Putting on the Ritz

         When I got to London, the weather was typical for late Autumn in Shepherds Bush, dry, overcast, and breezy. My sister’s flat was up on the second floor. She wasn’t home so I followed her directions to locate the key and let myself in. I struggled up the narrow stairway, dropped my bags in her bedroom, and opened the window in the living area. I struck my head out into a quick rush of wind, breathing in the freedom of a short business trip away without my husband and teenage sons. I loved my sister’s cozy flat and her neighborhood with tree lined avenues crouched between rows of Victorian, proudly standing, terraced homes. All around, small articulate front gardens popped with color and twirled with gusts of leaves scratching around fallen pink geranium petals. Mostly, the houses were three or four stories, and over the years, had been converted into flats.

I loved my job, and this was my first ‘all expenses paid’ adventure to the big city by my Edinburgh based interior lighting company. The Covent Garden area of London, loaded with architects and interior designers, had recently been added to my sales patch already covering Ireland and the West of Scotland. I was good at selling stuff, but in that world, you are only ever as good as last week’s sales figures. In my new found celebration of success I decided to show off a bit to my younger sister. The next morning, we would go out and have tea at the Ritz, utilizing my shiny new company credit card.

Sure enough, in the morning, the taxi picked us up and we shot off into town. The weather had turned wet and a bit colder forcing us to pull on coats over our best outfits, mine not that fashionable! However, the hackney cab pulled up outside the Ritz Hotel, in Piccadilly, and out we bounced laughing and carrying on like a couple of giddy girls. We pretended to get stuck in the revolving door joking and having a great time to ourselves. We went around a few times. When the door eventually threw us into the foyer, time froze. The four string quartet continued to play, but pinky-up women in chiffon hats and jewels looked at us with such disdain. Formal morning wear was the preferred attire! Oh dear! The Maitre d’ approached us with the same courtesy as he would royalty, however his acknowledgment of our lesser stature, in a room filled with duchesses and dukes, was rather palpable. He lead us to our table, pulled out or seats and when we sat, pushed then back in for us. He then reached out gesturing for our coats. We timidly gave them up and he walked off holing them at arm’s length, like we had just handed him a dog’s bed. We burst out laughing again drawing a few more harsh looks. It felt like breakfast at Downton Abbey and we were the scullery maids being waited on by Carson

The menu lay atop bone china and highly polished actual silverware, it felt heavy. Our waiter showed up and bid us good morning. He motioned to a waitress, dressed in a black long sleeved dress with white frilly apron and hat, to place fluted crystal, with orange juice and champagne on her silver tray, in front of each of us. His appearance resembled a window display at Harrods or Selfidges. He wore a black jacket with long tails and striped gray pants with white shirt and, get this, white gloves. He had one arm behind his back, the other bent across his chest with immaculate white linen napkins hung over it. He shook out the napkins one by one and placed them on our laps. We dared not move or respond in any way. He took our order, my sister chose white crab sandwiches with India tea, I chose salmon sandwiches with Earl Grey tea. In a flash, or so it seemed, our tea and sandwiches arrived and the waiter poured out tea from individual silver teapots. He bent forward asking, “Will there be anything else Madam?” We shook our heads and he walked off ending the ritual, for now.

Gracefully, we dipped our hands into the doily laden china and drank down the booze. Turning our heads as we ate, with pinky fingers up, we surveyed this genteel place as the classical music played on.

We started a rather intellectual conversation of our own and morphed ourselves into the aristocratic environment like chameleons. It seemed to be working. Paying no mind to previously learned impulses and behaviors, we proudly ate postage stamp sized sandwiches, slathered with watercress and cucumber, with expensive knives and forks afforded by this luxurious upper crust establishment.

That’s when it happened. My sister glared at my tea plate with an alarming look on her face! The waiter was coming to clear away the dishes. I glanced at my plate. Oh God! I ate the doily! The outer edges were still crisp, pretty, and lace, but the center was gone. I ate it! Oh no! How can I hide it. Quickly I threw my napkin up over the table, to cover my embarrassment. The waiter picked up each napkin by the tips of his lily white gloves and shook them. My face burned in total mortification as he omitted a punishing ‘Tut tut,’ under his breath.

When he returned with the bill, I gave him the credit card and a nice tip, by way of ‘hush money.’ He nodded a faint forgiveness in my direction. We left our seats under the same formality as we had taken them. With our coats returned to us, we took the stairs to the ladies’ room and immediately burst into fits of laughter. What a relief to be out of that stuffy stuck up world where one is judged by any departure from expected protocol. It felt as though we were in time out for bad behavior. Out through the revolving door we went, laughing and spilling fancy soaps and lotions from our pockets onto the wet sidewalk, while inside the music played on.

We hailed a cab and were gone. Over the years since, I have developed a fondness for Earl Grey tea, but never drink it without thinking about my sister, whom I love dearly, and our brush with aristocracy, while putting on the Ritz.

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White Peaks

Go Skiing they said! It will be fun they said!

Even though I am from Scotland, a land known for it’s breathtaking mountains and snowy white peaks in winter, I had never ventured onto white powder before. It was January in Nevada and the Heavenly slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains were calling. Not to me, but to my fiance an avid skier. The trip, hurriedly arranged, took us from Tampa airport to Las Vegas, to Reno, where we packed into our rental four-wheeler and headed south. There were four of us, my fiance and I, his son and his buddy, both in their mid-twenties. Part way, we stopped and the men got out to wrap chains around the wheels to keep the vehicle from sliding on snow packed and steep roadways as we wound our way through the foothills. This was a serious snow trip!

Lake Tahoe resides partly inside the great state of Nevada, but also edges the California state border. I had never been to either one before and got pretty excited. As we waited in town at the light, snow started falling. I glanced to my right where a sign read ‘Welcome to California!’ It was a magical moment and my inner child delighted at the sight of pretty snow flakes falling, not seen since my childhood in West Central Scotland. I was in California, the land of Hollywood, make believe, and the place where dreams come true! This was going to be epic.

We parked at the Lodge and got all checked in. People were running in the snow wearing only white robes and slippers. I remember looking on in awe as they dropped their robes and, wearing only bathing suits in frosty temperatures, slipped into an outdoor hot tub with steam rising. I thought, OK it’s California and people here are a bit different, right? You will never catch me doing anything like that – ever! Fools!

Our accommodations were cramped, for four people, but manageable. The boys slept on the couches in the living area while the ‘older couple’ luxuriated in the small bedroom with closet space and a tiny bathroom attached. Outside the swimming pool had been covered with a thick blue tarp, it’s winter coat I imagined. No-one was in the hot tub so we stuck our fingertips in! Boy, it felt good compared to the biting wind chill that evening.

All gussied up in our glad rags, we ventured out and down into the underground tunnels linking the Casinos to the town. We strutted through spectacular playgrounds of the rich and famous like we owned the place. Everything sparkled and exhilaration hung in the air. I felt like I was experiencing my fifteen minutes of fame, everyone is supposed to get it in their life, in a world I had only ever seen on television. Enthralled by the absolute luxury of the interior design palate, the visual explosion of perfection and ambiance exposed me to new levels of possibility. I was captivated. The others headed for the bar and gambling tables. We all had a go at both. Inside a dinner theater we saw the Pointer Sister perform. The live show was nothing short of sensational.

Over dinner, my fiance, a double black diamond skier, suggested I should attend the beginners class for a few days to get used to the moves etc, on real snow. I had taken lessons at a local sports shop in Florida before our trip, however, striking the poses with straight back and bent knees on a plush white carpet rolling toward you (while you are adorned in all the designer gear), does not in any way prepare you for the real thing. Terrified at the prospect of ever going up the mountain, I acknowledged my lack of skill and agreed. I found out, rather quickly, that the toes together move, to stop you, is in no way helpful when you are going backwards, at a good clip, downhill toward the other beginners who don’t yet have the skill to even get out of the way. Disaster!

Then the scariest part surfaced, having to grab onto a rope, conveyor belt of sorts, while in the standing position with poles under my arm, to be pulled back up the hill without falling! What had I done to deserve this! The beginner’s course had been set out like a Westminster Dog Show for adults in snow on the side of the hill. We were in small groups each with a personal instructor who took us in turn to ask safety questions and run us through the bends and twists. In conversation with the group instructor assigned to me I discovered he worked at a local hospital as a Nursing Assistant. In an attempt to bargain with the mountain I told him I was a Nurse, but not just a Nurse, a Charge Nurse and also working on a Baccalaureate Nursing Degree. It was no good though, I didn’t get extra credit for that. The mountain didn’t care that I saved lives for a living, it loomed cold and insensitive above us all the while threatening to take mine. After four days of class I was let loose to do or die!

Meanwhile, the guys were having the time of their lives on snow boards and skis up on the caps, hurtling down through moguls and telling outrageous tales of victory, dares and near disasters, over dinner. I had nothing to add. Soon after I joined the others and became one of the white robe/white slipper people hurrying to the hot tub at the end of a day on the slopes. Soaking in the hot water soothed many injuries and strains to my muscles and joints, but mostly to my pride. Funny thing was we didn’t feel the cold afterward.

The next morning it happened. Up on the mountain I confronted my deepest fears. The chairlift tipped us out onto a slippery mound and I just kept going. Let me tell you people, there is no feeling in this world worse than the ground moving under you feet and you have no control over it! In a standing position, my body moved forward and downward with the momentum of a snowball rolling down a hill, with two long sticks clicked onto heavy rental boots strapped to my legs. What was I thinking!

My soul fled up into the sky for protection. People were there chatting on a flatter surface between the mound and the ski-slope and I was headed straight for them! Oh! No! Higher up on the mountain, it seemed, was where the elite gathered to compete in conversation about personal bests and skill level. I heard my voice yelling “Nice place to stand people!” as I shot through the gathering without crashing. Oh!God! Bridget Jones, in the movie The Edge of Reason, in that ski scene, had nothing on me.

Thankfully, my fiance waited a bit further along and out of earshot of my cringing squeal. Scared witless, I started down the slope behind him. He had suggested I get my skis in behind his and hold onto his belt and he would take it slow. He yelled out left! Right! Left!, when we had to lean in and take a turn together. The air was thin and crisp. As we descended, I think there were birds singing, but all I heard was my heart banging in my chest, my ears under a thick hat and muffs. Somehow we made it down. Hoping to live long enough to keep all my promises to God for that, I headed back to the chair lift with him and repeated this endeavor a few times over. On the last run he continued to yell out to me, left! Right! Left!, as we made turns in unison, but somehow I didn’t have enough strength or something and my skis didn’t pull the same way they had before. Next thing I remember he yelled “Left! Left! Left!…” Then, crash!

My head hit the snow and his head hit mine. We were on our backs, inches from a deadly drop on the edge of the mountain! After a minute or two of stunned realization he pulled me up and we checked each other out for obvious damage. There was none. I truly loved this man and trusted my life to him. One time, on the edge of a mountain, we both did exactly that.

On another day we decided to have lunch in a restaurant up in the heady heights. Fear of the decent kept me from enjoying one bite or one sip. I didn’t want to leave the fireplace it felt so cozy and romantic inside, but leave we did. The views on the other hand took my breath. Quiet peaks adorned in white mantles rose up into this celestial place as far as the eye could see. A bright blue sky above us seemed to mark the entrance to heaven.  I will never forget the stunning beauty of it with Lake Tahoe far below us like a sapphire in the snow. But wait! What! My skis were gone, someone had taken the wrong ones! Oh God! Even my fiance looked concerned by this. Skis are personally fitted and determined by the height and weight of the renter. What now!

We contacted the Ski Resort by land line inside the restaurant and a guide was sent up to meet us and escort us safely down! The young man arrived and assured us it would be alright. He would help us scramble up onto the top of the chairlift mound, which is not designed for arrivals, only departures. Luckily we were all three of us able to position ourselves to get onto the next empty arriving chair and off we went. The guide told us he would motion to the lift controller at the bottom to slow it down so it would be easy for us to get off. I had no skis, just the heavy boots while the men both had skis on. This seemed to be a good idea, only the pretty young woman operating the lift was happily chatting, with her back to the window, to another guide inside the booth and didn’t see any of the hand signals sent her way. Oh God!

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Next thing I know, the two men scooped me up under my arms placing me in front of the chair on solid, but slippery ground. The chair caught up with us and hit me on the bottom, then again, and again, and again. Slipping and struggling to walk on the ice we continued this pantomime for several more feet until we were clear. In the hot tub that night, we laughed about it. Perhaps the Florida shop with the plush white rug should place a couple of bags of potatoes and unopened bags of flour underneath the carpet to simulate the real thing for first time skiers like me.

I have not been back on powder since that January trip, and doubt if I will ever do it again, but I cherish the memory of it dearly. It was scary, wild, strenuous, and very beautiful. Most of all it was fun. Some parts of it still scare me or make me shudder and other aspects make me laugh out loud, even to this day. Sometimes in winter when I close my eyes at night I can see those White Peaks piercing the bright blue ceiling above Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada mountains.