roses to the rescue

pink Tesco roses in turquoise vase

My friend here pulled an all-nighter this week, preparing for an important presentation at work, so her daughter and I walked to the corner store for groceries and brought home a bunch of hot-pink roses (and white-chocolate Magnum ice-cream bars)—because when life gets hard, flowers can say, "While I can't fix this for you, I wish I could."

hot-pink roses


window-ledge garden

windowsill garden: miniature rose and mint plants

My college friend doesn't do houseplants, so she's surprised me by coming home on two separate Waitrose grocery trips with little potted plants. The first one was a tiny yellow rose in a narrow purple quilted-glass jar and the second was a small pot of mint. The rose had stopped blooming (my friend keeps the shades drawn for privacy whenever she leaves the flat and often even when home), so one day I plopped the mint plant inside a painted yellow tin that had formerly held a stash of colored pens and pencils (the preteen is redecorating her room) and stuck both plants outside on the kitchen window ledge.

mint plant and mini-rose

Shortly upon arrival in London, I had suggested to my friend that she place a large rectangular clay pot full of hardy kitchen herbs out there on the ledge—thyme, mint, rosemary, chives—but she was fearful of a heavy pot falling off the ledge and braining an unsuspecting downstairs caller. So the small pots are perhaps her compromise. I suspect they, being fairly lightweight, will be more likely to blow off the windowsill come winter storms, but it is not my house, and so I welcome the living greenery and the open windows of summer. Even small gardening gestures are vital for healthy living.

I have never lived in an apartment in America with exterior window ledges deep enough for pots (though presumably they do exist, maybe on the East Coast), but Europe is more civilized in this and other ways. Even if only on a window ledge or sunny interior windowsill, it is a simple luxury to pluck a few herb leaves off a plant a few steps away from the stove or counter to flavor a meal.

where the bees are (in London)

lavender in painted turquoise pot, near St. John's Wood

Missing my own (rented) Portland garden and the role of gardener, temporary caretaker of a little plot of land, I spy with longing on the gardens of Londoners, whether large as a Royal Park or small as a single pot of lavender or the lonely sentinels of evergreen topiary flanking a staircase—and everything in between, from the lush green borders of a driveway or sidewalk to the secretive, private and locked gardens dotted around town, from a flower-dripping balcony to a row of bright geraniums on a window ledge. Where the hives hide in such built-up brick-and-concrete urban landscape, I couldn't say. But there are bees. And, like adults with children, they are much too busy to stop and play.

bumblebee in fuchsia rose, Queen Mary's Gardens, Regent's Park

begonia bed with urn, Regent's Park

gated garden off Antrim Road, Belsize Park

wall-climbing ivy

formal flower bed with urn, Regent's Park

gated-driveway borders with nasturtium

sidewalk lavender with bees, Belsize Park

Belsize Park bee on lavender


the house where Lytton Strachey lived

vintage E-Type Jaguar at 67 Belsize Park Gardens

I've been spending afternoons this week wandering around Swiss Cottage and Belsize Park in the Borough of Camden while my 10-year-old charge is in sewing class. Let me just say that Google Maps in walk mode is total crap in London—or maybe it's my Chinese-designed temporary cheapo phone—because the blue "You-are-here" arrow can be found between streets most of the time, as if I'm striding along rooftops rather than on known centuries-old streets with quirky historic names. And it's happened in Soho as well as Belsize, so it's not the fault of any one neighborhood.

London streets aren't on a planned grid but rather take medieval twists and turns, meaning if you started walking east, say, you could end up north, south, or even west. Moreover, whenever I (frequently) stop to check my direction, the phone reroutes, which is screamingly frustrating. So taking a pointer from my expat friend, I am now using only the macro route view, so that the blue GPS dot follows me like a shadow, while avoiding the step-by-step directions of the arrow, which made today's 10,000-plus steps much less stressful than yesterday's.

Also, don't expect the local libraries to have the printed version of the Belsize Walk from Primrose Hill in Regent's Park to (or from) Parliament Hill in Hampstead Heath, even though the brochure says they will. However, a Swiss Cottage librarian was kind enough to print out for me the colorful, compact folded brochure in black-and-white on eight separate pieces of paper. Speaking of libraries, I was surprised to find London's branches selling tea, coffee, and little cakes to be consumed in-house on comfortable vinyl benches—a highly civilized complement to public reading, à la Starbucks.

pink roses, Belsize Park Gardens

"Make Tea Not War" stencil, Belsize Park

Per the Belsize Walk brochure, Engels and Marx lived in the area, as did Keats and Lytton Strachey. Though I've never read Strachey, I was curious to see the house where he proposed to Virginia Woolf, was accepted, and then soon after retracted his proposal. (Oh, those fickle Bloomsbury types!) What's funny is that I came across this lovely classic E-Type Jaguar parked on the street and thought, "I should take a photo of that vintage green car against the red mailbox," not knowing the background view was exactly that of 67 Belsize Park Gardens—the stuccoed-brick mid-19th-century house where Strachey proposed to Woolf (before she was Leonard Woolf's)—a fact I only figured out later on my return meander north after consulting the Belsize Walk map and realizing I had accidentally stumbled onto a section of the official route.

London is layered with so much history it's mind-boggling to an American. Nearby Regent's Park, for example, was once a hunting ground of Henry VIII, and Hampstead Heath formerly hosted a Mesolithic settlement, circa 7,000 BC. Maybe tomorrow I'll go check out Karl Marx's house.


birds of London

canal bird mural, London

pigeons and graffiti near Little Venice, London

bird highway, Regent's Park

swan, Regent's Park


art inspires droid?

Jacob Epstein's Torso in Metal from 'The Rock Drill' (1913-14), Tate Britain

What a surprise to find a Star Wars droid in the Tate Britain! According to our resident Star Wars expert (aged 10), this is approximately a combination of the head of a regular battle droid on top of a super battle droid torso—but created during WWI by a Jewish-American/British artist and definitely not in a galaxy far, far away.

object label & display caption for Jacob Epstein's Torso in Metal from 'The Rock Drill' (1913-14), Tate Britain

(As a side note, the painting behind the droid is by Virginia Woolf's sister, Vanessa Bell: Studland Beach, c. 1912.)


museumgoer in London

Ai Weiwei's Tree 2010, Tate Modern

I spend my days layered in time and space as a part-time volunteer nanny, an official tourist, a houseguest, a cook, and all the while a cultural and dialect outsider in a place that feels both ultra-familiar (from a lifetime consuming British books and movies) and continually foreign—from the shape of electric sockets and plugs to names of common things in daily life (e.g., when playing a game, it's your "go," not your turn)—negotiating the intricacies of the underground system (average Tube wait time, maybe two minutes?), plotting free-museum routes with an outdated guidebook (though what does that matter when everything to see is multiple hundreds of years old and not subject to American demolition whims?), planning meals from fresh vegetables unwashed yet encased as sets of two or three in plastic (so much plastic!), washing and chopping said vegetables, and staying up too late talking with my overworked college-friend-turned-divorced-single-mom.

Tate Modern Switch Hall staircase

Tate Modern view #1

Tate Modern view #2

And amid all the mundane domestic stuff of life, there are all these languorous midday hours available for wandering through museums and walking ancient but new-to-me streets, grazing on whatever art and architecture I want—admittedly a middle-class luxury prepaid for with a rather high price. Thus I am taking more (inspiration) in than I have time to reflect on and transmit (exhale). But that is the nature of journeys: one leaves home for adventure, returning with the souvenirs of experience to be fondly handled in memory long after the acute period of travel has passed.

Note: This behind-the-scenes video of Ai Weiwei's earlier installation, Sunflower Seeds, is captivating.


red, white, & blue

red door 67, London

My friend's 10-year-old is a French-American who has lived all of her known life in London and has never celebrated the Fourth of July. She has never spent the holiday barbecuing hamburgers and hot dogs and eating watermelon—because, in Britain, American Independence Day is nothing to celebrate; plus, she has always lived in flats. She has never burnt her legs with sparklers or seen an ashy snake rise and twist like a magical phoenix before toppling over into dust. She has never known sitting on family picnic blankets at dusk, waiting for the sky to burst open with colored explosions. Fireworks for her mean other things, like the Queen's recent 90th birthday bash.

black gate with geraniums, London

But never having known the Fourth, she doesn't miss it. Perhaps the quintessential American holiday (in a tie with Thanksgiving?), still lies in wait to enchant her as a young adult attending university in the States. Or maybe, being half French, she will choose Bastille Day, or, as a child of London, maybe she won't ever understand the fuss of these nationalistic July bank holidays wholly absent in England.

red rose, Queen Mary's Gardens at Regent's Park

For me, I've been getting my Fourth-of-July reds in roses, geraniums, and doors, my whites in clouds and buildings, and my blues in slim-suited men heading to and from their finance jobs via the Tube. (I've never seen so many blue suits in my life, but dapper because tapered to the ankle and worn with smart tan Oxfords.)  


things you can do in London with . . .

Serpentine Pavilion 2016, Hyde Park, London

Serpentine Pavilion 2016 close-up, Hyde Park

Elytra Filament Pavilion at the V&A, London

tree snag at Regent's Park, London

  •  Dead Trees — Carve the limb ends of tree snags like decorative radishes on a tray of crudités.

lion fountain at Regent's Park, London

  • Stone — Carve horned, winged lions into garden statuary over which to plant annuals or tumble water.

Queen Mary's Gardens rose swags at Regent's Park

  • Flora & Rope — Swag living rose garlands across a garden like drapes on a window.

Queen Mary's Gardens rose swag, Regent's Park, London

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