Believe me or not, but every now and then I take a break. Usually it happens when I have a visit, and that's exactly what happened last week. My dear childhood friend Alyona came to see me. We talk on Skype often and thus keep in touch, but some time ago we stated with amazement that we hadn't met for two long years.
I had carefully prepared for the visit by attending to all urgent business and putting off everything that was even slightly less urgent. I did check my email in case anyone wanted to give me the Nobel Prize (nobody did) but short of that I was away from the academic world.
Alyona had visited me twice before, and some years ago we spent ten days in London together, making all the tourist things so there is not much we haven't seen and done in London, and we had exhausted most of the options in and around Cambridge during her previous visits. Thus the first day we went to see the Vermeer exhibition and walked around in town. I had a concert ticket and we tried to get another one, but it was sold out. We were not tremendiously upset because by the time we came home we really didn't want to go anywhere again. We sat by the fire and had tea and talked.
The next day we went first to our local garden centre and got a Christmas tree, because I thought that, since she happened to be around almost at the right time, we could put up the tree a bit earlier this year. While we were at it, we bought some pansies for the garden, only we never got round to planting them (I did it after she had left). Instead we went to Ely and the market, and we got a Botanic Garden cake stand from the same lady I had bought two cups before. She didn't remember me but pretended she did and gave me £1 discount. I had been looking for a cake stand, but hadn't seen any that I liked. Just another useless object. It is perfectly fine to put cakes on an ordinary plate. Or is it?
The Fire Engine teashop was booked up again, but we went to another place that I like and had tea; and then we spent quite a long time in the big antique shop without any particular ideas in mind, but playing our favourite game: guessing what different objects are for. Do you know what "a single rose vessel" is? I do now. We bought it. We didn't go into the Cathedral at all.
The next day, which was a Sunday, and therefore I wanted to get away from Christmas crowds, we went to Royston. Now, Royston does not feature in guidebooks as a huge tourist attraction, and I wouldn't know about its existence if London trains didn't stop there every now and then. But Royston is the home of what boasts to be the largest dollhouse shop in Europe and therefore a great temptation which I have been fighting for the past two years. The thing is, I don't really want anything from there because I have stated once and for all that things I make are better and more imaginative, and yet... Anyway, we spent about two hours driving around on motorways and small roads, and once again I thought that a smartphone with GPS might be a good thing to put on Christmas wish list. Fortunately, Alyona is just like me in this respect. But we didn't give up and eventually found the d-d shop and even managed not to buy that much, except that I discovered that a revolution has occurred in dollhouse making, but this is another story. Back home, we made a miniature Victorian wine table and almost made a cake stand, and it was definitely a memorable day.
I didn't want to go to London, but I felt that Alyona did, so on Monday we went, but we didn't even try to see the da Vinci exhibition. Instead, we went to the British Museum where you always make a discovery. Mine was this time the colour schemes of Philipp Otto Runge, which I am sure I had seen before, but you need a little impulse to really notice something. Then we wandered through the Egyptian rooms, fascinating as ever; then we took a walk to Covent Garden and browsed through the market and went into the newly opened Moomin Store, and then I suddenly remembered the Transport Museum. I had been there before, with a grandchild who is passionate about trains, but I realised that I had recently read so many 19th-century English novels where they ride horse-and-carriage, omnibus and the railroad, and indeed the display made much more sense after this reading. I can warmly recommend this museum, but stay away from the cafeteria!
We had bought off-peak train tickets, so when we were finished with taxis and buses we still had three hours to kill and went to V&A. Yes, I know, three museums in a day is way too much, but you can always find something new to see at V&A or revisit an old favourite. And we played the "what-is-it" game again. I notice that I am more interested in material culture these days than in painting.
Speaking of which, we spent Alyona's last day in Cambridge shopping. She had to get some Christmas presents to take home, and I had saved my shopping to do it with her. If you have followed my blog for a while you know how much I hated shopping for my daughter's wedding, and although I had much more prosaic goals thsi time, I surely needed support. We had great luck and found a variety of tops on sale; I tried on eight and bought four of them, so it was time and money well spent.
Somewhere along the road we decorated the tree. During all these days we kept chatting as usual, and for once I feel that we have covered most of urgent issues, such as husbands, mothers, children, career, illness, ageing and lost illusions; although we have already Skyped and emailed about all the important things we had forgotten.
When I emerged from this time-out I felt that I had been away for years.