Last September, in the early morning hours on a leaf-turning day, I saw the words London, J-Term, and writing splash onto the electronic message board next to me at UNH’s Hamilton Smith Hall. As an older working student, study abroad for a season wasn’t possible, but this I could do. It was only sixteen days, I could visit London for the first time, and I’d earn four credits toward my MFA in writing. I was signed up to go before the leaves finished their colorful display.
Three months later I had enjoyed the experience of a lifetime. I stayed in a youth hostel with 14 students (shout out to roommates Meghan, Erin, Logan, Emily, and Nicole), visited Kew Gardens, followed the steps of some of England’s brilliant Victorian women — Florence Nightingale, Marianne North, and Ada Lovelace. I spent hours in the Victoria and Albert Museum where I was shocked to open a special collection of photographs and see an original of Charles Darwin. Imagine!
Today, one year later, I am in Boston awaiting my visiting time for the Downton Abbey exhibit. As I sip blood orange hibiscus tea at the the public library’s Map Room, I am remembering London, my young friends, and my 16-day travel writing adventure. The history, architecture, and museums inspired, but it was my writing peers, who battled back anxiety, lived within budgets, advocated for their own health, and found joy even while working through pain, who truly inspired. It was their acceptance of me, an older student, that provided the backdrop for a life experience I will never forget.
The directions for the Brownstone Brooklyn tour said to meet at STINKY BROOKLYN, but there was no address, so I’m thinking, this has to be a mistake. What kind of place would give themselves such a self-deprecating name? But then I remembered the old Smucker’s jams and jellies commercial, “with a name like this, we have to be good.” I typed Stinky Brooklyn into my phone’s browser and tapped the top-listed link. A wine and cheese shop. Of course. What a great place for a foodie tour of Brooklyn to kick-off. I clicked on the map and sighed in relief. It was only a few blocks away.
My husband, son, and I arrived at our daughter’s home in Brooklyn, New York two nights earlier, where we planned to celebrate our adult children’s birthdays with dinners out and on Saturday, a New York City Urban Adventure – Brooklyn tour. On Friday, while our daughter worked, we rural-three spent most of the day navigating the city’s public transportation. We boarded express trains instead of local, waited for trains that weren’t running, and watched others race by our stop in order to catch up on their schedule. When we finally arrived at the American Museum of Natural History, we were hungry and foot-weary. We ate in the cafeteria and once fortified, my husband and I followed our just-turned-thirty, scientist son, letting him explain the exhibits. In the end, despite having such a great tour guide, it was an “eh” day.
Because of our Friday misadventures, I felt pressure to get us to our Saturday event without a hitch. I also prayed that my family, all with vastly different ideas of what constituted fun, would all enjoy the tour. My husband enjoys hearty meals. My daughter is a pescatarian, with little interest in cooking. My son is an aspiring chef, and I’m more than happy to turn over my spatula to him whenever possible. My husband doesn’t like long walks or hikes. My kids are cross-country runners. Architect, wood-worker, writer, scientist. One extrovert; three introverts—two whom despise crowds. I crossed my fingers and hoped we’d find common ground on this tour.
It turns out I needn’t have worried. This tour had something to make each of us happy. Let’s start with the meeting place. The large front windows at the narrow Stinky Brooklyn wine and cheese shop, coaxed my family out of the cold and into the store where our tour group gathered. Brian Hoffman, our excellent tour guide, tried to corral our family, but we were enchanted by the sights and smells and scattered through the shop looking at the merchandise. Rather than wait for us to join the group, Brian brought the other four members of our tour group to where we stood and introduced himself. After checking for dietary restrictions, he led us to the deli counter, where an employee had set up a cheese tasting for us. My favorite was the Roomanon Pradera Gouda from Holland, a hard cheese, with a crunchy sweetness that reminded me of my mother’s home-made toffee.
I left Stinky Brooklyn,
with my first purchase of the day: Roomanon
Pradera for me and two kinds of cheese for my son. Our next stop on the
tour was BIEN CUIT on
Smith Street, where I held the door open for baker Zachary Golper, who has
received multiple James Beard nominations. We visited the back room’s ovens and
learned how the combination of small-batch mixing and slow fermentation maximizes
taste and texture. We were treated to their traditional sour dough with several
Perhaps my favorite stop was ONE GIRL COOKIES on Dean Street. The geometric pattern of the brick building and the crisp white letters on the federal-blue sign were eye-catching. Inside, the perfect cookies were as my grandmother would have made them: miniature delicacies packed with sweetness. We sampled two kinds, and I purchased eight cookies-one of each flavor: chocolate chip, apricot almond, chocolate cinnamon hazelnut, chocolate mint, gluten-free chocolate pistachio, chocolate mocha, earl grey shortbread, and a chocolate caramel layer bar.
Other stops included 61 LOCAL, where we quenched our thirst on complementary ginger ale and enjoyed spiced peanuts. Then onwards to SHELSKY’S OF BROOKLYN for salmon on a bagel, and DAMASCUS BAKERY, where the third generation of owners treated us to feta-stuffed paninis. Our next visit was COURT PASTRY, where Brian purchased each of us a biscotti to go with our coffee or tea at D’AMICO COFFEE. I chose the almond biscotti. A quick dip in the coffee and it melted in my mouth. While we enjoyed our beverages, we discovered that two of the women on our tour were originally from Staten Island, and that they were friends with our neighbors in our small New Hampshire town.
Brian had two more surprises for us. At the coffee shop, he brought out two eclairs with candles in them: one each for my son and daughter. Then, as he led us to the BROOKLYN FARMACY, he told us the story of the soda fountain’s revitalization, a heart-warming tale of the right person appearing at the perfect time to help fulfill the owner’s vision. There we enjoyed a New York classic—chocolate and vanilla Egg Cream drinks, which are a concoction of seltzer, milk, and syrup.
Four full-bellies later we said good-bye to our new-found friends and sauntered out to catch our ride back to my daughter’s apartment. We had no idea where we were and decided none of us cared. This tour had been a perfect event for our family, engaging us all, despite our varied interests and athleticism (or lack thereof). Friendship, socialization, good food, interesting venues, and walking along the historic streets of Brooklyn proved to be fun for all of us. Bottom line, the New York City Urban Adventure – Brooklyn walking tour, with Brian Hoffman, turned out to be the highlight of our trip to New York City.
“Go to King’s Church later,” my instructor suggests. “The Wren Library is only open until two.” With one last look at Cambridge’s Gothic church, which I’d been assigned to write about, I joined the group headed down a cobblestone street. I could always go to Evensong later and gather material for my post.
I was happy to join this group, because I hadn’t wanted to miss the Wren Library at Cambridge, and it would have been hard to find on my own. Our instructor led us to the entrance. We were told to turn off our phones. Only 15 people can tour the library at a time, but luckily there was room for our group of five.
The others headed up one floor to the main room. I paused halfway up the first staircase, already enchanted by a concave doorway with its doorknob set in its tea-green center. It reminded me of simpler times when doors were carved by hand, and if opened, a friendly yellow bear greeted you with warm bread and honey.
My first experience with A. A. Milne’s writing was not the red “House at Pooh Corner” book my sister gave me when I was seven. Rather, it was the poem “Halfway Down”. In it a boy sits on a step and ponders where he is and where he isn’t. I learned later that the boy was Christopher Robin, friend of Pooh. This poem was part of the reason I love my home. It has old wooden steps that stop midway up to split in two directions.
Slowed by the interesting door, I gazed at the molding, the windows, and admired a marble bust of Alfred Lord Tennyson. At the entryway to the library, I gazed down the narrow hall at the far-off stained glass depicting Sir Isaac Newton’s presentation to King George III, circa 1990. Along each side of the room are alcoves of books and covered display cases.
The Wren Library, designed by Christopher Wren in 1676, and completed in 1695, houses 1,250 medieval manuscripts, 750 incunabula, and a growing collection of modern works. Some of my favorites were Charles Darwin’s “Origins of the Species”, with geologist Adam Sedwick’s dissenting notes in the margins, myriad hand-lettered Bibles, some with their ornate designs snipped out, an intriguing mathematical design from philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notes, Shakespeare, Milton, and of course, toward the end, Milne’s “House at Pooh Corner”, its prose elegant in its simplicity.
I never made it to King’s Church. It was closed by the time I arrived at the gate, and the students were still on holiday, so there was no Evensong. Still I’m grateful to have chosen the path I did.
That day, as I left the Wren Library, descending the same staircase that had given me pause earlier, I was that child on that hard-to-find staircase, “And all sorts of funny thoughts Run round my head. It isn’t really Anywhere! It’s somewhere else Instead!”
It had seemed like a good idea at the time, so I coaxed two of my classmates, Erin and Nicole, into joining me for dinner and writing at a local pub. We packed our pens, notebooks, and laptops and walked the half-mile from our hostel to Kensington’s Stanhope Arms.
“I do this at home—meet up with friends to write,” I told them. I’m sure I also mentioned working over dinner at Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill while my daughter was at soccer practice or writing at Crackskulls coffee shop in Newmarket.
I think I was feeling a bit nostalgic. I’d been in London for several days now, traveling with a group of twenty-something women. One would mention an incident on the Tube and I’d be reminded of the man in a Brooklyn subway who sniffed my daughter’s hair. Another spoke of skiing and I thought of our family’s last ski vacation in Maine. It wasn’t homesickness that drew me to the pub. Rather it was wanting to create a new memory based on old material.
We pushed open the glass doors of the 1845 building. It took only a second for our eyes to adjust to the inside lights. Although molding was dark wood, the Victorian walls and ceiling were painted in brighter whites and yellows. Most of the tables were filled but we found three tall chairs at the far side of the bar. There was plenty of room for our laptops and for our dinners. This was exactly the experience I was seeking. Voices drifted around us, there was the scent of old beer and good food, and the wait staff was friendly and attentive. On a large screen television behind us a football game was being played. I was surprised that the guests ignored the game—I’d thought British fans would be more engaged.
I ordered the Beef and Red Wine pie with mashed potatoes, and a Guinness, in honor of a family trip to Ireland. Several minutes after my friends received their drinks, my stout arrived, its two-part-pour foam floating above the glass’s golden harp.
I watched the game while I tugged my laptop from my backpack. The men were playing on a small field. “The field’s odd,” I said.
“I think it’s a video game,” Erin said.
I glanced around the room. There was no sign of anybody playing the game, but she was right. I felt deflated, as though my experience had been stripped of its authenticity.
By the time my pie arrived, a real game was on the television. The bar had become livelier, making it difficult to chat with Nicole and Erin. I watched the game while we ate. The pastry was crisp, and light and the tender beef filling was flavored with sweet onion and hearty mushrooms. Buttery mashed potatoes, flattened to a half-inch with a grid, were my favorite part of the meal.
When we finished, we considered writing, but the fans had become loud. We were ready to move on. The experience here was different from home, but it was exactly what I’d needed to satiate my hunger.
After I had trudged up five floors, Lauren, a docent in the Ceramics exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, pointed me toward the furniture room. There I found a “Chair Bench”, designed by Gitta Gschwendtner. The light-colored ash bench, made by the Sitting Firm Chairmakers in Coventry, sported six chair backs and legs each having its own unique design. According to the placard, the designer found historic chairs in the gallery, each made from different woods with different artistic techniques, and installed them onto a flat, horseshoe-shaped bench. The legs of the bench were from the same antique chairs but were mismatched with the backs.
There was a captain’s chairback with armrests, a chair you might find at a French café, and another that might have been from a formal dining room. One was was straight-backed and tall, another short and rectangular, and the last was an ornately carved decorative chair. I decided to find the originals and when two were difficult to locate, I engaged Kate, the exhibit’s docent to help me. Afterwards she and I sat on the bench and discussed what we’d found. She sat in the Captains’ chair with a heater at her feet and said it was the most comfortable of the chairs. I sat across from her in the rectangular chair.
Working from left to right:
The uncomfortable ornate chair is from 1560’s Italy, made from walnut, and was worked on by at least two artists, one from the 16th century and one from the 19th.
The 2011 factory-made rectangular chair, designed by Industrial Facility was made from ash, and assembled using dowels. It was a comfortable chair.
Next was Frank Lloyd Wright’s rigid tall-backed chair, made of stained oak. Geometric regularity was his signature architectural style. This chairback promoted excellent posture, which isn’t necessarily comfortable.
The café chairback from the Thonet Brothers (1859), was designed in Vienna, and used steam-bent solid beechwood to create the delicate curved support.
The formal dining chair was created around 1725 in England and was carved from walnut.
The seat I called a captain’s chair is a Windsor armchair from 1830. Thomas Simpson used steam-bent yew for the back and the legs were carved from ash.
Since I was exhausted from all my London touring, and the gallery was quiet, Kate and I relaxed on the bench and discussed the furniture around us, her future as a portrait painter, and she suggested I visit Strawberry Hill House and Garden in Twickenham, where I’d enjoy the Gothic architecture and Horace Walpole’s curiosities from the 1700’s. It seems there’s no rest for the weary in London’s fascinating neighborhoods.