We stayed in a bed and breakfast in Wales that was also a farm: A pair of amicable pigs with wet snouts, bunnies in cages, palomino donkeys up on the hill. Black bantam chickens and a pair of handsome copper roosters ran free in the yard. A pleasant dog named Sweep greeted us every morning when we came downstairs for eggs and ham. For an animal-loving three year-old, this is a version of paradise.
Inside, the house was old-fashioned country — no surface without a plate, a ceramic jar of feather dusters, a framed drawing of a chicken. The faïence on the sideboard, with its delicate burgundy and peach roses, looked more natural in rural Wales than it does in country-style B&Bs in the States (even in Martha’s Vineyard). We were away. The Internet didn’t reach up to our room. Our phones didn’t work.
We spent a number of days with P.’s family in their house on the site of an old mill. When the sun came out, we ate meals on the old millstone. I read a Scottish detective novel in two sittings, while H. experimented with asking her great-uncle, a retired solicitor, to pretend he was her baby (not his favorite game, it turns out, but he was very patient). I struggled to understand the Edinburgh politics, and the fact that the hero didn’t carry a gun.
In London, we stayed in the renovated St. Pancras hotel. Built in the 1860s, it had fallen into total disrepair until the recent multi-million dollar restoration. It’s now a contemporary/Victorian fantasy. The Eurostar arrives alongside the champagne bar. It’s stunning. At the top of one ornate staircase is a series of paintings of the seven virtues. You climb up past the carved wooden bar in the Booking Office restaurant and the gilt ceilings in the Ladies Smoking Room and come face to face with a delicate figure of Humility.
At the edge of the Thames on our last day, I looked out at clouds reflected in the water and Senegalese contortionists and a man dressed as a statue of a knight and hordes upon hordes of tourists. The sun finally broke through and showed us the glory of the river — the Hungerford Bridge, the glittering urban ferris wheel that is the London Eye.
I haven’t travelled in a while. I was struck by how American tourists did not dominate. The well-dressed woman sitting in the hallway of our fancypants hotel, lamenting her divorce on her cellphone? Brazilian. The bored children in the V&A: mostly French. We ran into an Argentine hiker at the top of the Skirrid in Wales… This — combined with the detritus, in the British Museum, of a thousand previous human civilisations who all thought they would last forever — this all gave me a powerful feeling of insignificance.
In front of Selfridges, we saw a woman in full burqa climb out of a taxi, holding a huge Prada bag aloft. Rhinestone flip-flops peeked out from under her heavy black skirts. Her husband had a bespoke suit and a pony-tail. What life do they represent? A friend told me that most of the people who bought the wildly-expensive lofts at the renovated One Hyde Park don’t live in London. I was reading Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. I thought of his vision of a gutted New York, after the total collapse of the American dollar, as a dystopian “Lifestyle Hub.” None of this diminished my urgent and powerful daydreams about joining the international glitterati. London is a wonderful place to consume.
At Raglan castle, in Wales, we saw the Society of Creative Anachronism stage a “siege.” They bashed each other with painted foam swords with great enthusiasm, just under the portcullis gate. If they got bonked on the head, they had to step out of the game until someone called “Resurrect and re-enter!!”
Vacations are strange. They’re meant to help you enjoy your daily life, yes? Give you a break? So you torque all of your circadian rhythms to another timezone and fantasize with great focus and intent about other places and even other moments in history. And then you eat too much because you can’t tell when it’s lunch during your six hours in O’Hare. And then you’re back. Insomniac. Vaguely nauseated. You see your life through strange eyes. You must re-adjust, find the thread of your work.
I’d do it all again tomorrow.