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Mon, 30 Nov 2009

Voyage de Noces Après Vignt Ans

As had been noted in my previous essay, one's honeymoon is in many ways a more challenging test of a newly-formed marital union than even living together can be.

Of course, there are the obvious pressures of wanting to perform in a more than satisfactory manner in the marital bed -- one is tempted to say the couple's memories in this regard should be at a minimum regarded as "salutary", and certainly, the more positive adjectives that come to mind the better. But combine the emotional decompression that results from the marriage ceremony actually being (finally) over with the need to get ready for the honeymoon departure, and it's not surprising that more than a few couples opt to take a pass on the actual evening of their wedding day and instead decide to consider the first night on their honeymoon as their first wedded evening together. My wife and I had talked about it in advance and decided this would be better for both of us: less rush, less pressure, and a more relaxed atmosphere, with the added frisson of being in a foreign country. And so we celebrated our new wedded life together with a bottle of champagne I had arranged with the hotel management to be waiting for us when we arrived, and, despite the difference in time zones and the apparent lateness of the hour, the experience was more than "salutary" in every way. We fell asleep in each other's arms a few hours before dawn.

We slept as late as we dared, still wanting to be able to get breakfast in the hotel before setting out on our day. The hotel's restaurant was small and offed only continental fare, but to us toast and tea were a fine way to start our adventures in London. We did not have a definite itinerary, just a couple of chores to take care of like exchanging our vouchers for tickets on the Underground, but the rest of the day was free to do a little exploring and see where our fancy took us. And just like that, we had our first unscripted adventure. Walking down Oxford Street, we passed a china shop which, of all things, had pieces of our china pattern in its window. (Our chosen pattern was somewhat unusual and not readily available back in the States -- our relatives had to special-order the place settings we received as wedding presents, and we had none of the accessory pieces.) We went inside and found they had a platter and a covered dish from our pattern on sale -- apparently they had been salvaged from another store what had suffered a fire -- and just like that, we had scored two key serving pieces at an extremely good price. As we walked back to the hotel to drop off our finds, I thought about it and considered what had happened a vindication of our do-it-yourself approach: it would have been extraordinarily unlikely that we would have even had the opportunity to visit the china shop on a more organized tour-type of packaged vacation.

After dropping off the china, we set out again to look for theater tickets for the evening. All of the very popular West End musicals were sold out, and we didn't feel strongly enough about any of them to pay the prices the ticket agencies wanted for them (just like here, the ticket agents act as a kind of organized and legal scalping operation for people who haven't been able to plan things months and months in advance). Along the way we did come across London's equivalent of the Time Square's TKTS half-price ticket booth, but the end of the line was nowhere in sight, so we decided not to spend the time waiting. It was off to the theatres themselves to look for a show that was not sold out which seemed worth seeing. We decided to see a two-man play about Sherlock Holmes starring Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke, who had played Holmes and Watson, respectively, in a television series we had enjoyed on PBS. The play itself turned out to be pretty mediocre, but the actors were first rate, and we enjoyed their performances immensely. We walked back to the hotel, searching for an Italian restaurant my wife had spotted earlier in the day, but we never found it. We settled for a room service meal back in our room (nicely-done steaks) and retired for the evening.

I think jet lag and pushing ourselves out so early on our first day finally caught up with us that second day. We decided to sleep very late and didn't get out of the room until almost 2:30 PM -- but again, because we were not at the mercy of a preset itinerary or a group, it was no problem at all. I was beginning to appreciate the advantages of taking a somewhat flexible approach to married life. We spent the afternoon in Covent Garden, me mostly watching my wife shop for various trinkets and bijoux to send as wedding presents to family and friends. I contented myself with purchasing a Paris guidebook from one of the book stalls. Afterwards, we were still searching for the Italian restaurant from the previous day, and, still not having found it, we decided to stop in at a different one we came across along the way. It was nice, and the food was very good, although each of us wound up with substitutions as part of our dinner -- one of my wife's trio pastas, and one of my trio sorbets for dessert were omitted, and the dishes became duos, not trios. I guess this particular restaurant had trouble with threes. Then it was back to the hotel, as we were leaving for Paris the following afternoon.

At breakfast the next day, we look like a couple of starving refugees as my wife packs extra rolls into her carry-on bag to nosh on later. Then we made a quick trip to the Post Office to mail our china and presents back home -- a trick I learned long ago as a way to avoid having to drag too much around for the next couple of weeks. Then it was off to the airport for our flight. At check-in, the agent informed us that there was a flight leaving in about an hour that we might be able to get on as standbys. We hurried to the gate, but it turned out there was only one seat free, so we ended up waiting for our planned flight anyway. I passed the time pretending to be absorbed in a copy of Paris Match I picked up at a newsstand; in reality, I was realizing just how rusty my French skills still were, despite some dedicated study in the months before the wedding. Well, I could read French a little better than I could speak it, and in any case, it was past praying for. The flight was similar to a New York to Boston shuttle flight, just a quick up-and-down, a little more than an hour in length. Customs in France was equally abbreviated (in those pre-9/11 days) -- the official barely looked at our passports, and didn't bother to stamp them. Then outside to a taxi, and my first attempt to speak French to the cabbie:

«Hôtel de Europe, Boulevard de Grenelle, s'il vous plait.»

«Quel numero à la Boulevard de Grenelle?»

Okay, one hundred and three. I think I remember how to say that.

«Numero cent-trois.»

«Cent-trois; d'accord -- okay!» The cabbie smiled and gave me a big thumbs-up, and we were on our way into Paris. Well, that wasn't so bad, and he seemed to appreciate my passable French, as simple as my few sentences were. Another good omen, I thought, as we drove into the city, along the Seine nearly to the Eiffel Tower, then down the boulevard to our hotel. The hotel was small, and the staff was very friendly, even sending up a small but very nice bottle of champagne for our first honeymoon night in Paris. We ordered pétit déjèuner (delivered to the room, no less) for the following morning, and made an early night of it.

The following morning, after our breakfast, we were off to find the Louvre, and therefore had our first encounter with the Paris Metro. Unlike London, although the various subway lines are shown in different colors, the navigation signs inside the stations only refer to the stations by number, and by the names of the stations marking the start and end of each line. (Thus, the line near our hotel was #6, Nation -- Place DeGaulle/Etoille. Naming the line by where it started and ended seemed very reasonable after a while, certainly compared to the system used in New York, where the subway lines are named after famous letters and numbers.) In any case, we quickly navigated our way to the Louvre.

I.M. Pei's new glass pyramid entrance to the museum was only about a year old, and I have to say it did strike me as being very out of place surrounded by the old palace. But the subterranean entrance was very nice (no queuing in the plaza any more) and it managed the flow of the crowds very well. I guessed at the time that it was one of those changes that would grow on you after a while -- which it certainly seems to have done.

In order to save time and wear-and-tear on our feet, once inside we decided to make as best a beeline as we could for the Egyptian antiquities, my wife's primary interest. Of course, it's nearly impossible to go any appreciable distance inside the Louvre without passing any number of other notable things, so we happened upon the Venus de Milo in the Greek and Roman halls on our way to the Egyptian thinigs. My wife, being enamored of all things pertaining to ancient Egypt, was thrilled to see all the statuary and artifacts; I was not quite as keenly interested, but I was very happy to see the look on my wife's face as we walked the galleries. After spending the entire day there and staying nearly until closing time, we finally left with our booty from the museum store and hopped on the Metro back to the hotel; we stopped at a marché near the hotel to get a kind of take-out supper: meat, cheese, bread, and a bit of sorbet for dessert -- very inexpensive, and enough left over for tomorrow as well.

We spent the next day visiting Saint Chappelle, Notre Dame, and the environs of the Ile de la Cite, the historical heart of the city of Paris. The churches were magnificent in all their flying-buttressed, stained-glass splendor. The gargoyles atop Notre Dame were equally impressive. They are supposed to frighten away evil spirits and guard the cathedral, but our guide confided that in some cases, the stone masons had a little fun, putting up uglified versions of the faces of church and municipal officials, or even bosses on the site who were not particularly well liked -- a very human and down-to-earth touch in an otherwise very spiritual place. The next day we spent at the Musée d'Orsay, just across the Seine from the Louvre. This was my special destination in Paris, as I had always been keen on the Impressionist school, and I was keen to see them in their new home in was once the Gare d'Orsay train station. The small gallery of early Impresionist works on the ground floor was quickly dispatched, and we spent most of our time on the huge top floor -- the glass roof of the station seemed, on this vividly sunny day, to be a most perfect method of illumination for these works which relied so heavily on the interplay of natural light and color. Then -- too soon! -- back to the hotel to finish packing for the flight back to Manchester in the U.K.

Upon arrival at Charles de Gaulle airport, we had one of our few bad experiences on our honeymoon trip: the British Airways flight attendants had been discussing having a "selected walkout" but up to then hadn't settled on what flight to strike. While we were in Paris, they did: our flight! The best that BA could do was to get us on a flight to Birmingham (about 70 miles from Manchester), and then put us on a bus to Manchester. We were planning to stay with some friends of ours who lived just outside Manchester, and I asked BA to arrange a taxi for us from Manchester to their house, given the late hour at which we would eventually arrive. The flight itself was uneventful, and even though the "bus" turned out to be a small fleet of minivans, we and our luggage eventually arrived in Manchester, and our taxi was waiting to take us to our friends' house in Stockport. After such a long day, it was nice to spend the night in a realbed.

The next day, our friends quickly convinced us that there wasn't that much to see in Manchester, and that we would find Liverpool much more interesting. That jived with my own recollection of the one other time I had passed through Manchester -- it struck me as a city that had seen better days. So after a couple of bus rides, we arrived in Liverpool. As run down as Manchester had seemed, Liverpool seemed, at first glance, to be even worse. Now part of that may have been due to the fact that we arrived there on a Sunday, and everything closes on Sunday. But besides the emptiness, there was a general run-down air about the place as well. We saw the City Hall and the old docks along the banks of the river Mersey from where great liners like the Titanic once sailed. Then it was time to head back to Stockport for a cold supper of ham and salad, followed later by beer and snacks as we watched TV before turning in for the evening. The next day was another travel day, this time a train ride from Manchester to Edinburgh for the Scotland leg of our trip.

Our next few days in Edinburgh were quite enjoyable, revisiting a number of places we had seen on previous trips (Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace, and the Royal Mile connecting them). I did manage to trip on the sidewalk at one point and gave myself a very painful turned ankle for the next couple of days, which limited our mobility to some extent -- but again, flexibility in plans saved the day, and we accomplished most of what we wanted to do with only some minor rearrangements in our overall schedule. But as much as we enjoyed Edinburgh (and the crowds, street musicians, and shows associated with the Edinburgh Festival) what we were really looking forward to were the Highlands, our favorite part of Scotland. And two days later, we were off (by train again) for Inverness. We arrived there and checked in at the hotel just across from the train station -- or rather, tried to check in, as the hotel didn't have our reservation (the travel agent had messed up, specifying our departure date as the arrival date on our reservation). But once again, our luck held true, and we were offered a room for which they had just received a cancellation: a large and luxurious suite, which we got for the price of our reserved room. We stayed up enjoying ourselves until nearly 3 AM, and set out the next day to explore the Highlands of Scotland by car.

We spent the next several days gallivanting around the northern reaches of Scotland, sometimes going back to old familiar places (Loch Ness, the Five Sisters of Kintail, and the road to Kyle of Lochalsh, which has what is to me the most quintessentially Scottish scenery in the country: tall mountains which come right down to the side of the road; streams and waterfalls; mist, clouds, sunlight, and shadow; all neatly knitted up into about ten kilometers of single-track roadway), and other times exploring new places. The City of Aberdeen on the northeast coast was a revelation, not so much for the city itself, but for the many castles located in the countryside around it. Some Scottish castles in this part of the country tended to be quite different from the traditional vision of a medieval castle -- no towers, no outside fortified walls, no moats, instead, remote locations set on top of hills, with a single, large, multistory structure more like an oversized, high-rise house. The castles around Aberdeen tended to places where people still lived, so much more emphasis was placed on grounds and gardens than on fortifications and battlements. (The portions of these castles where the families lived were generally off limits to us tourists, although we did manage to chat briefly with one of the family who lived in Craigevar Castle, who thanked us for coming all the way to "see our house" on our honeymoon, and especially for paying the £7.50 entrance fee, "which helps keep us all in this nice house and sipping the occasional glass of champagne.") We also spent a couple of days exploring the Isle of Skye, the largest of the Inner Hebrides islands, and where the isolation and nearness of the sea make for a unique culture even within the general life of the Highlands. More than once we had to stop and wait for flocks of sheep to cross the road in front of us as they moved from one field to another -- something only to be expected in a place where sheep outnumber people by more than twenty to one. Then, all too soon, we looped back to Inverness and boarded the overnight train back to London, which was a memorable experience mostly for the novelty of trying to make love in a train sleeper car bed -- the narrowness of the bed was one significant constraint, while the rhythmic rocking from side to side added an unusual set of sensations to the experience, as did the occasional strong jolts when the train was moving across tracks near stations: we learned to brace ourselves when we noticed the train slowing down for a station or a freightyard, although we were caught by surprise a couple of times, and I did once end up being pitched onto the floor of our compartment. Still, all in all, the sheer novelty of the experience more than made up for the minor bumps and bruises.

We stayed on the train as late as we could, then returned to the hotel for a few more days of sightseeing in London before packing our bags one last time for the return flight home. We returned to New York on a Friday afternoon, so we could have a couple of days to unpack and decompress before resuming our workaday lives on Monday.

So what did I learn about honeymoons from my own? Admittedly it is a small sample, but I think I can make a few generalizations: first of all, one shouldn't expect that a honeymoon will be an exceptional period in terms of the behavior and personality of your spouse and yourself. You are still the same people you were before you were married, and a nice vacation doesn't really change that. For example, when I twisted my ankle in Edinburgh, when my wife rushed up to help me, because of my embarrassment at having fallen face-first in the middle of the street for no apparent reason, I spoke crossly to her and she went away angry (and rightfully so, I might add). It's an unfortunate tendency I have, and all my affection and warm feelings towards my new wife didn't change that. It was an isolated incident, but just goes to show my point.

Second, to avoid unnecessary stress, make sure to plan your honeymoon in a way that matches your personalities and style. If all you want is two weeks with no decisions to make, a cruise or resort will probably suit you best. If you are more like my wife and me and can't stand being herded around and being told what to do, then you would do well to plan a trip more like ours, with particular cities on particular days, but with the makeup of any particular day fairly well open. Crossing yourself up vacation-wise is probably not a good basis for embarking on married life together.

Finally, don't forget to enjoy yourselves. Sightseeing in exotic locations is all very worthwhile, and dining in fine restaurants is a nice treat, but be sure to take a little time to just sit together enjoying beer and sandwiches in the countryside, a picnic just for the two of you, reveling in your couplehood, your togetherness, and the fact that out of all the people in the world she could have chosen, and knowing all your faults, your wife married you anyway. In many ways, that's the greatest gift you can be given -- on your honeymoon, or any time thereafter.

P.S. Pardon my French, but the title of last month's essay was a rather stupid literal translation of the word "honeymoon", which I have corrected here with the proper idiomatic term. Apologies for the error, and thanks as always to my wife for pointing it out.

Posted Nov 30, 2009 at 01:38 UTC, 3610 words,  [/richPermalink