The fall term hurdled rapidly to a close in the weeks studded by two expat Thanksgiving parties, the Bocconi gala night, and a long weekend for the patron saint of Milan (Ambrose), when I visited Parma for the day with two girlfriends. Milan’s fallish weather brought some gray and chill, but nothing extraordinary.
My body doesn’t know how to handle the extremes of inside heat vs. outside cold that one gets in chillier places. The radiators sap moisture and confuse my normally oily skin, while I sweat underneath thick layers. I have discovered the superiority of merino wool socks, which keep my always-too-cold toes pleasantly toasty.
And ever-present since October has been the hustle of school assignments, group work, and study for finals, which ended the day before I departed for London. It’s only been ~2.5 months, but we’ve completed 12 courses, 8 exams, and many presentations. I actually use Prezi, which I prefer for its design slickness and ease. It’s also easier to share a Prezi, with a simple link accessible by any browser.
My decision to not return home at the holiday was mostly economical. Since modern technology lets us see each other via webcam so easily, without actually being present, it doesn’t make sense to spend >$1,000 for a ticket home.
Madeleine and Stuart Pearson are our family friends of ~35 years, having met my mom even before her wedding to my dad, knowing me my entire life. We first visited them in England when I was 9 or 10, and made several more trips until college, when I transitioned to visiting them on my own, which I did when I lived abroad in Bordeaux in college. They have also been to see us countless times in Tampa, with additional legs to places like the Grand Canyon, San Francisco, and Miami.
This particular trip was quick, as I am heading now to Cannes to see Tampa friends on the continent for their Christmas vacation. Travel in Europe and especially around London, a most bustling hub, is never dull, though it can be tedious. I flew into Heathrow on British Airways (BA), and took the brilliant Heathrow Express train to Paddington, which is worth every penny of £22.
I’m sitting in Gatwick now, the lesser of the two major capital city airports, plunked down in the middle of countryside, arriving by bus which took 90 minutes and was noticeably less efficient for nearly the same price. I fly to Nice next, then have to somehow find my way to Cannes, which is 45 minutes by train to the southwest.
But first, let me say: I love London, really. It has always been one of my favorite cities, and the first European city I ever laid eyes on as a youngster. It feels remarkably Western, like the European Manhattan, albeit much older, quainter, and with more decorum. The architecture is wonderful, and there is so much greenery, pedestrian scale, and ridiculously simple mass transit. From Shoreditch to Notting Hill and on to Hammersmith, the city and its people have a charm that the socially and economically stratified Manhattan cannot match.
A man actually threw out his left forearm and stopped me from walking into the path of a turning Jaguar! The headphoned drones of Broadway would only notice the fatal error once their faces are spattered in blood I’m afraid. The reversal of driving lanes and arrangements can catch even the most aware pedestrian by surprise, and the random concern for my safety was touching.
And London isn’t Paris either, with its glittering, vaguely snobbish beauty. London epitomizes glam gloom, with some self-deprecation. The weather is unpredictable and the sky usually some shade of gray, but that’s why so many of the stores and pubs in the city are warm, brightly lit, and inviting to the cold and wet.
My first full day in the city I took the tube to Marylebone, and walked south through the retail and entertainment heart of the city, past (of course, most importantly) fantastic shops, a streetscape made of preservationists’ dreams, and vast amounts of vibrant sidewalk life. The observation of people in London isn’t easily matched.
Inside Selfridge’s, London’s second largest store after Harrod’s, I glided down the corridors of the streamlined menswear floor, past the best labels for parting with thousands of pounds in an instant. Tom Ford, Louis Vuitton, Ralph Lauren, Lanvin. I found myself in a fitting room behind the Rick Owens concession, sampling the intricate minimalism that the designer is known for, season after season. His color palette is narrow, with a focus on blacks, taupes, and creams.
My sales assistant was so friendly and helpful, probably eager to expose me to Mr. Owens’ phenomenal basics, in materials like silk and viscose. Many of his tops are fitted around the shoulders and chest, then filter down with some layering over the hipline, down past the groin. I would be sugar-coating if I said his aesthetic requires some imagination and willingness to abandon gender norms. Conveniently, I have been looking for an entry point to an edgier, trimmer look. I’ve been lusting over Mr. Owens’ suede and nubuck leather jackets for a while, though they are more of an investment than an impulse.
Nevertheless, I ended up with two of his cult staple t-shirts, subscribing in the process to the mantra that everything you buy for your wardrobe should be so expensive that it hurts a little. All this voluminous consumerism and cheap labor has made a mockery of the push for human rights, environmental sustainability, and the consciousness with which we consume so many other things, like organic produce, fair-trade coffee, and hybrid cars. So far I think I’m succeeding, as the last ‘high street’ thing I bought was months ago. Never mind my bank balance.
After that hit to feed the retail addiction, I headed further south, toward Mount Street, Berkeley Square, and Bond Street. London is traditionally famous for its department stores, but the real evolution in the city has been in the number of mono brand boutiques, sometimes more than one, as in the case of Christian Louboutin and Chanel.
A 21st century retail icon of London is Dover Street Market (DSM), which is the concept store of <name>, the designer of Comme des Garcons. Despite high expectations, it was a disappointment. Way finding in the store wasn’t entirely clear, and collections were spread about the several floors without a clear logic. Many of the collaborations that DSM is famous for were not placed in an obvious way, and instead of hunting them, I promptly left the too warm store.
I stopped into the Ham Yard Hotel to indulge in a traditional afternoon English tea service. The setting is modern playful, with a red, orange, and yellow motif that evokes warmth, with walls of white and glass to balance the florals and heavy upholstery. The food and beverage on offer was o-k-a-y. I was underwhelmed, honestly. Perhaps I wasn’t in the mood for the sugary treats that outnumbered the savory ones, which are typically a highlight of tea service (like cucumber sandwiches, tomato and spinach tarts, etc.). And nothing was hot!
The tea was piping and tasty, but nothing spectacular, a basic green varietal. £30 later, I felt a bit duped, but it could have been worse, as this tea time was cheaper than most other central hotels more well known for tea like the Savoy and Claridge’s. I meant to go to Fortnum & Mason for tea-sessories, but forgot all about it. Oh well.
The next few days, concluding this morning, were mostly lazy and gluttonous. Christmas Eve was spent with a small party of the Pearson’s friends and family. Madeleine and her friend Martin, both professional chefs throughout their careers, cooked some fantastic orthodox Christmas meals, like ham, turkey, roasted vegetables, new potatoes, and stuffing. Dessert was my favorite though (surprised?). I brought a pear and chocolate panettone from G.Cova & C. pasticciera in Milan, and Maddy made a pavlova (meringue), all drizzled with marsala wine and heavy whipped cream.
I ate 3 servings.
None of the weather was great over the holiday in London. I watched the entire series of Scream on Netflix, a reboot of the slasher series from the 1990s (excellent fluff fun if you like that genre and remember the original films). I cuddled with Sprint, the Pearsons’ long-haired chihuahua and took a couple of long baths.
Now I am about to arrive in Nice-Côte d’Azur in the French Riviera. Hopefully, though it is still late December, the weather will be more amenable to sightseeing, daytripping, and generally spending time outside instead of inside. I enjoy nesting, napping, and bingeing on both food and television, but more than few days is plenty.