My new book “Midlife Solo” is now available.

Beth Kaplan logo

Englishland

Hellewww. (My imitation of Jon Stewart imitating the Queen.) I write to you on a blustery evening from the village of Barnes, on the outskirts of London, having just returned from Ye White Hart, an ancient pub right on the Thames. and that is really its name. Picturesque doesn’t begin to describe it. Everything is tiny here! Toyland. Doll size. My very tall son wouldn’t be able to get inside the houses here.

But first, my journey from Paris with the 24 kilo Suitcase from Hell. My clever plan was to walk down to the bus which would take me promptly and easily right to the Gare du Nord. I managed, barely, to get to the stop, to find out that this bus didn’t actually go to the Gare du Nord. Don’t know how I got that wrong. But it did go to the Gare de l’Est, which isn’t far from the other station, so I decided to go there and get a cab. Second problem, however – no bus. Huge impatient crowd. The Paris busses have never been slow to come before, but of course that day, they were. And when the bus finally came, it wasn’t one of the very long ones with the back doors set so low it’s easy to get heavy things on and off. It was an extremely crowded regular bus that I had to shove my bag onto, somehow. Various men helped me. The driver told me I could get off after a certain number of stops because at the same stop would be the bus for the Gare du Nord. So after a crowded and sweltering trip, I got off.

The nightmare – looking at the moving print at the bus shelter to see when my bus would come, and reading “Interruption. Manifestation.” A strike, somewhere, which must have been why the first bus was late and now this one would never come. I hate Paris, I thought; these people never stop striking. A bus eventually came for the Gare de l’Est, the one I’d just got off, so I got on, but he said he was in fact a bus for the Gare du Nord only he wasn’t going there, he was going to the Gare de l’Est, but an actual bus for the Gare du Nord would be coming. By now I didn’t believe a single word any of these drivers said. But some men and I heaved the monster off this bus and heaved it onto the next, which, by some miracle, was actually going where I wanted to go. By now, I was catatonic with stress and heat.

You know how I got 24 kilos from Paris to London? Men. Nice helpful men, everywhere I went, who saw a damsel in distress when actually she’s an undeserving idiot with too much stuff, and helped her. Lifted the goddamn thing in and out, on and off; at every single place I needed help, there they were. God bless men and their superior upper body strength and good helpful hearts.

The Eurostar is grand, comfortable, swishes right along through the French countryside and then goes dark for a bit and then you’re in England. I thought it would be dramatic but it isn’t. It’s a train that goes through a tunnel and there you are. I was lucky to sit with a very nice man; we chatted the entire way and I shared my pate sandwiches with him. He heard all about the suitcase from hell and my friend Christina’s directions to her home, and he gave me alternate ones which would eliminate slinging the thing onto a bus. Very good advice, for which I will be grateful to him forever, because by now, my arms were almost out of their sockets.

Graham steered me to the tube station, where I bought an Oyster card for London transit and trundled the thing onto the Piccadilly line to Hammersmith. But here I switched easily to another tube to Richmond, where I got an inexpensive cab to Barnes, saving me enormous grief. And here I was at Christina’s pretty little, very little house just as night was falling. I knew she was going to be out. The key’s in the greenhouse, bottom shelf on the left under a flower pot, she wrote. I found what seemed to be a greenhouse, at least there were flower pots in it, and groped around for 15 minutes, lifting up every conceivable pot. No key, and it was dark, when a voice behind me said, That’s not a greenhouse, that’s a shed. There’s the greenhouse, over there. Christina was home.

I and my 24 kilos had made it. I got out the heavy cheese to show her. At least 1 1/2 kilos of cheese, brought directly from Paris, along with a few other things, including ten pairs of shoes. Well … sneakers for running, for walking, high heels, very high heels, walking sandals, fancy walking sandals, humble walking sandals, humble white not-quite-sandals, loafers, kind-of-fancy black shoes, and my new gold pseudo-Birkenstocks … a girl needs a variety of shoes. She also needs a sherpa to carry them.

The next day, between bouts of rain, I walked {in Converse runners} around Barnes, which is a posh, swish village. I’ve never seen so many Audis, Alfa-Romeos, BMWs, Porsches, in one small place. I saw a house for a midget with a Lamborghini parked outside. Housing prices are astronomical. Who are these people, who can afford to live here? There were pretty tea shops on the high street, with women having tea and scones; two beauty shops full of French products; a betting shop, a classic red phone box. It’s tiny and perfect like a toyland – a Disney Englishland.

I had a wave of nostalgia for my grandparents, my mother’s parents Percy and Marion, the English side of my family. I lived near them in London for 2 years in my childhood and a year at theatre school at 21. An elderly woman in a picturesque butcher shop – old Elizabethan beams outside, the butchers in striped aprons and straw hats – was reaching into her shopping basket; she had thick white hair and looked just like my grandmother. Tears in my eyes. This is half of my heritage, this green and pleasant land with its tiny, adorable shops.

I walked on the common, a marvellous wild space, just grasses, gorse, broom, gnarled ancient trees – and dogs, everywhere. I thought, if this were France, it would be groomed and meticulous; the wildness was wonderful. Deep in the woods was a cemetary with tombstones from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, but later in the churchyard I found the really old ones, from the 1700s. I bought some wine from the Nicolas store, a welcome reminder of France, and had a chat with the young Frenchman working there. I don’t feel safe in London, he said. There’s a level of violence I’m not used to, especially after 6 when everyone’s drunk. The economy has not helped; people are angry and desperate.
Will you go back to Provence then? I asked.
Oh no, he replied.

Last night Christina took me to a barn dance, a fundraiser for the Barnes Wetlands, where she volunteers – 105 acres in the village. This was a hilarious event – all these English people had made the effort to wear gingham, straw hats, cowboy boots – there was a caller and a band, though it was mostly Scottish country airs, not real c and w stuff. We all made fools of ourselves stumbling through the dances, but in great fun and humour, and I thought, this would never happen in a million years in France. I read in the Times later – there’s a column on what the Royal Family is doing today, Princess Alexandra opening a garden show, the Queen a new centre for something or other – and again, in a million years, not in France, or almost any other modern democracy. I also read the extensive list of lectures that are going on locally in Barnes, and was tempted by one coming up: “An Ongoing Journey with Batik.” Can’t miss that journey.

I love it here, though it’s so profoundly different from France. It’s glorious to speak my own language, and to feel a kind of looseness and sniff a great deal of fresh air. Today Chrissie and I walked her hilarious little springer spaniel/Jack Russell cross, Archy, in Richmond Park, which is 2500 acres – that’s 2500 acres – of grass, ponds and trees created in the 1600’s by King Charles 1, with many herd of deer roaming freely, horses, runners, bicyclists, and a million dogs. The quintessential British couple tramping through the grass in matching blue Wellies with their four spaniels. Incredible, something so open, vast and green so close to London. There’s a spot in the park where you can see the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

And now, dinner, and afterwards, a little bit of cheese, direct from Paris. We’re here, my stuff and I. Onward.

Share

Share
Tweet
Share
Pin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

Some Blogs I Follow

Chris Walks
This blog evolves. It once was about travels. Now it’s a reason to be at the keyboard that I value.

 

Theresa Kishkan
Theresa Kishkan is a writer living on the Sechelt Peninsula on the west coast of Canada.

 

I walk on. With my feet, and in my mind as well.

 

Carrie Snyder
Wherever you’ve come from, wherever you’re going, consider this space a place for reflection and pause.

 

Juliet in Paris, Spain and Beyond
Juliet is a Canadian who’s lived for decades in Paris and writes about her travels and the many things that interest her.

 

Archives