Sigmund Freud was fascinated by the relationship between the words heimlich and unheimlich. Heimlich is what is comfortable, agreeable, and known. But, curiously, at some point it also acquired the meaning of what is hidden, uncertain, and therefore frightening that would come to be expressed by its antonym: “Thus heimlich is a word the meaning of which develops in the direction of ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite.” Unheimlich, however, not only functions as heimlich‘s opposite; it also literally contains it, and this fusion projects the fear of the unfamiliar onto the familiar. What Freud, developing this idea, came to call unheimlich, the uncanny, was the profoundly ego-disturbing experience of strangeness in the ordinary.
I am a sucker for unheimlich. It is one of the reasons why, every time I can, I visit my friend Miss H, whose basement once served as an alms house cemetery where young children who had been autopsied at the Philadelphia medical school were buried (contractors found sixteen minuscule coffins, really!). In between eating her fabulous cooking, drinking wine, and watching sports events on a giant TV, I can never help feeling like an impious desecrator, which is totally BADASS.
All of which is to explain why, when trying to decide what to do for our London gallivanting on Monday, I insisted that Miss L and I head directly to the Old Operating Theatre (and, being my comrade-nineteenth-centuryphile-in-arms, she immediately agreed). It was the day of Stage 3 of the Tour de France, from Cambridge to London, and I almost wanted to stay here just to give myself the pleasure of shouting as they passed: “Turn back!!! You are in ENGLAND!” But enochlophobia prevailed and off we were to what was a very unheimlich location indeed:
Tucked between horrible modern apartments and the Shard is a tiny turret in whose tiny garret one can see the grisly instruments of early nineteenth-century surgery,
and whose operating table (with a sawdust box that you can’t see underneath, to catch blood and guts)
would have fit right into a medieval torture chamber (but I’d still kind of like it in my house as an antique). It is one of the oldest surviving operating rooms in Europe (founded in 1822) and was used through 1862, when the ancient St. Thomas Hospital was relocated and the garret blocked and forgotten through its rediscovery in 1957. John Keats may have trained there before being completely grossed out by pre-pubescent medicine and deciding to regale us with his poetry instead: “‘My last operation was the opening of a man’s temporal artery,’ he wrote to a friend. ‘I did it with the utmost nicety, but reflecting on what passed through my mind at the time, my dexterity seemed a miracle, and I never took up the lancet again.'”
This excursion, of course, had to be followed by at least a saunter past 221B Baker Street, an address that never actually existed and is thus–once again, uncannily–located at 239 Baker Street:
But more unheimlich perhaps was our stroll around the posh Marylebone shopping area, where we only managed to arrive after all stores were closed and streets deserted, confessedly because we couldn’t resist stopping for a delectable champagne cocktail at the gorgeous (but also eerily empty) courtyard of André Balazs’s brand-new Chiltern Firehouse (and it has been established I have a thing for Balazs ventures).
Well, also confessedly, that came after our stop at the Savoy Hotel’s American Bar.
Actually, bars aside, there’s been a lot of indulging in very nice restaurants, tearooms, and even an afternoon at an apple orchard (that Virginia Woolf apparently frequented) for tea, by which we mean Pimm’s with Lemonade. That last outing ended rather badly when we couldn’t find the Grantchester bus stop and ended up walking and walking along winding country roads, just like Freud: “After having wandered about for a time without enquiring my way, I suddenly found myself back in the same street, where my presence was now beginning to excite attention. I hurried away once more, only to arrive by another detour at the same place yet a third time.” This went on until someone announced she had to pee IMMEDIATELY in what she appraised as a secluded forest:
I won’t say who it was, but I’m the one who was left to take the photo of the fence clearly marked “Private Property” while holding on to all the handbags. And yes, that is the property owner’s car approaching.
Truly unheimlich is the sheer quantity of gluten-free options (familiar food, made unfamiliar!) available to Miss L EVERYWHERE we’ve been. Gluten-free Eggs Benedict at Harriets Café Tearoom, gluten-free chicken wrap and chocolate hazelnut cake at Costa Coffee Shop, gluten-free coconut macaroons at (the most gorgeous medieval) Michaelhouse Café, gluten-free breaded/fried soft-shell crab at Royal China Club in London, etc etc etc… But the Oscar goes to Jamie Oliver’s Jamie’s Italian in Cambridge, where not only did they assure us the truffle chips are absolutely not battered: they are made in a dedicated fryer where no other food that could contain the slightest speckling of flour is ever cooked. This is all, according to Miss L’s mom, because apparently the British have one of the highest incidences of celiac disease anywhere in the world. Or something like that (I did find some references to prevalence in Ireland and, interestingly, the Basque country, where I am heading next week).
So now Brasil lost to Germany (“in humiliating and brutal fashion“), and tomorrow I will attempt to get some serious work done after Miss L leaves. Which is causing me great anxiety given that she has been in charge of all our communications because, although I am purportedly a near-native English speaker, I DO NOT UNDERSTAND THE BRITS. Their vocabulary is puzzling (on hotel web site: “There is something infectious about The Wesley”), their directions are bizarre (“it’s close to Jesus”), and when they talk to me I feel like I’m in the cowboy scene from Bienvenido Míster Marshall. And that is the most uncanny feeling of all.
Should I not perish before leaving for Spain on Sunday, I shall be heard from at some point near that date. In the meantime, I predict a Germany-Netherlands final, although I would like Messi to win a World Cup all on his own.
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