It's not usual for virtually everything in London to be closed. Even for holidays. Even for religious holidays.
But yesterday was Christmas Day. And coincidentally, that evening, it was the first day of the Jewish festival of Chanukah too. It's relatively recent for everything in London to be closed on Christmas Day. In Dickens' "A Christmas Carol", Bob Cratchit barely gets permission to take the day off. And the butcher's shop which sells the giant turkey Scrooge buys after he has his change of heart is clearly open on Christmas morning.
I can remember being taken by my dad for a walk across St James's Park one Christmas morning in the late nineteen forties. So there must clearly have been public transport running then.
I like the idea of a national day, or several days when almost everyone, except those who really can't be spared, gets time to be with their families and friends. One of the things I've enjoyed doing, as someone who doesn't celebrate Christmas, is being a volunteer driver taking care staff to and from their work on the day, and I know what a difference it makes.
But it has its unintended consequences for the unsuspecting.
Last October, Lisa wrote a beautiful post describing how the whole of Israel shuts down on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. It's observed by religious and secular Jews alike. She offered a comic description of the bafflement of an overseas news correspondent unable to comprehend that he wouldn't be able to travel any further than his legs would carry him.
Life being full of ironies, Lisa found herself landed in exactly this situation yesterday. She was faced with a ten hour stopover at Heathrow between flights. She emailed me a few days ago, describing her plans to take tubes to and from the centre of London, meet up in cafes... And I found myself emailing back, sorry, no public transport, and as far as I know, everything will be closed for Christmas Day.
She found it hard to believe. After all, isn't London the centre of a great multi-ethnic metropolis? And don't the trains start running again after dark? Ah, cultural dissonance. It's taken for granted in the Jewish state of Israel that you would think of things starting up again after dark, because the Jewish calendar begins days at nightfall, just as Genesis tells us that the first day begins out of darkness. So even Yom Kippur's total shutdown comes to an end once it's dark. No, I said, everything stays firmly shut till midnight. You won't find any public transport running....
Well, it wasn't a problem for me. As I don't observe Christmas Day, it was fun to spend most of it going out to meet a friendly fellow blogger and hang out. I did think there might be some stray events we might drop into, or some cafes offering good options. But when I consulted Time Out just about everything was firmly closed. Except for churches and pubs. Thanks, but no thanks.
I had one problem. I know Lisa likes good espresso coffee, and I don't have so much as a decent coffee machine. I hoped there might be a cafe open somewhere, but it didn't look promising.
The day started drizzly and grey. But within half an hour of collecting Lisa from Heathrow, the sky was opening up, pale blue and pink and the sun began to emerge. By the time we got to Finchley, it was brightly sunny and College Farm, near where I live, was brilliant green in the sunlight. And although every single cafe I'd passed on a ten mile journey was closed, unbelievably, just round the corner, and opposite the farm was the Israeli cafe Orli. And it was open.
So I was able to introduce Lisa to the surreal experience of a little bit of Israeli cafe life in Finchley, complete with Israeli bar staff, offering her just the sort of coffee she's used to having in Tel Aviv. She and this bar guy fell on each other like expats do
After that, the day just got better and better. It got sunnier and lovelier. As she said, a Vermeer sky. My cats went bananas basking out on the pergola.
So we spent the day talking and looking at photos. We talked about some of the weirdest things: the world of mergers and acquisitions; how to get sacked for showing initiative; the social function of escort agencies; the finer points of blog etiquette; how Lisa met the Queen in Vancouver (and I forgot to ask her whether she curtsied, and what the Queen said); what to do when you need to go to the toilet in the middle of hordes of soldiers and news reporters and there's no toilets to go to or even trees and bushes to hide behind; psychoanalytic takes on myths and folk tales, and a lot more. Plus of course all the usual topics of families, relationships, cameras and the latest in blogging stories.
That easily took care of eight or nine hours. We barely had time for a brief walk. And to light the first night's Chanukah lights. From which we learnt that there's no need to cry over spilt oil. Because whatever you've got will stretch to whatever you need.
Thanks to the Orli Cafe for flying the flag for Israeli hospitality. It wasn't its usual level of packed. I suspect most of the usual customers had no idea it was open.
And thanks to Lisa for offering a great way to spend a national closedown day. A really beautiful day.