There is a 100-foot column split in two on display in theVictoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington. Naina and I can’t imagine how it got there. It takes the breath of any visitor who enters the cast gallery. Except this isn’t a cast it is the real thing. A Roman column dating back to 113 AD recounting the story of the Emperor Trajan’s victory in a great war in intricate carvings winding their way up from its base. The battle looked fierce and the victory sweet based on the carvings. Across the balcony is a replica of Michelango’s David and we are struck by it’s height, we can almost see into his eyes and we are at least a story up. It takes us a moment to leave this room after marveling over replicas of entire cathedral fronts that have made their way into the massive room. Intricate ironwork in the form of gates, railing, benches, locks, keys and fireplaces capture our attention as well and we morn the loss of such artistic trades. Everyone today seems to want the same thing pre-made. We navigate our way through the enormous halls, art in and of themselves, to the theater and performance exhibit, which features a breakfast dress worn by Dame Edna, the mangled guitar of Pete Townsend from the Who and the Punch and Judy puppets. That gives you a sense of how ecclectic this exhibit is. Naina has to leave to pick up her sister, but I go on to see an Elton John costume, Adam Ant’s Prince Charming outfit and one of Mick Jagger’s unitards. I am equally thrilled to see costumes worn by Laurence Olivier and Richard Burton. I also learn a bit about the first black man to play Othello and make the part famous in England, Ira Aldridge. He was African-American and a stand in for the white actor who suddenly fell ill.
From theater and performance, I move on to the jewelry exhibit that showcases beautiful and not so pretty pieces that date back to early Egyptian times through present day. The baubles are organized by date and what was happening culturally at the time as well as by purpose. Jewelry has been worn throughout time by men and women to bring fertility, protect children, ward off evil spirits or show religious fervor and devotion, as well as just to show off. An amazing emerald and diamond encrusted, crown, necklace and earring set worn by a Duchess is across the room from Art Deco rings that a flapper may have worn in the 1920s. If you are woman who loves her trinkets, it’s worth the trip. Finally, I stop for lunch and I decide not to go far and visit the museum cafe. What a treat. The dining rooms are works of art. I am having a slice of quiche and salad in a room depicting the seasons and months in stained glass and blue and white tile. It is gorgeous. I linger longer with a pot of tea and scones.
I want to stay longer at the museum because there is so much to see, but Harrod’s is nearby and I want to hit the famed department store before it closes. I’ve never seen so many women in berkas or hijab in one place in my life. Some women were dressed completely in black from head to toe with just eyes showing, others had more fanciful head wraps that shimmered or twisted in unique ways. They were mobbing the handbag counters, Louis, Chanel, Marc Jacobs, you name it they were there. The Harrod’s in London may very well be the shopping mecca of the Muslim woman’s world. I make may way to the Egyptian escalator and it is unexpectedly garish in a place that you might associate with staid style. But there it is, full of tourists and shoppers making their way between five floors of luxury and designer clothes, furniture, china, etc. I have to stop at the shoe floor where I spot one of the black-blanketed women trying on a pair of red suede platform pumps matching the color of her painted nails. I guess if you can only wear black and remain covered head to toe, you have got to find other ways to make a fashion statement and a pair of red suede pumps are definitely saying something. I wander around on the designer dress floor through Balenciaga and the British designers like Rag and Bone and Karen Millen. The salespeople looked bored out of their minds. They are dressed in black too and wear kind of hollow looks as they ask if they can help you. They all look similar as if they stepped out of Vogue. In fact, I imagine that working at the Harrod’s maybe a lot like a scene from “The Devil Wears Prada.”
After my luxury shopping encounter, I decide to head back towards the museum to Kengsington Park to see the Prince Albert and Princess Diana Memorials. Making my way down Brompton Road, I spot more Arab folk taking in afternoon hookahs rather than afternoon tea. The Prince Albert Memorial is stunning. You can tell that Queen Victoria’s hubby was well loved and respected as you look skyward at the gold-spired gazebo with a golden Albert in the center. Diana’s memorial is more understated. Maybe she would have wanted it that way. It is described as a memorial fountain, but it is more like a babbling brook and kids have rolled up their pants legs to traverse the concrete loop of running water.
It’s my last night at Naina’s so I head back to Wimbeldon to enjoy a quiet dinner with her, Josh and her newly-arrived sister from California, Sonja. Naina and Josh have made a nice cozy place for themselves despite the challenges of having to hang dry their clothes versus drying them in a dryer, dealing with poor customer service or longing for ziplock bags, band-aids that stick and other things you never thought you’d miss back in the States. But I think any place where you where you connect with good people over food and wine for good conversation can feel homey and their place feels that way. Another London ex-pat perspective to come from my friend Ugo.