The first summer we were in London, we lived in a flat on the top floor of a Victorian house at the top of a hill at the tippy, tippy top of the city. We could see all the way to Docklands from our kitchen window. We had a kitten who would soon be able to reach the windows and so I set out to buy some screens — the kind we always had when I was growing up, about 10″ high, adjustable, that you fit into the bottom part of the window and that allowed a breeze but kept out bugs.
The first store I tried was John Lewis. This department store chain represents British retailing at its finest and most frustrating. But I do miss it and it has no American corollary. The flagship store is on Oxford Street with a suburban North London outpost, to which I was relegated during the toddler years. When we moved to the UK, there was no Sunday trading. Many businesses, like dry cleaners, that might be 24/7 (and drive-thru) in the US, were open 9-5. How would a working couple get their suits dry cleaned? We need a wife, I used to say.
By the time we moved, John Lewis had ceded to modern/Americanised times and had Sunday hours, or at least the Oxford Street branch did; doors opened at 11 a.m.; tills (cash registers) at noon. Top tip: This weird, seemingly pointless hour of pre-sales browsing is the best time to take your children to be fitted for shoes (or shop for lingerie). By the time you have found a style that fits and is available in their size you can be first in line and out before the misery of a crowded children’s shoe department kicks off.
John Lewis is a department store in the full and glorious meaning of the word. Stock is neatly arranged, nicely tagged, easy to find, and all posters, signage and packaging are well branded with clean graphics. You can find the filters, liners, batteries, bulbs, brackets and weird little curtain hooks you need. They sell school uniforms, yarn, fabric, electronics, toys, tights, Filofax refills, Kilner jars, anti-moth sachets and a few years ago opened a Waitrose food hall. They price check with other stores so you can buy your TV there if you can’t find one-off the expat circuit. And they deliver. The salespeople are usually knowledgable about their department. They carry good skincare lines. They have reasonably clean toilets and changing areas with own-brand wipes to hand. All reasons to love them. I am not in a rant mode, so I won’t name the frustrations.
But of all the things that John Lewis, magic Aladdin’s cave that it is, did not have, was adjustable window screens. These I finally tracked down at a store called Irma’s of Goodge Street off the Tottenham Court Road.
I did not understand why window screens, such a commonplace thing from my childhood, would be so exotic, but of course it is because, even though a close examination of your patch of grass in the park will reveal the teeming life of ants and other insects, England is a remarkably bug-free environment. There are sometimes mosquitoes. There are bees in summer and dying bee season in the fall. If you rent a cottage at the edge of a cow pasture in August, there can be lots of flies, but bugs (and thunderstorms) are just not a big factor. If it is hot, you open the window. It is a country without rabies.
My children have not been accustomed to bugs (or hot weather). The older one sees them as a rare and fascinating treat, and lifts rocks to see what else she can find, while the younger one verges on morbidly fearful. Alabama is teeming with enormous flying cockroaches, poisonous land and water snakes, black widows and brown spiders with necrotizing venom. The mushrooms pictured above sprouted overnight on the lawn. We have tremendous thunder and lightning storms. We have two tornado seasons a year. On the plus side, we have fireflies.
That first summer in London there was a heat wave. If the temperature rises above 75º, announcements are made in the Underground advising customers (sic) to carry water, and that summer had some hot days, even by NYC standards. My friend needed a bridesmaid’s dress and invited me to come shop the Summer Sales with her. I noticed that, bizarrely, the stores were hot.
Things have changed. As the fabric and sewing departments, which had long since died off in the NY department stores, have shrunk and been pushed off the first floor and into smaller and higher places, even in Liberty, stores are now cooled. Our threshold for the mid-zones of climate is less. And the climate is warming. Last summer in Kent there was a case of a mosquito carrying malaria.
A vivid memory from visiting my grandparents in South Carolina as a child was the icy blast of air conditioning as we entered a store. There, it was hotter outside, colder in. NYC is a furnace in the summer but at Fire Island we had breezes from the ocean and you found your happy temperature place between the sea and the sand. For super-hot nights, there was an enormous square electric floor fan. Lying in bed, I listened to the roar of the ocean, rather than the revelers of the city sidewalks or the late-night lamentations of the mentally ill. But in the 90s there was more money and people built bigger, fancier houses, which they air conditioned. My parents said it wasn’t so nice on the deck at night, with the roar and heat of exhaust from the units. My guess is that it would be as hard now to find adjustable window screens in New York City, or at least in Manhattan, as it was in London.
The other night we had dinner with friends who are English and still adjusting to the bio-diversity. They had seen the pit on a friend’s wrist left by an excision of rotted flesh from the bite of a brown spider. They described the measures that people go here to protect themselves. On delivering their daughter to a party, the parents assured them that the pond was safe for swimming. “Don’t worry,” the mother told them, “My husband went out this morning and shot all the snakes.”