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Alpacas and gypsies

Ian feeding his alpaca. Photo by David Lansing.

Ian took me around yesterday morning to have a look at some of the other residents on their estate, beginning with several alpacas. Cute little buggers. He made a little whistling sound and a juvenile camelid (alpacas belong to the same family as camels and llamas), newly shorn, mosied over to eat oats out of Ian’s hand.

I asked him about the shorn hair, which is quite valuable, and he said that at the moment it was in a heap in a garbage bag. “We’re not sure what to do with it,” he admitted. “We haven’t quite figured out how one goes about having a sweater or some socks made from alpaca hair. I mean, who do you give it to?”

Good point. I can’t imagine that there are a lot of women in their little village of Wiltshire with a thriving business weaving alpaca fibers. But then again, it can’t be terribly different from weaving wool, can it? Still, who would you give a bag of wool to and expect to get a sweater in return?

After feeding the alpacas, we went up the hill to the stables and Ian opened a rather large lock and pulled back the door. I asked why on earth he needed to lock up the stables way out here in the country. He said that shortly after they’d bought the estate, they’d had some saddles and other gear stolen. Evidently there’s an established band of gypsies in the area that will steal a car in one village then drive to another and just drive up to one country estate or another, stealing whatever is easily accessible. Not long after their saddles had been pilfered, the thieves returned, looking for more loot, and got stuck on the drive by the newly-installed electronic gates. So they just abandoned the car and fled into the woods.

I’ll bet they would have known what to do with a plastic bag full of alpaca hair.


The train to Westbury

Ian and Liz's little country house in Wiltshire. Photos by David Lansing.

Sunday afternoon I took the First Great Western train from Paddington to Westbury to visit friends at their country house in Wiltshire.

I just love saying that. Taking a train from Paddington to Westbury to visit friends in the country. It sounds so Bloomsbury, so Virginia Woolf-ish. Did she ever take the train from Paddington to Westbury? She must have.

This country house in Wiltshire is owned by two of my favorite people in the world, Ian and Elizabeth. Ian looks a bit like a graying Gene Wilder. He’s a very successful barrister. Remember when the Beatles Apple sued Apple computers for copyright infringement after Apple started selling music through iTunes? He represented Apple computers (and won). Amazingly enough, he was also a British ice skating champion in his youth (there’s a long, wonderful story about his skating career, but that will have to wait for another day).

Anyway, Ian and Liz invited me to spend a couple of days at their country house in Wiltshire, so Sunday I took the train. And when I got to the little station in Westbury, there was Ian, waiting for me. We drove ten or fifteen minutes through the green rolling countryside, not far from Stonehenge, and all the while I was thinking that any minute we were going to pull up to some drafty barn-like structure in a pasture full of sheep. Instead, when we got there, we actually had to pass through an electronic gate meant to keep their 150-plus deer inside their little deer park.

Ian stopped the car so I could take a look at a herd of about 30 or 40 deer rambling up the hill. “They’re mostly Sika deer,” Ian said, “although we’ve also added some red deer recently.”

And then we were coming down the hill and passing between two ponds, shaded with weeping willows, with a little wooden bridge over one of the ponds and a boathouse and a rowing skull and coots and ducks and geese. And up ahead was this “little” white stone, two-story country house that looked like some place Winston Churchill might have holed up to write his memoirs after the rabble threw him out of 10 Downing following the War, and there was Liz at the door in a gossamer summer frock holding a chilled bottle of Montrachet.

“Well, do come in and have a drink,” she said.

So I did. And I don’t think I’m ever going to leave.


Anna in the Nick of time

Nick, who has a tongue to rival Gene Simmons, just before getting lost in London. Photo by David Lansing.

One last story about Bebe’s party. Actually, this story takes place after the party had ended about 2 a.m. Sunday morning. It seems that a post-party, attended mostly by friends of Hardy and Bebe’s young adult children, took place at their house after the big soiree. One of the attendees was Nick, an extremely intelligent and thoughtful young man who graduated last year from Berkeley and is preparing to go on to graduate school to study marine biology or something. I give you the basic details of his education to let you know that he is an extremely smart kid, the following story not withstanding.

Obviously there was a fair amount of booze consumed at Bebe’s party. And then just a tiny bit more was consumed at the post-party. So when Nick finally decided he needed to head back to his hotel, shortly after three in the morning, he was a bit wobbly. And disoriented. In fact, he had no idea where his hotel was (despite the fact that it was only about a block away from the post-party). So he wandered around for a bit, in his dishdasha and green and gold prayer cap, lost, until he had the somewhat good sense to call his younger sister Anna, who’d long since gone to bed, and ask her how to get to the hotel.

Under normal circumstances, Anna probably would have thrown on some clothes and gone to rescue her brother, but since it was so late and he was only a block away from the hotel, she simply gave him instructions and went back to sleep. Until the phone rang about an hour later. This time there was a London policeman on the other end of the line.

Evidently Nick had been unable to locate his hotel, as close as it was, and so had decided to head back to Hardy and Bebe’s house to ask for assistance. But instead of ringing their doorbell he’d rung that of a neighbor. Who looked out her window and saw a young man in Arab clothing staggering around on her doorstep at three in the morning. Of course, she did the sensible thing and immediately rang up the police who arrived moments later.

When Anna showed up, moments after getting the call from the police, Nick was still trying to explain to everyone why he was wearing a dishdasha and kufi cap and why he’d rung the doorbell of a complete stranger at four in the morning. Anna took over. And amazingly, the two police officers not only believed her story about the Middle Eastern costume party they’d been to that night but also released Nick into her custody with the understanding that she would immediately escort him back to the nearby hotel. Which she did. With the officers trailing close behind in their vehicle.

So everything was fine. Until Nick, for some unknown reason, decided to lift up his dishdasha while standing in the lobby of the hotel and, just as the patrol car was about to depart, started giving the officers a little belly dancing demonstration.

At which point Anna grabbed her brother, blew a kiss to the stunned police officers, and rushed upstairs, dragging her drunk brother behind her. Where, one can assume, Nick spent the rest of what was left of the night blissfully passed out.

Ah, youth.


Photo by David Lansing.

Hardy spent at least six months planning Bebe’s birthday party. And, as these things go, the plans just got bigger and bigger as time went on. He signed off on belly dancers, snake charmers, fortune tellers, and even a harem to give guests massages. At one point he was thinking of getting a couple of camels for the party but it seems London has some sort of strange restrictions on allowing camels on to the grounds of the Banqueting House just because a couple of English kings once lived there. Pity.

So, no camels, but the belly dancers were a hit. They stood on cubes along the entrance into the hall, gyrating like Middle Eastern versions of go-go dancers from the 60s. Everyone was fascinated by them, particularly, it seemed to me, the women. So, of course, everyone wanted to have a photo taken of them with a belly dancer. But the thing was, the belly dancers have their own guild or union or something and, just like the “no camels in London” policy, there are rules for what you can and can’t do with a belly dancer. Evidently one of the big no-no’s is touching the girls. Even if it’s just to take a photo.

Naturally enough, I couldn’t resist trying to get that very shot. So I suggested to Greg G., a buddy who was on last year’s Cuban fishing trip with me, that he hop on the cube and let me snap a pic. He was a little hesitant about it. Until I cleared it with the belly dancer. So, during a break in the music, he got up there with the dancer, although they were about a foot apart. As I was pretending to focus, I encouraged them to get a little closer….closer…closer. Until the dancer really had no choice but to slip an arm around Greg, just to keep her balance.


Since I didn’t use a flash the shot is a little blurry. But I kind of like it that way. It represents the rather hazy hedonistic tone of the entire evening. And makes the belly dancer looks as mysterious and erotic as she really was.


Middle Eastern glam

My Queen of Jordan date surrounded by Ali Baba and his 40 thieves. Photo by David Lansing.

Saturday was big surprise party for Bebe at London’s Banqueting House just down the street from the Prime Minister’s residence. Bebe didn’t know anything about the party; or she knew about it all along. It’s hard to tell which. It was put on by her husband, Hardy, as a way to celebrate both her birthday and their wedding anniversary.

The theme was “Middle Eastern Glam.” Now, if, like me, you are wondering what, exactly that would mean, Hardy included some suggestions, since this was to be a costume party, in the invitation.

They included, but were not limited to: Aladdin, Bogart in Casa Blanca, Mata Hari, Lawrence of Arabia, Rommel, Yasser Arafat, King Fahd, Omar Sharif, Queen Nefertiti, Colonel Gaddafi (or his female bodyguards) and Versace.

I’m not sure how Versace made the list (and I have no idea what the colonel’s female bodyguards might look like, but I like the idea).

The problem is, I don’t really do costumes. For Halloween, when I was a kid, I would almost invariably put on my Little League uniform. So one year I was a Dodger; the next year I was a Met. That was my idea of a costume.

Still, I didn’t want to upset Hardy or Bebe. So I thought long and hard about my costume. Aladdin was obviously out, but Lawrence of Arabia had a certain appeal to it. But where does one go about getting a good Lawrence of Arabia costume in London? I had no idea. Humphrey Bogart seemed like a definitely possibility, but then again, I imagined that every other guy at the party would be dressed in a white tuxedo and we’d all be mistaken for the wait staff (“I say, old fellow, mind fetching me another glass of champagne?”), so that was no good.

Since my date was going as a very fetching Queen Rania of Jordan (definitely Middle Eastern glam), I thought perhaps I could go as her secret service detail. Which would mean wearing a very nice black suit, sunglasses, and an ear-piece. Sort of the non-costume costume. I don’t know if it worked, exactly, but I sure felt more comfortable in my suit than I would have an Ali Baba outfit. And anyway, nobody was looking at me; they were all staring at the Queen of Jordan, as they should have.


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