Or, Where-in Svenja and I eat our way through London.
Finding ourselves growing tired of Trier some time ago, and considering ourselves in need of a vacation, roommate Svenja and I booked tickets to London. We would go to visit Eva, a friend of mine and a former colleague, a language assistant from the last time I was here in Trier. Eva and Svenja had gotten to know one another while Eva briefly stayed with us here in Trier, and invited us to come visit.
We flew in from Frankfurt Hahn to London Stansted on a quiet Thursday evening flight last week. As Stansted lays quite outside London proper, coaches regularly run between the airport and the a few destinations within the city itself. We boarded a nearly empty coach for Stratford Street Station. The driver, a heavy, quiet sort of fellow, drove the bus like an absolute maniac. Have you ever heard the expression, “Drive it like you stole it”? I can only wonder. Anyways, he hurtled us along motorway into town in a most worrying manner. He would take corners at such high speeds, causing the bus to tilt over in a most alarming manner, surely enough to but even the most practiced bobsled drivers off their game. I hung onto the seat in front of me for dear life, hardly being able to enjoy the wonderful view we had of the Olympic park, all gorgeously lit in the clear night. Svenja slept through it all.
We met Eva at Hackney Central, a short train ride from Stratford Station.
Me: “We need to travel with the “Orange Line”, Eva said. I can’t find it.”
Svenja: “Is it that way?”
Me: “I don’t think so. I don’t know. Let’s ask this chappy. Excuse me, where is the Orange Line?”
Chappy: “There isn’t an Orange Line. You must mean the Overground. It’s down that way.” He points down the tunnel Svenja had indicated.
Svenja: “Told you so.”
The next morning was Friday, so Eva left us on our own to do some sightseeing while she had to work. Svenja and I successfully navigated purchasing Oyster Cards and the London Underground during rush hour. We didn’t let ourselves get overwhelmed, oh no: we took a break at King’s Cross for a touristy photo, and some fortifying Cornish pasties. Delightful.
We spent an awful lot of time in London eating. After our first major stops that morning (Madame Tussaud’s and the London Eye – a combination deal – far too overpriced on their own, but the combo deal made it acceptable if not entirely affordable) we wandered over to the Borough Market, where we tried a bit of this and that, then to a nice, pleasant pub next to the Golden Hinde, where Eva and I had gone in May when I was around. At the pub we caught up on our correspondence and considered cultural differences between Germany and England (more to come on this in a future post, I hope). We then wandered back through the market like a couple of sailors, our pockets full of coin, spending freely on whatever caught our eye. In this case this included pies, more pasties, fudge, and honeycomb. So good.
We ate our ways through much of the next day as well, though this time with Eva leading us on. She took us through the Thames tunnel to Greenwich Market, where we patrolled around looking for lunch. I had a beef sandwich that smelled rather like sick though tasted considerably better, followed by some delightful mint shortbread. I’m not ashamed to admit that the girls had to help me through the shortbread – heavy stuff! As a small gesture against our gluttony we huffed and puffed our way up the hill in Greenwich park to the Royal Observatory, where we certainly did not pay 6£ to see the Meridian. Why would we pay 6£ to see some funny little bit of geography? It ain’t right.
One certainly doesn’t think of England as a foodie country, but there you have it – we managed to eat our way through London at the very least.
Another thing we experienced everywhere was the offer of souvenir photographs. On our first day between Madame Tussaud’s and the London, we must have been photographed at least 5 times. We could have bought a copy of each for 10£ a pop, leaving us much the poorer at the end of the day. I suppose this just reflects London’s nature as a tourist destination, though one can easily forget this strolling down Whitehall or in some of the farther flung boroughs.
I don’t want to wax on about authenticity here, but London to me has always been a city where people live and work and visit, unlike Venice, Bruges, or even Berlin.* Perhaps it’s because I always visit Eva there, who is a born and raised Londoner herself. I can’t help thinking that the smaller things make London special to me. Thinking back on it, I’d far rather take the solitary trumpeter we saw on the Embankment Bridge playing a lonely Let It Be than any “4D Experience Show”, of which we saw several (what makes it 4D? You wear 3D glasses and they spray water in your face).
The next morning our hostess cooked us a full English breakfast, an absolute treat: beans, toast, sausage, bacon, and eggs. I am doing my best to keep up my 2013 theme: Big Breakfasts (see my experience at the Tomahawk Grill in Vancouver some weeks ago). We took the rest of the morning easy with the assurance that we still had two full days worth of sightseeing ahead of us. We were on vacation, after all.
That evening we met German-language assistant and Trierite Toby and his friend, who were both in town for a soccer game earlier that day. We found them in a dingy little cellar bar that branded itself as a “Bavarian Brewhouse.” As someone who has been to Bavaria, I can tell you that that place was as Bavarian as a Mini. After some persuading and some atrocious service we convinced the boys to accompany us a few streets down to a CAMRA-approved bar (CAMRA: Campaign for Real Ale, or a club devoted solely to making drinking beer into an insufferably snobbish pursuit). A cadre of CAMRA members sat at the bar, and watched with incredulity as I ordered Svenja’s Guiness-Cola, a common enough drink in Germany. The “gentlemen” didn’t seem to appreciate this however, and as they watched the barmaid attempt to pour it one muttered under his breath, “That ain’t right.”
Svenja had never had fish and chips before, so we next headed off to a little 1950s style diner near Liverpool Street Station that specialized in fish and chips. We spent some time considering our options, cod or haddock.
“Which is more sustainable, cod or haddock?”
“We don’t have haddock back home, just halibut. I assume haddock, then?”
Out comes the iPhone – we check – yes, haddock it is. “Four haddock and chips, please.” Toby regretted only ordering fries.
The next morning we strolled out across Hampstead Heath to Highgate Cemetery, as one does. At the top of Parliament Hill we paused to consider the view. It’s said that Guy Fawkes planned his attack on Parliament from here, back in the days before skyscrapers obscured the view. As we left we shook our fists at Guy Fawkes’ memory and damned him, then did the same to Parliament, just for good measure.
I don’t quite get the appeal of graveyards, but I can see Highgate’s attraction. Since being designated as a nature reserve, trees have been allowed to grow up with little containment, disturbing old graves and toppling headstones. This gives the cemetery a restless, uneasy feeling, as if everything is not quite at rest.
We wandered up out of the cemetery and up into Highgate village proper, where I had the first satisfying Sunday pub roast lunch in my life. Believe me, that’s something I’ve tried to achieve for a long time! With some little time in the day we bustled off to the London Museum to learn ourselves the city’s Roman and Medieval history.
Eva had to work again the next day. Such is the downside to being a productive member of society. Luckily for us though she offered to mind our bags in her office, allowing us to squeeze in some last bit of sightseeing before our flight back to Germany that evening. Svenja and I then struck off alone off to Buckingham Palace, followed by a stomp through Hyde Park. We then plunged off into the Underground for a grueling three stop shuffle to Piccadilly Circus. At the top of the stairs coming out of the Piccadilly Circus Station Svenja turned to me and remarked on how magical an experience the Underground is: “Whenever you come up, it’s like you’re in a different city,” she said. “And a different century,” I added.
London really is one of my favourite cities, with something new to offer every time I return. As Samuel Johnson remarked,
“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
* People live in Berlin, and visit it, but I’m not entirely convinced anyone really works there.