Well, I’d feel guilty about the time it has taken me to write this, but I have been very busy, and my internet has been down, which is a legitimate excuse, I think.
Anyway, I finally have it back up and so here goes:
In my last installment, I was still in the south of France with my friend Quitterie and her husband Will.
The weather turned rather fallish and damp and I drove out one afternoon to the Grottes de Betharram, not far from Pau. I arrived there with plenty of time, or so I thought. But it was high holiday season, which I hadn’t counted on, and the ticket sellers were announcing that there was a two-hour wait to get into the caves.
I gave up and drove the little Twingo to Lourdes, the town famous for the sacred water that springs from a cave where the Virgin Mary appeared to young Bernadette Soubirous in the mid-1800s. I wasn’t that keen on seeing the touristic town, but it wasn’t far up the road, and since my other cave plans were thwarted, I decided to try it.
Having been overwhelmed by the pilgrim-pedestrians crowding the tiny streets in the center of the city, I took a roundabout route, and ended up looping up and around to find the famous Grotte where miraculous cures have occurred. It turned out to be situated directly underneath the massive basilica, built on the rocks above the cave in the 1950s.
I took a sip of water from the fountain where the spring with the sacred water flows and gawped at all the people waiting to gaze on the cave and the statue of the virgin there. I walked through sprinkling rain along the processional way, where there was, indeed, a procession. August is prime religious festival season in the south of France, and August 15, just a few days before, is the fest of the assumption of Mary.
The city had a palpably strange vibe. I was surprised at the several Sri Lankan restaurants in the town – they are otherwise not very common in France, in my experience. I guess that among the pilgrims who come to Lourdes, there are rather a few Sri Lankans. Stores set up along the skinny streets sold trinkets of faith – salt shakers in the shape of the blue-clad Virgin. Rosaries, water bottles, refrigerator magnets. I searched vaguely for a place to get a pleasant cafe snack, but failed, as each place I passed was more plastic and dingy than the next – not to mention, packed with people! It did remind me, now that I think of it, of some of the touristic places I’ve been in south India, like Kanyakumari, on the southernmost tip of the country. I wandered the streets till there were no more to wander and made my escape from Lourdes at last, with just a few close scrapes as I skidded back to Pau.
Will and I collaborated on dinner of gnocchi and ratatouille and the three of us shared a final late meal as their little one snoozed and played in his pen.
The next day it was laundry and packing as I prepared to head up to London to spend the last couple of weeks of my trip visiting that city where I hadn’t been since 2006. Once I’d packed my things, Quitterie and I were joined by her mom for one last visit to downtown. I had one more crepe at Chez Maman and then it was time to fly.
I was racing a bit to get the rental car to Biarritz, an hour away, to drop it off before catching my flight. The airport there was small and easy to navigate, though complicated to know where to go once we got through security. I had timed it just right and soon enough we were flying north to the land of London.
The woman sitting next to me was a journalist for The Guardian and we had lovely conversation on all manner of topics during the short flight to London. As so often happens, I found myself telling her the story of my sister Erika and how she had died at Burning Man in 2011. I suppose the story gets closer and closer to the surface as the anniversary of her death approaches with the culmination of Burning Man.
I got through customs and picked up my bag, then made my way to the bus depot and was finally on a bus heading for Victoria Station. It was nearly midnight and I was exhausted enough to sleep a while on the long bus ride to town. I got off at the final stop and met up with Dorian to make our way to Camden Town.
London felt comfortable, familiar, despite the chill in the air. I was a bit shocked at how much cooler it was there, but it was also pleasant to be somewhat stationary after so many weeks of moving around. Dorian was an excellent host and took me on walks through the Camden Market and along the canal.
I’d been to Camden Market before, the first time I was in London, at age 17. It was my second time in Europe, my first with my mother and sister, who was studying abroad in London for a semester. I remember the trip only vaguely and I wasn’t in the habit of journaling back then, but I do recall buying my favorite boots at that very market and I probably got my Manic Panic there, too, when I dyed my hair from blond to pink in the hotel sink. I went with Erika to a tattoo and piercing parlour in Covent Garden and accompanied her when she got her bellybutton pierced. Such rebellious girls!
Most of the touristing I did in London came in the form of long walks along the Thames and exploring the city’s many parks. We climbed Primrose Hill at Regents Park – about which, I winged a bit, because it is a very long hill! But when we got to the top, I was rewarded with a lovely panorama and a William Blake quote: “I have conversed with the spiritual Sun. I saw him on Primrose Hill.” This got us discussing William Blake, who has long been one of my favorite artists.
After some poking around on ye olde internet (have I mentioned how handy it was that my phone works abroad???), I found that the Tate Britain had a Blake collection among their permanent works and resolved to make a visit.
Dorian and I took the famous double-decker buses around town, sitting in the front of the upper deck, visiting the theatre district and Chinatown (which is kind of a street and a half). Many places I had forgotten I’d been before – it seems a lifetime ago that I was there. The last time I was in London was 2006, and as it was a social call, I hadn’t made much effort at seeing things. I had, however, managed to end up in a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown (even though it’s my least fave ethnic food). The things we do for love 🙂
One rare sunny afternoon was spent happily walking along the canal, past the neighborhood of houseboats known as Little Venice. I have always loved seeing houseboats in Paris and Amsterdam and had never seen this little settlement in London. Impractical as it may seem, I dream of living on one of these little boats, if only for a little while.
We strolled back to Camden, getting sprinkled along the way, but it was nothing serious, in the end.
It was nice to have a kitchen and certainly the cheapest way to be in London. Also, Dorian brought back an obscene amount of cheese from France and we dispatched it, steadily and with gusto. Oh my, I think I shall never be a vegan. I had lost some kilos from my travels and was in need of fattening up, just a bit.
We cooked in the evenings and stayed in – this final step of my journey reminding a bit of my initial step, when I was with Nora in Copenhagen, despite the difference in weather. I relished the stillness, though, and it made our extended rambles about town all the more enjoyable (with periodic pub stops along the way, of course!).
We rambled over to the Tate Britain one night, having seen that it was open late on Fridays, but when we arrived, it was closed up tight and so just sat by the river a bit and then went for Taiwanese food, which was quite yummy.
That Saturday night, I was aware of the fact that, back in my hemisphere, we were nearing the anniversary of Erika’s death – memorialized every year by the burning of the Man in Reno Nevada. Dorian and I made a nice dinner and I picked up a bottle of pink bubbles to drink in her honor. In Florida each year my mother makes her own version of the Burning Man ceremony, which she calls Burning Woman. This year she made a Burning Woman dressed as a skydiver, complete with parachute and, of course, red hair, like Erika.
One afternoon, we walked along the Thames – through Borough Market, past Shakespeare’s Globe – to the Tate Modern, converted from an old power station to a lovely contemporary art museum.
I think I was traumatized by the first couple of large modern art museums I went to in Europe – the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Ludwig Museum in Koln. Art affects me, I’ve learned, at times physically. The first time I went to Paris I visited the Centre Pompidou alone, and I recall how very abrasive and confrontational much of the art was, at least on the two lower floors. It was a jumble of artists’ personalities screaming for notice and it gave me a stomach ache. I left feeling almost drugged – and not in a good way! Similarly, at the Ludwig once I found myself overcome by the experience and compelled to escape and recover. The Tate was understated in comparison, and Dorian knew the place well and was an excellent guide. I enjoyed it thoroughly, but I still jonsed for William Blake.
Finally, we made it to the Tate Britain. I caught the bus downtown to meet Dorian, who hopped on my exact bus because he is very clever. He also brought us beer and sandwiches and we walked again the familiar path to the museum, this time finding the doors open. We knew where we were headed, so off we went, not really even glancing at the rest of the museum as we bee-lined for Blake.
William Blake has always appealed to me as an artist and poet who wasn’t afraid of his own unique and frankly weird vision – to show the world through his singular lens, making it more magical, mysterious, beautiful and grotesque. Like Mucha, Blake often used allegory and myth to fuel and inspire his compositions. Both of them also had interest in the arcane, the mystical, the ritual. Unlike Mucha, Blake’s style can be free to the point of expressive sloppiness at times, though he could be precise when he chose to be. The mad genius of Henry Darger reminds me a bit of William Blake: compulsive, fantastic, singular.
After satisfying our need for Blake, we enjoyed our sandwiches and beer by the Thames before strolling back toward Camden, stopping off for another beer at the fountain in front of Buckingham Palace in the last glorious and rare rays of afternoon sun.
But my time in London was drawing to a close. Fashion Week in New York was coming right up and I once again had my regular gig pouring champagne in one of the VIP rooms there, so it was time to head back to my side of the Atlantic.
The last full day in London, Dorian and I had planned to go to Avebury where there are neolithic ruins larger by far than Stonehenge (because I like old things and sacred places). However, we were prevented by English insistence on rules and having one’s actual drivers license instead of a copy, and had to settle for a taking our picnic to the London Eye and then we went for one final massive walk along the Thames to Battersea Park.
It was the sunniest day of my stay in London and we took full advantage of the beautiful weather before heading back to Camden to get ready for dinner that night with my good friend Nora. She was in town with her twin sister Libby and Libby’s husband, Rupert, visiting Nora’s boyfriend, Anders.
We had a lovely dinner out with the group and it was great to get to see Nora and Libby in a far off land.
The next day it was time to pack up and get ready for my flight in the afternoon. Dorian escorted me to the airport and I was on my flight back to New York in no time.
At 8 AM the following morning, I arrived at Milk Studios for Fashion Week and the next 7 days were full of champagne and celebrities and not very much sleep for me. It was fun to be back there and working with the Lexus Lounge guys again – and I didn’t even get a cold as I sometimes do after so many crazy hours.
Summer exhaled her last gentle breaths in September and I have taken some advantage of the city and enjoyed catching up with friends between bouts of frenetic working. And now it is already October, my birthday is coming up and so too is another adventure!
More to come!
Love and miss,