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LONDON - NEWARK (21-22 May 2005)

A big, bold and ultimately impossible idea.
For much of Friday, on and off, the adventuresome Ms. Barto and I discussed using Saturday, our free day, to visit...Paris.

It would just be a matter of hopping on the Chunnel Train at Waterloo Station and, two and a half hours later, arriving in a city where she'd never been and I'd been not nearly often enough.

I remember standing in a two-hour line at Heathrow back in 2003 and chatting with a London resident who charmed me with stories of leaving her flat, walking two blocks to the tube, then to the train station and over to Paris, for lunch and a bit of shopping before coming back home that evening. I immediately knew I wanted to do something like that if I ever got the chance. Now it appeared I'd have that chance.

Since, aside from golf for those who so chose, the rest of us were left open to follow our hearts on Saturday, the idea was not entirely crazy. Even when it seemed likely we were going to give it a try, though, it was definitely a bit dicey.

In order to get back for the final meal with everyone Saturday night, something we both agreed we wanted to do, the most we could hope for would be six hours "on the ground," and that was assuming we caught the 8 AM train and everything went smoothly. Then there was that thing about having gotten back to the hotel close to 4 AM in the morning (see previous installment). Plus the fact that the Fuller's people seemed appalled at the very idea when it was mentioned to them...

Ah well, as I paraphrased Bogie's famous Casablanca send-off to Bergman in the link to this page, we'll always...almost...have Paris.

What we had instead was great art and something we'd both been itching to find, access to the internet. Some folks are just conventional, y' know?

First the Net, then Da Vinci.
When Sheryl called me at 10 AM, I'd been awake for hours, having experienced one of those nights where sleep came for an hour or two and then I lay awake, writing stories in my head. So I was down in the lobby area well before her, in time to get directions to the rumored Internet Cafe up the road and to our ultimate destination, London's National Gallery on Trafalger Square, which houses one of the world's greatest collections of art. Surprisingly, the two of us were the only ones in our group going there. Those others who weren't golfing opted for various other museums and tourist sites. Vive la difference, as they say in that other city.

We had a brief chat on the street with five of our comrades, walking the other direction under the leadership of (were they mad?) Beer Dave, then a quick stop for breakfast and finally found the Internet Cafe. We spent an hour or so there, peering back into our real worlds. For the record ('cause I always find it kinda scary): for four-and-a-half days, I had 340 messages in my In Box and another 280 which Comcast had already identified as Spam and sent into that mailbox. Another 15 or so additional messages arrived during my time in front of the screen. When I was done, I'd whittled all that down to 22 messages, only about half of which were truly important. Yikes.

The National Gallery wasn't quite where we thought it was and then not where we next thought it would be either, but the walk and the day were pleasant and eventually we got there. Let me tell you, this is not the most user-friendly place I've ever been. There are three or four different entrances and no clue as to which one you've actually used. The collection is broken up into 50-plus rooms/areas on two, maybe three, floors and compiled by centuries (these rooms are 17th century, these 18th, etc.). There's an information sheet available with a diagram of the museum which highlights the most prominent or important painting in each of 50-plus areas, but there is not so much as a "you are here" mark to help you figure out where you want to go.

We had four or five personal reccommendations from Gary McGowan, the tour guide, and all of those were among the highlighted works on the info sheet, so we used them as our touchstone for the afternoon; it would be complete when we'd seen them all. You gotta have a plan.

As I said, this a great (Euro-centric) collection--Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Ruben, Monet, Bottacelli, Cezanne--the list goes on and on. I was struck, as I always am when confronted with a vast array of classic art, by how overwhelmingly religious subjects dominate the lists of our great paintings, by how much random nudity there is (especially cherubs, always cherubs) and by how, even to the untrained eye, differences in attitude and technique start becoming evident when the whole panorama is laid out before you.

Amazingly, we could get right up to within a foot or so of most of the paintings (the only ones protected by glass were ones on loan from private collections); Sheryl kept asking what would happen if she reached out and touched one, but fortunately never acted on the impulse. I had a feeling that there was some sort of electronic eye that would suddenly awaken one of the guards who were peacefully sleeping at the doorway of each room.

At one point, we sidled up into a group being led through by a museum guide and listened to her explication of Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne, which was fascinating. It reminded me of having dinner in (speak of the devil) Paris about a dozen years ago with an American woman who was living there, on money provided by either an ex-husband or ex-lover, or at least in an apartment provided by one of those, and had hired her own personal museum guide, who would take her each day to Le Louvre or some other museum and go through the major works with her, piece by piece. At the time, it all seemed a bit over the top to me, but after hearing the Titian presentation, I'm rethinking that position. Having the time and money to get that sort of private education would probably be pretty cool.

Final stand at The Grenadier.
Hey, you didn't come here to read about art, right? My bad. Blame that nasty intellectual part of my brain I keep trying to drown in beer but never quite manage to entirely submerge.

Anyway, we finished up the Gallery and meandered back to the hotel, grabbing a late lunch on the way. I quickly repaired to the bar for my first brew of the day, a Fuller's Discovery. I followed that one with a second and watched a bit of the big Manchester United-Arsenal soccer game on the TV before going to my room, where I turned on the TV for the first time in Europe and watched the completion of the contest. Arsenal won 5-4, on penalty kicks after overtime left the two teams tied at 0-0. Boring.

I packed up for Sunday's return flight, showered and headed back down to the bar to be in the first group cabbing over to The Grenadier for our last meal together. The Grenadier is a neat little pub, probably my favorite one of the whole trip, tucked away on a dead-end little street in toney Wilton Mews. Madonna was rumored to have a flat on the street but a waitress told us that she merely lived in the area and often took over The Grenadier for parties.

I took a couple of photos, the last ones I could squeeze out of my second camera battery.

That first one almost looks like an advertising shot, dunnit? It was taken shortly after our first cab arrived. That's Joe O'Grady in the red sweater and Kerry Byrne next to him. I don't know who's in the dark shirt, obscured by the railing; the guy next to him is a local they were talking to; that's distributor Paul Manning at the bottom of the steps. The couple on the sidewalk at left foreground weren't with us...but he did eventually talk her into going home with him.

The second photo was taken later and you see how we filled up the street. From bottom right moving inward and then around to bottom left: Beer Dave, the back of Col. Dave Snyder's head, Paul Manning, Steve Westley (partially obscured), Stamford Galsworthy at top of stairs, Sheryl Barto.

We had dinner crammed at three tables in the back room. When I asked the waitress about my choices, the Stilton Puff and Beef Wellington, she responded They've been on the menu for 30 years and are our best-selling items. Damn, I hate being trendy, but... They were wonderful, as were the various pints of beer, warm apple tart with ice cream and huge cup of Cappuccino which accompanied and followed them.

Most headed back to the hotel right after dinner--we had a 5 AM call for the bus to the airport--but four or five of us hung around outside, drinking pints, reluctant for the evening and, for all practical purposes, the trip, to end. Eventually, we too had to give in. Back at Sanctuary House, I had my last drink in England (this time), a dram of wonderful scotch (didn't catch its name) with Stamford, wished him well and went off to my room one last once.

Sunday mornin' comin' down.
Easy and uneventful bus ride, two hours early at the airport allowing time to buy some books and a newspaper. Pleasant and comfortable flight in my aisle, seat with an empty between me and Beer Dave, and I enticed the last can of London Pride on board out of a flight attendant. We arrived in Newark half an hour early.

Paid the premium price to take Amtrak home rather than the incredibly affordable but twice-as-long combination of NJ Transit and SEPTA, and caught an immediate suburban train out to Wayne where I picked up my car at the Beer Yard lot. I was home before 4 PM local time.

A few hours at the computer recording my notes and firing off a request for a review copy of MJ's whiskey book to his publishers as he'd suggested (it arrived Friday), then I crashed in front of the TV to watch the final 2005 episode of the season's best show, Deadwood.

And that, my friends, is the ever-lovin' end.

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