Thursday, June 3, 2010

London 2003 - Dukes Bar, Tuesday night

Although I knew that K. would be busy tonight with the business dinner she had told me about in advance, I was proud that not only did I have productive (productive-seeming/sounding) solo plans but I was looking forward to them. Combining task (at least purpose) and vice (more kindly, indulgence), I was going to venture into the Dukes bar, past the imposing mahogany door that opened from the lobby. All I really knew about the bar was that I had seen nicely dressed people walk through the door and heard politely/moderately loud laughter drift out.

My bar-centered mission was to write postcards – I find drinking or dining alone in public more comfortable if I have some kind of mission or project underway, and writing becomes a much more involving type of project when the motivation/output (such as postcards) is designated – instead of left frighteningly, loosely (shades of drunkenly) creative. I had also had thoughts of starting a London trip diary tonight, but even after just three days in London, that scale of a writing project loomed as so giant that I knew I would need to have way more than my usual amount of wine (beyond personal responsibility considerations) to step across the anxiety threshold.

Given these considerations of otherwise scary writing scope, I was glad I had the postcards to focus on, and the idea of doing them in a bar seemed much more fun than doing them holed up alone in my room – or God forbid, schlepping the postcards home to mail from Texas. Home postmarking was surely the worst scenario for any travel correspondence.

As previously, I felt frumpily underdressed when entering the Dukes lobby, although (somewhat unusually for me) today I was at least monochromatic in a brown sweatshirt (a generic brand from Oshman’s) which almost matched my brown stretch jeans (another generic brand, from Mervyn’s). Most of the few other guests I had seen at Dukes looked posh to a somewhat intimidating degree, which was not surprising considering the price of the rooms at Dukes – although of course I wasn’t paying for the room, I had peeked at prices on the web as soon as K. gave me the name of the hotel. I had seen one no-nonsense blond type guest (not a young, trendy blond – more like a Camilla Parker-Bowles) wearing tennis shoes, but the shoes were immaculately clean and worn with a pinstripe double-breasted shirtwaist dress. I can’t say the dress looked good with the shoes but the contrast did upgrade the footwear a bit.

It was a little scary opening the door to the Dukes bar without any previous view of what went on inside. And walking in, I wasn’t sure if it helped or made me more uncomfortable that the bar was so intimate (i.e. small like the lobby) – two rooms, each almost smaller than private home living rooms (and filled up with more tables and upholstered chairs than you could cram into your home), a partial wall with a fireplace between, and a bar counter to the left. The first room seemed to have more people in it so I walked toward an empty table (that just happened to be near the bar) in the farther room, trying not to think about whether people I passed were looking at me – all the conversations sounded to be in alcohol-fueled high gear so maybe no one noticed the new arrival. I felt a little bad about taking up a table that had four chairs around it, but the few two-seaters were all occupied. The bar itself didn’t have stools in front and was used only as an area to serve from – in any case, I would have felt uncomfortable bellying up to a bar so petitely sized (the scenario would have seemed like getting drunk in a friend’s kitchen).

The bar furniture, although a bit commercial-looking (in the thinness of the upholstery, etc.), could have worked in a private living room, and the walls were painted a dark solid color like people use when they want to seem artsy or at least show off their artwork. I’m embarrassed (fearing my memory loss implies alcohol intake) to say I can’t remember the exact color of the walls – eggplant?, dark gray?, navy? – something that hovered on a borderline between classy and ugly.

Somehow the homelike setup and colors looked comfortable and elegantly natural here, whereas in the U.S. – other than maybe at really expensive hotels in some of the oldest, most traditional American cities – a similar setup would have looked like a decorating project, with the fabrics too shiny and the artwork looking too manufactured.

I had misunderstood the Dukes web site description of its bar, having gotten intimidated by the glamorous professional photos (and the hotel prices) and not comprehending the down-to-earth meaning of the adjective “comfortable”:

Famous for its Martinis, the bar at Dukes is a comfortable and relaxing place to enjoy the company of your friends or a contemplative drink [what a nice way of saying, “drinking alone”]. Guests can enjoy a cocktail or glass of champagne at any time [“any time” sounded intriguing…?], but perhaps it is best to wait until after the theatre before sampling one of the famous cognacs.
Even a Graffiti Wall poster had mentioned the Dukes bar (I should have realized that if a Rick Steves bargain-hunter acolyte had come here, the place could not be too glitzy), with the suave-sounding advice to “Ask for Gilberto, who makes the world’s best martini,” followed by the instruction to take a cab to such-and-such Italian restaurant in Soho. The restaurant was a logical follow-on of the martini experience, because “Gilberto can call his nephew the owner.”

Theoretically, I could have gone to that restaurant – I love Italian food, and before my trip I had promised myself not to skimp on nice meals in London, regardless of other budget concerns. That resolution had sounded good at home but so far my mood/energy just hadn’t been right for me to make an big effort to get somewhere I would eat alone – even on Sunday night I had settled for a place that I could easily walk to (and hadn’t actually eaten a meal there). K. had said that on previous trips she took cabs out to restaurants people had told her about – this was really her only exposure to London outside her office, since she usually only had time to get the day’s work done and then have dinner before bed. Her meal experiments were impressive compared to my having so far settled for simpler food closer to the hotel, but I thought she had sounded a little sad and lonely (though in a strong, brave way) when she talked about journeying out to eat by herself.

I thought my Dukes bar experience (once I relaxed a bit more on the question of whether people were wondering about me) would be a good compromise between the familiar (with my room right upstairs) and the new. The drinking aspect would provide some mood-shifting as my usual thoughts and hangups were shifted around a bit – sitting alone at a public place where the meal was the focus, and forking up pieces of food in a conversation-less vacuum, was less appealing.

With my vantage point facing the bar, I immediately noticed a dark-haired person delivering drinks who looked like the unnamed man pictured on the Dukes site next to the description of The Bar. The professionally posed web photo had captured him deftly placing a twist of fruit peel in a fresh martini, surrounded by a full bottle of gin, a silver dish piled high with olives, and a plump round citrus fruit that had a strip of peel missing. Without stepping out of my introverted zone to ask someone, I couldn’t tell if this was the web-famous Gilberto. He did look a bit young to have a nephew who was a restaurant owner, but maybe Italian men aged more attractively in London than they did in the U.S. (at least, as pictured on “The Sopranos” TV series).

Another hotel-uniformed man seemed to spend more time behind the bar than at the tables, but that didn’t necessarily mean he was Gilberto either. This guy was short and wiry, with a craggy face and thick silver hair – he looked kind of like an Italian-esque (and shorter) version of the actor Sam Elliott. (The real Sam has had an impressive, although somewhat B-level, career in supporting roles and had recently been on-screen quite a bit – 2002’s well-regarded “We Were Soldiers” was followed by “The Hulk” in 2003. He has been married to actress Katharine Ross, who he met on the set of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” for two decades, which is surely close to being a Hollywood marital record. My friend Pam went to college with Sam but turned down a date – Sam had not exactly blossomed yet, personality- or looks-wise, and in her own bloom of sexy blond youth, Pam felt she had better options.)

Although I saw both Sam Elliott and the dark-haired younger man do things with a cocktail shaker, I wasn’t really tempted for a martini. I knew that not having one would weigh heavily with the nephew’s-restaurant Italian meal on the list of opportunities I was missing while staying here, but I really wanted a drink I could nurse while (coherently) writing. My alcohol consumption goes up and down, but my tolerance for the effects seems to decrease with each year and in my 40s, I have become very cautious regarding mixed drinks.

When Sam Elliott asked what I wanted to drink, I said a glass of Chardonnay, hoping it would turn out to be something approaching the wine at the Terrace on Sunday – unfortunately, it didn’t occur to me that since I was at Dukes and not Le Meridien, I would end up with the same poor runner-up that had been served with my BLT from Dukes room service. Heard and seen up close, Sam’s Euro-gravelly voice and rough appearance (I would say “rugged” appearance, but that seems more like a Hollywood Sam Elliott term than one for a London Italian waiter) reminded me even more of the movie star, who some critics and fans lament was born too late to capitalize on the cowboy films he would have best suited.

My remaining guilt at taking up a table for four had taken a delicious turn over my enjoyment of the table’s dishes of mini cheese crackers and mixed nuts (which were just as good as Le Meridien) – generous portions of both, with me as the only consumer. My glee diminished somewhat when I remembered I hadn’t washed my hands after using the computer keyboard and mouse after who knows how many other people – but this thought didn’t occur to me until about five handfuls each of nuts and crackers had been consumed, so I figured the contamination had probably already occurred and there was little point in getting up to go to the ladies’ room.

I just loved these nuts, and I was intrigued by them – the variety and freshness of the nuts and the generosity of the portion might be a European thing (since I hadn’t encountered it in America), but with my stubbornly Colonial viewpoint, I couldn’t stop believing that bar nuts were an American concept. However, the assortment (cashews, almonds and pecans, or maybe they were walnuts) didn’t contain peanuts, so this placed it in a different category than peanut-reliant American bar offerings. I especially admired the flavoring of the London nuts – not smoky and salty, but just the right amount of salt. I was still probably taking in too much salt but I wasn’t aware of it, and surely this unknowing state is the food experience that every consumer wants/needs.

I was still a little nervous about coming in alone, but I continued to take comfort from the official-seeming folder containing my work project and my sense of purpose in pulling things out of the folder. As I worked on my postcards, congratulating myself on the cool ones I’d picked out and thinking/hoping they made me look tasteful/discerning and not like your average Euro-tourist, and managing to write something different on each one, the bar traffic thinned and Sam Elliott became increasingly attentive to my table.

I had allowed myself to gulp the first glass of wine so as to get my writing juices going, but I really did try to slow down after that for literary clarity (if for no other reason). However, Sam E. was doing that dangerous thing – which rarely happens in most restaurants because the waiters are too busy and/or the managers are too cost-conscious – of topping up the glass frequently, so that I lost all sense of how much I was drinking. During the course of my Dukes Bar evening, I have a vague awareness of having had 7 or 8 half-glass refills, which I guess comes out to about 4 total glasses. Surely this was way too much for my small stature and my increasingly middle-age tendency toward water retention, but it’s difficult to refuse an Italian man with a ready wine bottle (I don’t mean for this last phrase to sound as dirty as it might).

Not surprisingly, my lips felt gradually looser and I began to get a bit more conversational with Sam E. At one point I held my hand up over the top of my glass (I was already at that point of questionable sobriety where I had to carefully measure the motion so I didn’t tip the glass over) and when he poured more anyway (which was easy for him to do since my hand wasn’t really all that close to the glass), I told him I was getting out of control and could no longer write articulate postcards. I had just caught myself crossing out the words “acceptable” and then “respectable” in my attempt to produce the word “perspective” on a Stonehenge postcard to Tim. In a way this didn’t matter, since Tim is a very understanding brother and it wasn’t Tim’s only postcard – I was sending him a series of three cards like he has sometimes sent me from trips (it must be a weird family thing) but I know he is very conscious of proper grammar and spelling (in a non-judgmental way). Bottom-line, it wasn’t a problem to send Tim a card with words crossed out but it was important that the final word be correct, and I was losing confidence that I could evaluate whether any of my final words were correct.

I didn’t go into all this detail with Sam E., but my no-more-wine message finally came through loud and clear. In a classic (Italian?) macho manner, he shrugged away my (probably fake-seeming) protest and growled, “You sound like my wife…” as he poured me another half glass. (When Sam Elliott finally agreed that I could stop downing wine and brought me my check, I saw that I was only being charged for two glasses of wine. This struck me as an interesting concept of customer service and guest-consumption liability.)

Slightly past the midpoint of my wine refills, I heard someone say, “Sarah!, I didn’t know you were here!” Immersed in creative postcard phrases and Chardonnay, my temporary befuddlement at the interruption led to a gratifyingly free-and-loose sensation (almost like, “What continent am I on?”) before I recognized K. as the speaker. She was in full business-to-evening (less authoritative and more gushy) mode and dress, perhaps with an alcohol enhancement of her own. After a maybe slightly guilty sounding, “I didn’t know you were here?!” she introduced me to her business acquaintance François with the tag, “Sarah has already seen more of London than I have.” François was young and attractively dark-haired, from Belgium, and I was later told he likes the ladies – I realize this information plus the inclusion of the “ç” in his name seems like another Euro-cliché, but apparently such types really do exist on the Continent. It was fun although a bit startling to have my solo outing interrupted by someone I knew, and I made chit-chat with the two of them about Stonehenge in what I hoped was a more animated than inebriated fashion. After K. said, in a tone somewhat confiding of her own intake, “The martinis here are so delicious…don’t you think?” I stopped trying so hard to act sober, lt my enthusiasm flow and let my hands wave about for emphasis. What the heck, we were all in European mode here… I said I hadn’t been disappointed in one sight that I had seen so far. I believe I also made some quirky comments about the Stonehenge sheep, which I hope I was able to relate back to whatever point I was trying to make.

After K. and François went off for their 9:30 reservation (how Continental was this?! – a late dinner, and at a French restaurant), I maintained my glow of satisfaction about my week in London. Maybe glass-full metaphors are too obvious for philosophizing that takes place in a bar setting, but I tend to be a glass-half-empty, negative perceiver and this focus on the good stuff (the glass-half-full perspective) was new to me. I continued to be surprised at myself when I told people that I genuinely was enjoying the sights and truly was not disappointed in the trip so far.

Maybe I had had a sudden leap in maturity and my London good feeling was a combination of well-managed expectations and self-fulfilling prophecy, in that I had repetitiously told myself that if I could just get over the ocean, everything would be OK. I’m usually so much better at the negative repeated messages than the positive ones, but maybe this time the mind-over-matter focus of so strongly wanting to go on this trip actually helped me to achieve a positive slant on things. Or possibly, because the whole flight aspect of the trip was so horrible to contemplate and only slightly less horrible to endure, I was overextended worry-wise from the over-ocean part of the trip and had only calm positivity left to face my on-ground adventures – I wish managing my anxiety was really as simple as this theory tries to make it sound.

I wasn’t sure what time I had started the postcards but it was feeling like two hours ago, or some other long period – multiple postcards are like Christmas cards, the addressing and individual note-making aspects always take much longer than one thinks they will. The addressing part had been easy since I had such a neat list to start with – I continued to feel almost giddily self-congratulatory over having a cleaned-up, large-font list to copy from, even though it wasn’t pristine since I had written “Ps” and “Ds” on it to remind me at Christmas which people needed to be sent a Photo of our dogs and which also needed a signature from the Dogs (a couple of people have actually called me when I forgot to sign for a dog, asking, “Has something happened to Marley – did you not want to tell us?”). After some dithering over whether more people should get postcards, or more of the people I had already sent to should get additional postcards, or whether I should keep more postcards for myself, I put the postcards aside with a sense of accomplishment…and actually felt like making a few trip journal notes.

The trip notes had to be done on the back of the address list since I hadn’t wanted to intimidate myself (inhibit my writing impulse) by bringing a writing pad. I tried to start out in day and time sequence but as I thought of more “important” things that I really had to record, the calendar structure loosened up. Making travel notes feels like a big “suck” of concentration and energy although in some ways the intense involvement is enjoyable, as if I am doing something important – when really, all I’m doing is spouting off about my food and drink indulgences and my half-formed philosophies. The most suck-like aspect is that once I start making trip notes, no matter how tentative and sketchy they are, I feel like I need to write more and more, and record still more supposedly humorous and interesting happenings and layered complexities of trip angst – the pull to get everything written down intensifies.

I did start to feel that suck in the Dukes bar but since I hadn’t started the trip notes until after the postcards, I soon got tired and even the suck could only pull me so far. I only wrote a couple of pages, and I was able to keep my notes very brief instead of getting into the crazed-feeling, long and detailed paragraphs that I sometimes do.

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