Opinion » John Rember

Chelsea Mornings

And afternoon matinees


Julie and I have rented a tiny flat in Chelsea, in the rainy and cold heart of London. It was advertised as a luxury flat, but so far most of the luxury has come in the form of the rent we're paying and the wine department of the Sainsbury Local across the street from our building.

We have 215 square feet all to ourselves. We have a kitchen, a workable if slow washer and dryer, a functional shower and bath, and a history of getting along in the sort of close conditions that would create cabin fever in normal people.

We have been walking a great deal, and not only because we've been lost a great deal. Walking through London is a pleasure if you have the time and can remember to look both ways before crossing any street that might have a lorry coming down it. Due to a manufacturing error, the vehicles here have their steering wheels on the wrong side of the dashboard, and people have taken this to mean they should drive on the wrong sides of the streets. They sneak up on you from behind at crosswalks, even on one-lane roads.

For cross-town distances, we have purchased Tube passes. We've been so impressed by public transportation here that we think Boise should get something like it, perhaps a light-rail loop stretching from downtown to Eagle, Star and Caldwell, then to Nampa and Meridian and back to downtown. A subway system would be more expensive, but would also represent a chance to drain the vast lake of dry-cleaner fluid and leaked gasoline that floats above the Boise aquifer.

But London. There is a real danger, in London museums, of Renoir fatigue, or Van Gogh fatigue, or starting to confuse Monet and Manet and Man Ray, or worse, starting to not care whose is what. I've already gotten lost in the Tate, wandered through rooms a second time, and found out I missed a whole wall of Picassos.

Visiting the British Museum is like being locked inside a kaleidoscope. The plundered treasures of a hundred civilizations are in the building. It would take weeks to tour all the displays. We spent an hour in the enormous room that contains the Elgin Marbles, the sculptures formerly known as the Frieze of the Parthenon. We became proficient at reading the subtexts of the interpretive signs on the walls next to the Marbles: Here are the cultural glories of Greece, which we British have preserved from the air pollution of Athens and the depredations of war. If not for us, they'd be gone now, and no, we're not going to give them back.

We have seen carefully-preserved Assyrian bas-reliefs, remarkably similar to the ones destroyed by Islamic State bulldozers earlier this year.

Elsewhere in the museum, a sign below a display of beautiful Chinese porcelain notes, without apparent irony, that it was taken from the Chinese emperor's palace during a battle between the French and British, and that while it is important that a nation's cultural heritage be preserved, in war things are often stolen.

Last night we ate dinner in the tombstone-floored crypt of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, listening to a saxophone-organ-drums trio. We sat above Mary Molteno, the wife of Anthony Molteno of Pall Mall, who died Feb. 12, 1810, at age 52. It was hard not to wonder if she was resting in peace, especially when we livelier denizens of the crypt were up dancing to a hard funk version of the 1968 Classics IV hit, "Spooky."

We have been to the theater five times so far. I won't bore you with blow-by-blow descriptions, except to note that we saw The Book of Mormon during a two-day layover in Chicago, and were surprised at its sweet and almost sappy message: that it's far better to believe in some form of community, no matter how preposterous, than to fall into a savage and nihilistic individualism.

And I should probably say that Tom Stoppard's The Hard Problem is a painful examination of the body-mind split through the eyes of a hedge-fund financier and a contemporary neuroscientist, neither of whom has a Mormon's generosity when it comes to the idea of soul.

A favorite pub: The Prince Albert, at the edge of Battersea Park, within walking distance of our flat. It's the sort of gentle and warm place you can go for a gentle and warm beer, served by a gentle and warm young woman who remembers you as the nice Americans in for steak-and-kidney pie last week. Not many tourists hang out in Battersea Park, which is small and surrounded by gardens, and has a Mr. Whippy ice cream truck for the children. In the ice cream queue, I wondered aloud if the slogan for Mr. Whippy shouldn't be You Will Lick It and You Will Like It, and got a sour You're-Not-a-Nice-American look from the not-so-gentle-and-warm young woman running the Super-Soft machine.

London exudes the delicate ambience of a potlatch. We've found it best to assume that the pounds we're spending are dollars, and the beery pub dinners we're buying are sumptuous multi-course repasts complete with fine Oregon pinot noirs. We buy cheap restricted-view theater tickets, and we probably won't have afternoon tea at the Ritz Hotel (where we would probably get kicked out anyway for reenacting scenes from Young Frankenstein). But the time goes, and with it, our money, and in London, as in life, we are hoping that they run out more or less simultaneously.