“Where are you trying to go?” London, Summer Diary, 2015, continued

I turn to see a tiny woman about my age, dressed like me, sporting large sunglasses and clunky sneakers. Since I am a short person to begin with, you have to imagine that this woman was positively elfin: Charlotte Brontë measurements. I startle easily, and must have looked alarmed, since she went on to ask: “Am I such a monster?” Not a monster, but still, remarkably small. “Of course, not.”

Pelham_CrescentI was standing at the intersection of Pelham Street and Pelham Place, wondering whether I dare turn into Pelham Place on the chance that it might turn out to be a short cut to the Kings Road. I had walked from South Kensington to Chelsea several times in the past, but I have walked in London enough times to know that a shortcut usually means a good way for me to get lost. Getting lost is something I do on a regular basis, even with a map, even more often with a map. That day, I was already lost in thought.

“I’ll show you,” the woman said, leading me into Pelham Place, when I told her my destination, “it’s a short cut.” It was as though a human GPS had just emerged full blown from the fog of my anxiety.

I was pleased to learn that my Pelham Place hunch was correct, though as we wove our way through a neighborhood I had never seen, I realized that minus my self-appointed cicerone the short cut would have led me away from my destination, rather than to it. My guide masterfully steered me across heavily trafficked streets―she would just put her tiny hand up with the authority of a traffic cop, a gesture that stopped cars from advancing any further in our direction―and hurried us along.

“I’m good at instructions,” my companion explained, “because I’m a teacher.” She taught languages, she said, another commonality. “I used to teach French,” I said. “Ooh, la, la,” the guide exclaimed (that seemed a false note, but then clichés about the French die hard). I can’t quite retrieve the thread of conversation that led to and then from languages to Dreiser―an argument about whether Dreiser’s novels showed social violence, “not really,” she demurred, compared to Zola (she pronounced Zola as the English do, putting the accent on the first syllable, so French was not one of her languages, unless maybe that was an English affectation), and then we suddenly entered the zone of gorgeous Georgian townhouses in Pelham Crescent. “You see,” she said, slowing down, “the buildings are white and the doors are black.” She liked, she said, to imagine the inhabitants exiting from their elegant houses, headed for a ball.

As we approached the place my guide had chosen for our parting–“you’ll be fine if you just carry on from here”–she suddenly said, without looking at me: “You know, in the end, all of us are alone.” “Yes, I know,” I replied, as somberly, wondering what had triggered her existential pronouncement. Did I look that lonely?

And then I was, alone.
When I was young in London, or any foreign city, the encounters that mattered to me were always with men: romance! But now, I appeal to old ladies like me who worry whether I know where I’m going.

Three Shades of Black

NancyblackshadesSummer Black, of course. No New Yorker needs persuading about wearing black in the summer―is there any other color?―but apparently London women need help, or at least encouragement to believe that black is still the new black. Hence the reassurance by style mavens that it’s more than OK to dress all in black this summer, despite the heat wave (a blip compared to New York weather), and despite all the advice to go floral and, well, summery. To wear black is to aim for “cool girl Scandinavian.” I have no idea what the “cool girl Scandavian” look is (the sartorial version of Scandanavian noir?), but there is plenty of black in London.

A recent trip with a visiting American teenager to Harrods had lots of black on display. (The fabled store is now owned by the father of Dodi, the boyfriend of Princess Diana, who died with her sixteen years ago; there’s a memorial shrine to the couple on the lowest floor of the store)

But the black that caught more than my eye was the number of women dressed entirely in black, shopping.

burkasIt was hard for me not to stare as I tried to try to make sense of the contrast between these women covered head to toe in black, with only a slit for their eyes, and the display of gorgeous luxury items for which the store is famous. What, I wondered, were they shopping for? And what were they wearing under the burkas (or burqas as it’s often spelled here)? In London burkas and headscarves are omnipresent and, for the time being at least, the fact of women covering their faces is not moving forward as a political issue. It has, however, been raised by conservatives.

The same is not true in France, where the question of the scarf (le voile) and face covering is a hotly debated and fiercely argued question.

burka2In France the rationale for banning the wearing of the headscarf is part of the secularist legislation banning all “ostentatious” religious symbols from the cross to the yarmulke–and the anti-headscarf position is largely supported by many well-known French feminists. But given all the other political and economic issues associated with the large Muslim population in France, the question of the headscarf is rarely just a matter of opinion. It has become a lightning rod for protest, often accompanied by violence on both sides―protesters and police.

In the summer of 2003 I was in London for the astounding heat wave that caused many deaths here and in Europe. I found myself more than puzzled, horrified really, to see many Muslim families in Kensington Gardens where the men were sitting on the grass in open-necked shirtsleeves, and the women tented in black tending to the children running around freely.

Surely, the acceptance of cultural difference has its limits? Or am I just depressingly Western?

Jewish Book Week

I’m just back from Jewish Book Week in London,  a city I now love the way I loved Paris when I first lived there—that feeling of everything to discover, that naïve and dopey conviction that everything is so much more wonderful there, especially everything old and literary.

fromthebridge

The streets are dotted with blue plaques (850 of them) on the walls of buildings, indicating the years of residence of famous writers and artists, and otherwise famous people.

ezrapound

Here’s one for Ezra Pound I happened to stumble on my first morning walk. The blue plaque that generates countless pilgrimages—mine on another occasion—is the one affixed to Sylvia Plath’s house.

blueeggs2

Even the generic Whole Foods displays look more interesting in London, with local blue eggs on offer.

English friends, less amused, complained about the mountains of fruit piled up at the entrance to the store. “So much waste!”

Jewish Book Week was all what I hoped it would be— a literary festival, literary but not in an academic mode, and not only about books. Located in a new venue at Kings Place, the event included many foreign participants, some young and just becoming known, others quite famous. My panel, moderated by journalist Henrietta Foster, had me paired with Orlando Figes, a well-known Russian historian.  I suspected (correctly) that everyone in the Sunday morning audience (except for a few friends of mine who were kind enough to attend) had come for him, but I managed to survive as an underdog. At the book signing, several people told me they had family stories similar to those in What They Saved, and I was thrilled, as I always am when that connection is made. I love sharing a generational history.

wow

The day after the festival, I crossed the bridge to the South bank and was delighted to see the announcement for another exciting festival under a rather different sign: “Women of the World Festival,” with a roster of fabulous names. It began, alas, the day I was leaving.