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Christmas in London

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Photo: Jasper James

The ambitious Cotswolds itinerary Charles and Susie devised on a dinner napkin the previous night leads me over hills and dales and through village after village. As they predicted, the monotony of the yellow stone soon becomes soothing. One highlight is a stop at Daylesford Organic, near Kingsford—a wonderful farm with low-slung, airy retail buildings selling local foods, tea, and lunch. But the real thrill is the portable GPS device that came with the Golf. It’s not a talking but a mute GPS, which I am sure I prefer without any basis for comparison. I am a GPS virgin, and GPS steals my heart. After a few hours of lovely landscapes, mapless confidence, and not enough to eat, giddiness sets in. "Let’s get lost!" I think, and turn randomly just to see how GPS will take it. The reward is a two-lane road bound by lush fields and picturesque cottages, then a one-lane road that does not widen as it passes through the village of Condicote. The stern brown that GPS paints the road to signify uncharted territory changes back into a cheerful yellow and green. Planetary coordinates have drawn a line to London.

Arriving at the Covent Garden Hotel immediately inspires some scheming. How might I arrange for Kit Kemp—whose outsize design talent has made this the most sophisticated, comfortable, and otherwise completely pleasurable hotel I have ever set foot in—to make my apartment in New York feel just the same?Rather than join Elizabeth, Sara, and Alex for Indian food in the East End, my stomach and I choose to stay here and eat in the Brasserie Max.

In the Cotswolds, I had put aside Lawrence Wright’s 500-page tome about Al Qaeda to read a borrowed Regency romance novel by Georgette Heyer and now feel a strong desire to return to its text-as–Yorkshire pudding comforts. Dion the concierge says he’ll try to track it down at a neighborhood bookshop. He delivers it just as a very good risotto with winter truffles and wild mushrooms, spinach, and crispy "crackers" of pure Parmesan arrives. I’ve been admiring the little framed artwork close by, a "Hey, let me draw you a picture" moment under glass, in which a small brown bird looks out from a canopy of rounded moss-green leaves. It is not cute but touching, in a hotel that feels like home, with Georgette Heyer to read, and fresh lemongrass tea before bed….

Being alone has been a blessing, but a mixed one. Now might be the time to confess that the stresses of this holiday have been intense. During the past few days, Elizabeth and I had become trapped in a dispiriting accumulation of repeated mutual misunderstandings. The truism is exasperating: not just family but friends who are like family are vulnerable to the anxiety that rears up around the annual pressure to find joy and peace. We bickered about the stupidest things: whether to take a taxi or the tube; where the matches were; who had the key—in general, who knew best about what mattered least.

But the faith of the nonbeliever amounts to sticking it out. It has to get better.

Around noon one day, on our way back from the nearby National Gallery, we wander across Trafalagar Square to the St. Martin-in-the-Fields. A flier advertises the year’s last lunchtime holiday concert, which is just about to start. We go in.

Little boys dressed in white shirts with green bow ties and cummerbunds file out, gleeful but orderly. They stand close together and vary in height, like the pipes of a church organ. The large altar window shimmers behind them: pale, pearly blue-green panes of stained glass surrounding deeper blue panes that form an exquisitely simple cross. The boys suddenly yank us out of contemplation with a Broadway beginning ("Let There Be Music!"), then keep us guessing as they careen—always adorably—from "Cantate Domino" to Gershwin’s "Lullaby" to a reggae "Angels Rejoicin’ " to an uneasy vocal medley of "The First Noël" and "Pachelbel’s Canon," their final number. An encore of Fats Waller’s "The Joint Is Jumpin’ " leaves Christmas in the dust. I think I liked it a little better than Elizabeth did.

Friends have said the Dennis Severs’ House in the East End is not to be missed. It was derelict when an American (Severs) bought it in the 1970’s and eventually appointed it with antiques and tableaux. We make an evening appointment for the standard self-guided tour. Once inside, you are asked not to speak. Tours are spaced so visitors don’t run into each other. The idea is that you enter a place just moments after someone from the days of yore has stepped out. In dim rooms, lit only by candles, oil lamps, and firelight, you smell half-finished meals; see mussed bedclothes; hear recorded dishes clanking and servants whispering. On the third floor is a small sitting room with low stools half-circling a fire; a voice is reading Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It reminds you that Christmas was about great stories long before it was about anything else.

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