Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Walmsley Flat

I have to write about Katie before she reminds me again that I haven't written about her yet.

She has a point. Her and her husband John, after all, are the catalysts for our trip across the pond. At the top of our London sightseeing list: Big Ben, London Tower, Shakespeare's Globe, The Walmsley Flat in Islington, Buckingham Palace.

The weeks leading up to departure were filled with co-workers and friends questioning why I would escape the gray, cold, snowy New England winter for a gray, cold, windy Olde England winter. Why not Mexico? Did Aruba do you wrong? The Key West sun not good enough for you?

I had a canned explanation: you don't go to London for the weather, regardless of the season. You go for the city itself, the history, tradition, a few pints of cask-pumped ale and for the people. In our case, two specific people.

Katie and John, American ex-pats who now navigate the banks of the Thames, welcomed us with open arms and a quickly acquired English charm.

To see Danielle and Katie together, whether in the U.S. or the U.K., is to witness unintentional, soemtimes slapstick comedy in its most genuine, loyal and loving form. Their stories mix nostalgia and whimsy with a little bit of embarassment. Their conversations are the stuff of best friends, you know the kind between people that know each other so well they push the others' buttons just for the reaction?

I've explored the city of London for about a week, a large part of it walking behind Katie and Danielle. As an observer of people, I observed their interactions and reactions from the Globe to the top of St. Paul's. Because travel, to me, is built on those never-forget moments, I was curious to see my wife share those experiences with someone other than me. Someone that has known her longer, and in some ways better, than I ever will.

Because it's Katie, I have been thoroughly entertained. She met us the first night at our hotel and introduced us to our first London Pub. Throughout the rest of the week, she and John showed us around their city, brought us to their favorite pubs and gave us a local London experience we'd never get from a double-decker bus.
By the time we shifted from the Crowne Plaze to the Walmsley Flat in Islington, I knew how to navigate the Tube, the flow of the Thames and the typical pub protocol. Every morning Katie serenaded us with a different pop song, sort of like a completely off-key alarm clock. Danielle described it as a pillow case full of cats being drowned. She was being generous.

But Katie and John have been more than generous, exemplifying a city whose people who have been accomodating, polite and fun around every corner. From a full day at the Tower to a few minutes in the Tate.

Modern art, as it is, hits me in two ways. Awe and intrigue at the suffering, innovation and introspection exhibited by artists like Picasso and Pollack. And then there's the giant wall covered in bloody circles, the empty white room littered with random objects (an apple, a full-length mirror with numbers painted on it, a slideshow projector and some branches), and the line of living, breathing people posed and poised to spin around every few minutes. That just confuses me and frankly, carries no meaning or value. So when we swung through the Tate Modern at the foot of Millenium Bridge, and the entire floor was covered in porcelain sunflower seeds for about the length of a football (U.S.) field, my hopes for a justified visit dissolved quickly. I won't go into too much description of this exhibit - just know that it is an actual exhibit, by a Chinese artist who spread fake sunflower seeds in a giant rectangle. That's all you need to know.

We didn't stay long in the Tate but Danielle and Katie probably laughed more in the thirty minutes skipping past Pollacks and Picassos and porcelain seeds than they had all day. It was the opposite effect I envisioned. The Tate provided us with comical fodder.

We crossed the Millenium Bridge to meet John, right past a roast peanut vendor.

"Those smell good," I said, "I should get some."

And Katie, with perfect comedic timing and execution, deadpanned: "And then you could dump them on the ground and call it modern art."

We buckled over in laughter, both at the words and the source. Katie followed up her joke - as we were still laughing at it - by reminding us that she just made a joke.

London has been historical landmark after historical landmark, pubs and pies and a city vibrating with international pride. But what I'm taking feels so local. It feels more organic than anything in Paris or Venice and yet I'm somewhere I've never been. And it's undoubtedly because of the Walmsleys. Katie and Danielle's friendship, spanning oceans and terrible cellular phone plans, would entertain anyone, anywhere in the world.

From Albany to Abbey Road, our London is their London. What a bloody good time it was. Katie & John, cheers and thank you!

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