Down and Hot in Paris and London (with apologies to George Orwell) Part IV

PART IV

My family trip to France and the U.K. in the summer of 1995 found us in the midst of a record-setting heat wave in both countries. Parts I, II, and III of this post have described the challenges of hot-weather travel in cities like Paris that aren’t usually very hot.

In Part IV, I pick up the story in London, another city traditionally unaccustomed to hot weather.

Our daytime touring in London began to resemble a tour of hot exotic climes. When we passed by Trafalgar Square, we saw crowds surrounding the pools beneath Lord Nelson’s column, trying to cool off. Dozens of children frolicked in the pools of water as though they were neighborhood wading pools in Chicago.

Sadly, our attempt to tour the wondrous contents of the British Museum was a distinct failure. As we slowly meandered through the rooms devoted to ancient Egypt, pushing our way through the sweaty crowd, I could have sworn we were in a suffocating museum in Egypt itself. I almost envied the mummies in their amazingly-well-preserved cases. Maybe it was cooler in there? We’d planned to stay all morning, but we left after barely an hour.

Another project that went down the tubes was our plan to escort our daughters into a couple of London pubs, where they could soak up the very British atmosphere along with a pint or two of ale. But our attempts to go pub-crawling went nowhere. Every time we entered a pub, it was unbearably hot and filled with cigarette smoke. All the outside tables were already taken, so we couldn’t quaff any ale that way either. So long, London pub-crawl.

The London buses continued to be insanely hot. Their windows opened for about three inches at the very top, where the breeze barely did any good–when there was a breeze. The Tube was somewhat better, although one newspaper headline read “100 DEGREES F IN THE TUBE,” so at times it must have been blazing hot down there, too.

I’d given up wearing makeup by this time–my lipstick kept melting–and I let my hair go “au naturel.” Why not? We no longer cared how we looked, to each other or to anyone else. So if my hair was inordinately frizzy, and my face sans makeup looked less than gorgeous, who cared?

When I checked my money belt, which I wore at my waist, it was–not surprisingly–damp. But I was surprised that the moisture around my waist had permeated the belt’s contents. I had the world’s dampest traveler’s checks!

Meanwhile, our supply of clean clothes was dwindling, and things were becoming desperate. We’d hoped to find a nearby laundromat but never did, and we’d begun to resort to hand-washing. My small supply of Woolite was nearly gone, so we headed to a supermarket for a substitute. There I found Fairy Liquid, a liquid soap I’d read about in books by English women novelists. I felt just like an English housewife of the 1950s as I poured Fairy Liquid into the tiny bathroom sink on Gower Street and plunged our dirty duds into the suds. (The Fairy Liquid label said “By Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen.” Do you suppose the Queen uses it to wash her undies, too?)

On our last day in London, we left the city and traveled to the leafy green suburb of Hampstead, hoping to find a relatively cool and sylvan spot. There, in the midst of a large wooded park, is Kenwood House, a stunning historic house surrounding a spectacular art collection. Admission was free, and the staff were some of the friendliest people we met anywhere in England. A lovely respite from London’s crowds and heat, Kenwood House was a genuine treat.

For our last night in London, we bought tickets to the 100th-anniversary production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” at the Old Vic. The theatre advertised itself as being air-conditioned, and in truth, it wasn’t all that bad inside. Viewing “Earnest,” I was almost comfortable in a long, loose-fitting cotton skirt (hence unconcerned about the potential itchiness of the seat’s upholstery). But my heart went out to the actors, dressed in the heavy satins and laces of Victorian finery. They had to be sweltering under the hot lights.

As we left the Old Vic, we felt a cool breeze for the first time in four days. The terrible heat was breaking–but not soon enough for us.

It was warm–but not hot–the next morning as we set off for Wales and the Cotswolds in a rented Vauxhall. As Herb met the challenge of right-hand drive with aplomb, we rambled around in comfort before leaving for home. Cardiff, Cheltenham, the tiny town of Bibury, Stratford-on-Avon—they were all reasonably cool. But after spending four unforgettable days in London dripping in sweat–from Westminster Abbey to Knightsbridge, from the Temple to Shaftsbury Avenue—we had a whole new outlook on summertime travel.

In retrospect, we had a terrific time together. We shared boundless adventures and rafts of laughs, creating memories to last a lifetime. But when we returned home, I asked myself: Would I plan another trip to England or France anytime soon?

Of course. I knew I would.

But would I plan it in “high season”? Not bloody likely. Give me London in March or April, when it rains a little nearly every day, and traveler’s checks get damp from rain instead of tummy-sweat. Or give me Paris in May, when the hint of sun is just enough to warm me up after a long gray winter.

“High season” in Paris or London? No thanks. “High season” sounded too much like “high temperatures” to ever tempt me again.

EPILOGUE

The four of us returned to France for over two weeks in May 1997. The weather was warm but not hot, and the trip—from Paris to Beaune, from Aix-en-Provence to Lyons–was blissful. Sadly, we were never able to take another European trip as a foursome, making the memories of those two fun-filled family trips even more precious.

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