare at a woman in a breezy floral sundress who walked in to the pub, took a seat at the bar and ordered a pint, her strappy sandals slung casually over her wrist. Not something you’re likely to see in Paris.
And the noise! Filled with music, sports on TV and raucous, lager-fueled laughter, the pubs spilled over with happy revelers for whom a long-awaited sunny day proved reason enough to celebrate. It’s hard not to love London’s festive air and the unpretentious banter that animates its streets.
London’s overall vibe is indeed celebratory these days as the city ramps up for two big events. First, the Queen’s Jubilee, the celebration of her 60 years on the British throne, is only a week away. In her honor, the city is festooned with Union Jacks of all sizes and the Queen’s royal visage is more ubiquitous than ever. Then, this summer, they’ll welcome the Olympics, a weeks-long affair for which some Londoners seemed ill prepared. Several people we spoke with moaned abut the events and announced their intentions to “clear off” during the games. Preparations were evident in round-the-clock roadwork and widespread construction.
We spent our day strolling the city with no particular agenda in mind. A stop at the Saatchi Gallery for the Out of Focus photography show is a must for any London visit. (Show closes July 22.) Katy Grannan’s haunting series of portraits taken in L.A. and San Francisco were my favorites and are not easily forgotten. I was blown away to read that she was born in Arlington, MA, our former Boston suburb. A quick stop at Boot’s, the English pharmacy chain, was also a must to stock up on essentials, plus a couple items Ms. Paltrow recommended on goop. (Embarrassing, I know. But it is good stuff.)
For dinner, Greg had booked us a table at The Ivy, an institution in the dynamic London food scene, where we enjoyed a classic meal and toasted our twelve married years with a bottle of Saint-Veran (French wine, bien sur). With the kids back in Paris in our sitter’s capable hands, we were free to wander the city and get a little lost. From the West End through Soho and Chinatown, along the Mall and through St. James Park, our one night in London was magical and memorable indeed.
Now here I sit, aboard the Eurostar, bound once-again for “real life” in Paris. The seat next to me sits empty, with Greg staying on in London for business this coming week. A final surprise awaited as I boarded the train – an unexpected first class seat with magazines (in English!), a gourmet meal, coffee and dessert. Thank you, G. I miss you already.