London, June 30
Arriving back in London from where I started, after the trip around the UK, brought a beautiful circular ending to my time in the country. Thrust into city energy was palpable: I felt the hustle, the busy metropolitan streets populated with well dressed men and women, steering through Temple Lane and Bank Street with chartered courses and EU agendas on their minds; spilling out from the Olde English Pubs after 5 to discuss perhaps more honest matters on their minds; the smokers, the vapers, the one pinters, all mulling around in the nebulous cloud of uncertainty in a looming Brexit and the aftermath. What the rest of the world was doing during my insular, nostalgic, and quiet charm of a month outside of it fascinated me. The quiet, seemingly independent life outside of London and the busy deal making, banking world in London creates a distinct chasm between its heartbeat and nerve center.
I had one additional day for which to procure accommodation before my flight on July 1st, and after some more interpretive readings of hostel reviews, found an excellent hostel that caters to quiet types and families. Youth Hostel Association (YHA) attempts to minimize the pub crawling, party atmospheres of the typical inner and old city hostels I experienced on visits to Prague and Krakow. I learned this not from the reviews, of course, but by talking to a dorm mate woman my age who had done her own share of hosteling. Not only was the hostel (YHA Earl’s Court, London) quiet, but it was on the opposite end of London from where A. and I stayed earlier at the end of May on Brick Lane in Shoreditch, a Pakistani, Indian, and Jamaican area. Earl’s Court is just south of Chelsea, which is just south of Kensington, which is just south of Kensington Palace and Gardens, whose affluence and prestige still trickles down through avenues and mews such as Queens Court, Elizabeth Street, Prince of Wales Street, and Duke of Wessex Street. As the English countryside provided a good opposite impression of London, so did Kensington offer a good opposite from Brick Lane, and I felt that a better way to wrap up my impressions of London could not have been had. As I strolled down Elizabeth Street, past the very posh shops and perfumed women and moneyed men, past the white stone, Victorian and Edwardian facades, past the high, shuttered and sheer curtain windows, behind black wrought iron fences and gates, into the vastness of Kensington Gardens, my mind wandered back to the opposite side of town, to the first week of the trip, the last week of May.
I arrived into the familiar jet lagged surrealism of a watercolored world, an artwork of landscape and monument that bleed their historic beauty onto a mind’s canvas, already primed for romanticism by the sheer mention of travel. Arriving at 7 am into Gatwick Airport, I easily found the National Express bus depot, from which I had previously booked a ride into London to Aldgate stop, which is just north of Tower Bridge, the closest stop to the Airbnb apartment in Shoreditch. Getting my first introduction to London’s winding one ways and seemingly circular roads, close to two hours later I emerged from the transport with the backpack strapped to my back, quickly discerned my orientation by finding the names of the nearest crossroads, opened google maps to follow the blue line from my current location to 43 Hanbury Street, and soldiered forward. The first impression of London will also be my last: its populated streets and sidewalks, its numerous construction projects underway, its occupied cafes, Pret a Mangers, pubs, no vacancy shingles, men and women walking in quick tempo, fully packed tubes and busses, and its leashed and collared happy dogs. These impressions have reassured me that London has been keeping calm and carrying on.
For a £5 early bag drop-off fee, I left my big back pack in the common room and planned to scout the environs until check in time at 4. This way I could also keep moving and resist the temptation to sleep for as long as possible. I found the hostel building easily enough and pulled out the paper I wrote the key pad entry codes on. The first one was for the door to the building. A satisfying click opened the narrow wooden door, which revealed a very narrow stairwell, which brought me up to the first flight of stairs and first apartments. We were in apartment 5, so I went up another flight, and then keyed in the key pad code for apartment 5. This lead me to a washing machine and dryer foyer, and then up a few more stairs, around a corner and into a common room, where I stowed my backpack. With the weight off, I felt 22 pounds lighter. Using both digital and printed maps, I headed in the direction of the Thames and Tower Bridge; on one of the streets I located one of the first Tesco grocery stores of the month, and because I wasn’t sure I was coming back this way, decided to purchase the breakfast items then. So with a bag of oats, a bag of ground flax, chia, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, yogurt, four nectarines, a pack of dates, slices of cheese and a liter of coconut water, I added some of the weight I had just shed into my smaller day back pack, and then headed for the river.
I don’t do well without sleep, and less and less so as I get older, and so I can only say that on that first afternoon, the time between 12 and 4 was all as if in a dream. I arrived at the Tower Bridge, an iconic landmark of London, and felt both a part of its presence and a part of the observers of it; walking across from the north, I went down to Butler’s Wharf which is to the left of the bridge, named so because of the butlers who would buy the produce coming off the ships. I then walked in the other direction, which is towards the Globe Theater and the Eye, but made it only as far as the next bridge, where a WWII battleship, the HMS Belfast, was docked. I stopped and sat on steps along the promenade, with the wind and cool weather keeping me awake, and the movement of the tourists and dogs and children playing all around, and the ice cream cones and pastries catching my heavy eyes from closing.
Towards 3 pm I got up and walked back over the Tower Bridge to go back north over the river, made a left and went down by the water’s edge and viewed the Castle of London from outside its ramparts, again reading the placards along its perimeter to review my English Tudor History. An incredible time in history unfolded behind those walls, drawing thousands of visitors per day, immune to but aware of the atrocities and horror to which both court gentry and peasants were subjected; permitted by the comfortable distance of time to examine and speculate, but not rightly feel. Now we have other, different terror to fear, different reasons for persecution, different freedoms infringed upon. None of us learn from history because the past keeps repeating itself in different forms, like a slippery elusive virus. History will constantly remap its code.
At 3:45 I was back in the common room of the Airbnb, eating some of the yogurt and dates, waiting till 4 pm as if it were a pot of water set to boil. Not advertised as such, but familiar with the hostel layout, our room was one of many in a tall 1910s building, just off of Brick Lane, a perfect place for foodies and purveyors of culture. The common room and kitchen was a full flight of stairs down, and a second shower and toilet, closed for repairs, a half flight of stairs down. finally, it was time to unlock the code to our room itself, upstairs. There seemed to be stairs everywhere. The windows looked out onto a painted brick wall, and a courtyard below which was equipped with an outdoor grill and makeshift chairs and tables for a pop up Jamaican jerk chicken and goat wrap quick eat place. Beneath the painted artwork of an upside down break dancer and a white crane – how they reconciled the space is still a mystery to me – a few Jamaican flags lay limp and waiting for the evening breeze. By sometime this evening, this man’s makeshift food court will promise delicious ethnic food to passersby. I pulled the curtains over the large windows to block the still generous sun and to minimize the eastern rising sun, which on the cool days of the end of May came gratefully, but on the hot days of August would pose a problem. Besides two beds, our room had a sink and a few dishes, coffee and tea service, and a small table and two chairs for conversation or working, for eating snacks or eating breakfast; for enjoying birthday cake or wine, or all six. I assembled some things for sleeping, took a hot shower, and lay down; within minutes I was fast asleep to the sounds and rhythms of a new city.
Sometime during the night I awoke; from my phone and short lived wakeful period, found two things I would do the next day while awaiting A.’s arrival at 6:30 pm. One, the British Library, where a free exhibit beckoned with original documents, and two, the Charles Dickens house and museum, which I would visit afterward. I closed my phone, and returned to sleep.
The next morning I got up very early and had the common room to myself, and it felt the entire building as well. After a few cups of coffee, heated a heated oatmeal concoction, I head out. I walk west along major arteries and side streets for an hour to get to the British Museum, taking note of shops, store fronts, fashion, food, buses, and definitely the traffic, which needed to be monitored consciously and continuously from all directions, not only at intersections but on sidewalks as well. I am never sure whether pedestrians adhere to the left side of the walkway as the cars do their streets, and so weaving through this mass on their way to work proved just as challenging had I been driving the streets. Unlike a US city whose streets are generally created in a grid fashion, London’s is more like multiple curves in all irregular lengths and directions, as if a child had the entire sandbox to himself in which to create his city. As a courtesy, the city paints “Look left” or “Look right” or “Look both left and right” at the curb of crosswalks, because of the indiscriminate direction or air space cars and double deckers will be veering and careening by.
The British Museum is a large red brick building that consumes all of a city block very close to and just east of Regents Park. I found the exhibit on the first floor and spent the majority of the morning within its low lit and temperature cooled rooms, perusing its ancient religious, political and literary manuscripts, from the earliest printed and illustrated bibles to 20th century letters. Included in these archives were such gems as original music scores and scribbles from Mozart, Beethoven and John Lennon; the Magna Carta, letters and documents and writings from and between philosophers (Rousseau, Hobbes, etc) , the architect Christopher Wren (astronomer, architect, mathematician) who designed St. Paul’s Cathedral, Jane Austen, the Brontes, and many others leaving inspiration in their wake. By the time I left, I was famished, and found a middle eastern food truck and a falafel wrap just next to St. Pancras Church one block west, Next stop: the Charles Dickens museum, a half hour walk south.
A three story townhome on Doughty Street, most of the original furnishings have remained; especially meaningful for me was his desk, where he wrote A Tale of Two Cities (albeit at another residence), and Oliver Twist (at the Doughty street residence). I love these old, wooden floor, narrow stair case and tall windowed townhomes from another era and another architectural period. After spending quite a good two hours in there, I was ready to find Liverpool Station so that I could meet A. at the appointed time. I walked back in that direction, found it quickly enough and from where walked back to the apartment to drop off things I had accumulated and to refill my water bottle. Then off I went, back to Liverpool Station.
With a small bouquet of yellow tulips purchased at the station, I waited with anticipation and excitement; she found me first, coming in from the side and we spent the next several minutes just standing there, holding hands, talking and laughing. Finally, we emerged from the station a good half hour later, walked to the place, dropped luggage, and went out to explore Brick Lane. We bought some small tasty Pakistani food samplings from a corner store and meandered an hour or so before we slowly returned, unpacked, and enjoyed conversations of wide parameters and broad scope.
We leave the apartment without any regard to time constraints. We walked west towards Buckingham Palace and along the way stopped at the Bank of England which is one of the scenes from Harry Potter that held significance for movie fans. The security guard didn’t allow allow us in, though; entry garnered to those who worked there or had an appointment with someone who worked there. A. peered in the doors, anyway, into the face of another guard. WIth no option but to turn away, we found St. Paul’s Cathedral which required visitors to purchase tickets unless they were pious enough to attend mass at 7:30 am, when they could get in for free. We decided that would be an excellent way to not only get inside, but to start A.’s birthday off. So from St. Paul’s, we walked to Trafalgar Square (by the way, that’s Admiral Nelson way up there on the pillar), Piccadilly Circus with all of its theaters, and then wandered into Soho, where we started looking for a place to eat.
Shortly into our search we spotted a Lebanese restaurant across the street, and decided, based on scrutinizing their menu hung on the window, that this would be a suitable place. A. started out with puréed lentil soup, and after tasting a bit I called for an order myself. Following this first course, A. had a quinoa and green salad, and I had lamb and mint pockets, drizzled with yogurt sauce. It was a perfect lunch! I will try to duplicate the spectacular soup when I get home – it definitely had cumin, carrot and cream included.
With satisfied stomachs, we walked on through Soho when the rain decided to join us. Not being deterred, we found two more Harry Potter landmarks: Godwin Court and Cecil’s Court. After pictures and the let down of Cecil’s court undergoing scaffolding and renovations, we needed to get out of the now pelting rain and find some tea. Easily enough, we chose a cafe/bar/coffee/tea house where I had a pot of green and Awy a pot of Earl Gray. We stayed there for about an hour, looking at our pictures to date, talking, taking in the scenes from out the window and from within, and listened to music.
We ventured on, and with the rain still insistent with its presence, wondered whether we should take the tube back to the apartment for the umbrellas and then re-emerge somewhat more protected; but by that time, the rain may well have stopped. So we walked on towards Buckingham Palace, and to our delight, by the time we arrived at the famous mall, the large boulevard leading straight to the palace, the rain had stopped, but the crowds and loudspeakers and assemblies increased. After an inquiry was made, we learned that today was the cricket season opening ceremony, cordoning off a large swath of mall boulevard. We skirted the crowds and went through St. James’s (sic?) Park for a bit, which opened up to the mall with the palace in front of us and the festivities behind us. The British flags were waving on either side of us as we pulled our jackets closed and scarves tighter against the chill and damp of London. Having seen this scene so often in films and news, the walk didn’t feel necessarily new, but rather familiar, and being here during one of the longest reigning monarchs in history, who was probably just behind the window with the light on, gave us pause to remember this moment as we stood outside the gates with the rest, maybe hoping for a sighting of her. But I doubt she pops out every other day or so to greet her fans. Both of us convinced that Prince Harry would show up for the opening ceremonies, we did linger for a while. With the amount of cars going in and out a side gate, and the number of dignitaries dressed up from shoe to hat, we were sure the queen was calling visitors.
We walked on then, back through the park where I fed pigeons and geese, over to the Parliament building, Westminster Abbey, where tickets were also required, so we just went to the gift shop and looked for too long at things we would never buy. Fatigue set in at this point, and we set off for home. I realized that I speed my way through busy streets, bee lining my way out of the noise, but A. savors the experience, walking slower, looking up and around, her musings matching her gate, mine spurred by my march.
We stopped by the Indian buffet man on Brick Lane to pick up something small to take back with us. She made it clear to the man that she wanted a small container with an assortment of food in it. Well, the man at the counter couldn’t explain that indeed, she could, or didn’t know that she could, and with limited English he was at a loss for words.
“Just one moment. I call my boss.”
As we stood next to the warm buffet, looking at the chick peas and spinach and cauliflower curries, a moment turned into several.
“I’m finding more and more that people just don’t know how to do their jobs,” she said.
The man returned. “My boss come. Just one moment.” He retreated behind the cash register. She continued with the flustered frustrations.
“How can you work in London, in a restaurant, dealing with people, and not speak English? It’s ridiculous!”
I agreed that the establishment begged improvement; there were, after all, zero patrons in the place and it was already evening. With new ideas about just leaving if the English speaking boss did not show up in another minute, with more exasperated shakes of our heads, out comes a boss from another door and says, “Yes you can fill it up with anything. Same price.” So finally, having had ample time to decide, she filled it up with rice, spinach, pumpkin, and fried eggplant; we walked the few blocks home, and ate our Indian dish in the common room with a glass each of the bottle of wine A. brought from home; sweets I had procured earlier and yogurt. It was all delicious.
May 30 A.’s birthday
The yellow tulips from the train station yesterday were at their peak beauty this morning. A. was awake and dressed by 6 am and just as I was opening my eyes, said she just might go to mass by herself if I was too tired.
“Sure not!” I said, first thing, and got myself up, ready and infused with a double strength coffee. We were going to do a tube day today because after mass we wanted to return to the flat for breakfast and then head out to Nottinghill Gate for the famous Portobello market. Leaving the apartment at 6:45 for Liverpool station, we found the correct line, and it was so crowded I misheard A. say “let’s get off at the one after Bank Street” and only “get off at Bank Street” and when it pulled up, I flew out without looking back, as a result A. had to run after me and it caused us to be a little late for mass, quick walking all the way from the Bank of England. But we arrived still just a little late, and were ushered into the high alter, as very limited attendance required nothing larger. Mass was so peaceful and uplifting, it changed both our moods into something calm and serene. It was the perfect start to her birthday. After mass, however, when we unintentionally parted ways, pulled in different directions to view the cathedral, we lost each other, and A., ever the caretaker, thought I must have left the church when she couldn’t find me anywhere inside. Not outside, though, she asked the guard to let her re enter, as her sister was “lost somewhere inside.” She ran into me as I was coming out of the crypts with worry and admonishment in her eyes; she had looked everywhere for me, she couldn’t find me and she became terribly worried. Apologies issued, I promised I would meet her just across the street at a cafe, where she would now have a coffee, while I looked in the gift store.
Having found her shortly afterwards, we took the underground back to eat breakfast of oats, ground seeds, dates, bananas and yogurt. Fortified, we walked to Spitalfield Market where we were held up by a unique find of old printing press letter blocks. We each got three pieces – letters that were significant for us and for those dear to us – and in our enthusiasm for what we were about to purchase, rendered all possible haggling moot. Hearing our asides as to how best to get a deal we wanted, the vendor inferred we were going to buy them regardless of how low he refused to go. In the end, it all comes down to how much you want something, and the value it has for you. We payed more than what Awy would have, and because haggling is not my strong suit, I conceded to his final offer. I could tell he wasn’t going to budge further. We bought them, and discussed the psychology behind haggling for the next several blocks.
Back to Liverpool station and this time all the way to Nottinghill Gate: walking up to Portobello Road, we happened upon and passed by George Orwell’s house, which is currently privately owned; further up we walked and looked in at the quaint jewelry, antique, clothes and novelty shops, spilling over with flowers and roses and eateries. Soon enough, we were hungry.
Finding gluten free fish and chips is something of an enigma in London, although in Scotland and rural England the options are ubiquitous. In London, however, this became a quest, and we scoured nearly every menu outside a restaurant or pub for the asterisk that informed of gluten free options. Without any luck so far, we decided to go into a pub where she would try her luck with something else on the menu.
“I’ll have the scampi,” she told the bartender, and I would have a portion of chips and a Guinness. We selected a table in the bar area, but it was hot and empty, and it seemed more people and atmosphere were outside in their garden. Upon closer look at the menu, I decided it would be best to ask the bartender how those scampi were prepared, and he said they were breaded and deep fried. It sounded like deep fried shrimp to me; asking whether he could simply omit the batter and sauté them, he said they came frozen like that. I guess if you’re in a pub, there’s little else besides fried meat, fried flour, and fried potatoes. I told him to cancel the order and Awy selected a Greek salad instead. We went out to the patio with our drinks, and after a while, eating our greens and “chips” she ordered us a cherry beer, which was just the ticket. Again, we spent the time looking at pictures, talking, and relaxing in each other’s company.
On our way back to the tube, A. got sidetracked by a skirt that she really wanted, but was not able to try on because the store had no dressing room. “How can you expect people to buy something if they can’t even try it on?” She was really perturbed by the lack of foresight on the owner’s part, as sliding it over her jeans altered the look and lay of the garment; she was inclined to just not buy it on that premise alone. Suddenly R. called her for her birthday, diverting her attention just long enough for the desire for the skirt – or the decision about penalizing the shop owner – came with a flash of lightening, and we walked away without it.
On our last full day together, we walked to the Tower Bridge, over it, through a food market that was worth a return trip to London alone; and then passed by the HMS Belfast, where we decided to walk into their gift shop/ cafe. After looking at and purchasing a WWII book for her boys, we wandered over to the cafe section to look at their sweet offerings. After noticing acronyms for dietary restrictions next to the labels, we were stumped by letters we could not recognize words for. GF is gluten free, V is for vegan, LF is lactose free, but CL? A. decided to ask one of the servers behind the counter.
“Excuse, me, what does this letter mean? We know what the others mean, but what does this C mean?” She looked expectantly to the 20 something behind the counter.
“Um… this one here?”
“I don’t really know.”
“You don’t know? But you work here.”
“Yes, but I don’t know, sorry.”
“Does she know?” A. asked, indicating the other young 20 something. The other came over. The same question was posed.
“I don’t know.”
A. couldn’t believe this. “You’re telling me that you work here in this shop, and you can’t answer a simple question?”
“How can that be? How can you possibly work here without knowing what you are serving? Just for that, I refuse to buy anything from you.”
I slid out quickly before she had a chance to get their number and call their boss.
The Globe theater, which was nominal only and nothing historic to its name, was not worth the walk to it, so back we went to the food court, bought two Indian meals, took them back to the flat, ate them, walked to the Rituals store where Awy surprised me with a soft, silky hand cream, and bought for herself a lotion; found the Victorian Bath house which is open for private parties, hung around a sunny spot on a wall nearby as we watched people drink; walked slowly back to the apartment and on the way noticed people spilling out of pubs everywhere; had ice cream down stairs, a coffee in the chocolate shop next door; and finally had an early turn in, where we finished the wine and most of our food supply.
A. left the next morning at 5:30 to go to Liverpool station and then the train to the airport; I left for Liverpool station an hour or so later, for the tube to Paddington station, and from there the Great Western Railway to Carmarthen, Wales.
London provided the backdrop for our reunion, provided conversational starters and memories, situations for coloring our characters, a space for sister talks and castle talks, and a new experience from which old, familiar habits can be confirmed and recognized. It gave us space and time for ourselves as sisters.