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God Save the Teen
Mother and Daughter Agree: London Rules

By Paula Span
The Washington Post
Sunday, August 1, 1999; Page E01
   


Left to my own devices, I probably wouldn't have spent part of a London afternoon in the Doc Marten store in Covent Garden, carefully examining several floors of chic, clunky footgear. Left to hers, my 17-year-old daughter might not have thought to buy tickets to a revival of a Tom Stoppard play.

But because we were there together, on a week's mother-daughter excursion in honor of her high school graduation, we were looking for things to do and see that both of us could enjoy, or at least stand. Happily, there were plenty.

London lends itself to travel with teenagers. We make our kids Anglophiles early on, reading aloud from "Winnie the Pooh" and "The Wind in the Willows." By high school, thanks to our resolutely Brit-centric educational system, they're likely to have studied a fair amount of English literature and history.

They grasp why it's neat to encounter the Magna Carta. Wandering through Westminster Abbey and coming across Oliver Cromwell's burial place, my kid actually knew who the guy was and murmured, respectfully, "Dude." Recent movies like "Elizabeth" and "Shakespeare in Love" have only helped.

Besides, London is perennially cool, still a hothouse for music and fashion, film and publishing. The trends blossoming in Notting Hill Gate this summer will hit malls in Montgomery County next year. Meanwhile, when someone asks Emma where she got that awesome imported sari cloth draped around her dorm room next fall, she can have the satisfaction of saying, airily, "Oh, I picked it up at a flea market in Camden Town."

Our transgenerational picks:

* The Globe Theater. Take the tube to Mansion House, then walk past Burger King, across the Thames on the Southwark Bridge and into history. Every teen has read the Bard, with varying levels of enthusiasm, but seeing his plays staged in this two-year-old reconstruction of a 400-year-old theater goes a long way toward explaining why he still matters.

The thatched roof, open to the sky, means you risk jet noise and rain. Most of the 600 ticket-holders are groundlings (i.e., they stand); those who choose the pricier galleries sit on backless wooden benches. People drink coffee and beer. Twenty minutes into "Julius Caesar," with its all-male cast, the audience is rapt despite it all. Or because of it all.

Reserve tickets several weeks ahead at www.shakespeares-globe.org, or by calling the box office at 011-44-171-401-9919. Or phone the New York ticket agency Edwards & Edwards (1-800-223-6108).

* The British Library. The trove once housed at the British Museum--including sacred texts, illuminated masterpieces, great literary works in manuscript and wonderful letters--has been moved to this sleek new landmark on Euston Road, a 15-minute walk north. In the exhibition galleries, dimly lit to preserve the paper treasures, you can peer at the handwritten "Alice in Wonderland" that Oxford don Charles Dodgson (a k a Lewis Carroll) presented to his young friend Alice Liddell 130-odd years ago. Or at an 11th-century manuscript of "Beowulf." Or at Paul McCartney's dashed-off lyrics for "Yesterday." Headphones let you listen to additional gems from the National Sound Archive, including James Joyce reading from "Finnegans Wake" and Virginia Woolf throatily declaiming on the BBC.

Open seven days a week, free, and the gift shop sells Jane Austen mouse pads.

* Doctor Martens Department Store. A sort of shrine to wildly popular, forbiddingly expensive Docs, this brick building in the heart of Covent Garden features four floors of the latest styles (plus logo-ed socks, bags, sweats and T-shirts) at below-U.S. prices. It also features loud music, an international throng of young shoppers (most already wearing Doc Martens), studiously cool and multiply-pierced sales help and displays of customized Docs signed by pop stars like No Doubt, Natalie Imbruglia and Lauryn Hill.

Emma bought a pair of steel-toed oxfords for 60 pounds, $93 at the current exchange rate; by claiming the VAT refund at the airport as we left the United Kingdom (get the necessary paperwork at the store), the price dropped to about $90. A deal.

* Oxford. An excursion of particular interest to kids who are about to begin, are knee-deep in, or have recently survived the applying-to-college marathon. Trains leave at least hourly from Paddington Station, cost roughly $23 round trip, and deposit you 75 minutes later in the Mother of All College Towns.

Oxford University comprises 35 walled colleges whose sheer age--several date to the 13th century--and grandeur make Ivy League schools look like punky upstarts by comparison.

We escaped as quickly as possible from the bus-choked center of town and wandered down small alleys and side streets, in and out of whichever colleges were open to the public that day. The dorms and classrooms are off-limits, but visitors can walk wide-eyed through magnificent quadrangles, medieval chapels and some elegant dining halls where portraits of distinguished alumni--everyone from John Donne and William Penn to J.R.R. Tolkien and John le Carre went to school here--gaze down from the walls.

Final exams were underway, for which students had donned traditional academic regalia--black demi-robes, often pinned with a celebratory carnation. Several were relaxing afterward at the ancient Turf Tavern, down yet another tiny passageway, where we had salads for lunch.

My kid sighed that she wished she could go to school here. I advised her to think about becoming a Rhodes scholar.

* Camden Market. Kids who missed the '60s get another chance. At this weekend market--a cluster of them, actually, along Camden High Street--some stalls offer contempo cargo pants and Prada knockoffs. But the prevailing feeling, especially at the Camden Lock Market in a warren of brick stables and courtyards, is neo-hippie. Smell the patchouli. Buy macrame bracelets, embroidered peasant shirts and batiks, silver jewelry, henna tattoos. One merchant's boom box actually provided a soundtrack of "Street Fighting Man" and the theme from "Shaft." It was, pardon the expression, a trip.

To decompress, return to central London on the longboat that putt-putts slowly down the leafy Regent's Canal. Fifty minutes from Camden Lock to Little Venice, and you're back in the present.

Of course, the downside of traveling with a parent is that the nightlife, from rave clubs to pub crawls, is pretty tame. London is full of flashy discos and funky rock venues that spawn tomorrow's stars, and Mom was not keen to cap off a busy day of sightseeing with a visit to any of them. Nor could I feel comfortable with an underage daughter club-hopping solo in a strange city.

Movies and theater were therefore the post-dinner-hour recreation of choice; fortunately, Emma is a fan of both. The indispensable weekly "Time Out London" was our guide to the former; for the latter, the ticket agency Edwards & Edwards provided a faxed list of current plays before we left so we could reserve tickets.

On the other hand, having done the scruffy-youth-hostels-and-cheap-eats adventure myself years ago, I was primed for a decent hotel and some classy restaurants, and I had the credit cards to pay for them. There are some compensations for having your mum along.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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