A Proper London Wedding

The point of our last trip to London was not actually, to waste three perfectly good days, but to attend the wedding of two friends who met at a wedding back in the States. At the time, the groom lived in London and the bride in New York, and so began a whirlwind, short long-distance romance. Does that make sense? Anyway, when you know you know and soon they were engaged. Continue reading “A Proper London Wedding”

Travelogue: London Memories

Lost souls please go to Nunhead

This time last year, I was readying to visit Tom in London a second time. The plan was to spend a weekend in Cambridge, return to London and rendezvous with some friends who were also visiting the city, attend Tom’s raucous company holiday party and then, the morning after and presumably hungover, board the Eurostar to spend two gluttonous days in Paris before heading back to London to pack and move Tom back to New York.  


I packed, among other necessities, a white party dress dress, a pair of velvet heels, and a leopard coat. I thought Tom liked the leopard coat because I had sent him a photo of it and he had replied, “Hot.” Over text message, I could see neither a look of disgust nor hear a groan. 

So I thought, “Yeah, super hot.”

I landed at 7AM on the morning of Friday, December 6th and met, at the customs border, a surly, sleep-deprived woman who could be classified as “matronly” in the worst way possible, and “bitchy” in its usual way. Her hair was thinning and her skin, sallow and splotchy, sagged like the elbow patches of her dumpy blue sweater uniform. I wondered how many cigarettes she smoked during her infrequent breaks and how often she thought of shooting herself. Or cheery young foreigners like myself, who came with the expectation to have as much fun as possible. I smiled at her as I always smile to such personnel. I read in a magazine that sometimes smiles are infectious and she looked like she needed one. However, my smile bounced off her soulless eyes and she remained dour. She dully asked how many days I was staying.

“Ten,” I said. 

“What are you here for?” 

“Visiting a friend.” 

“Male, female?” 
“Male.” 

She nodded as she paged languidly through my passport, yawned. Perhaps she found it boring – I had renewed my passport prior to starting school in New York and had just one stamp in it, from my first visit to London back in October. 

“How did you meet him?” 

“We met in New York.” 

She stopped turning the pages and looked up at me. Her expression grew annoyed, then weary, like a haggard schoolteacher having caught her student in a lie.

“So he’s a boyfriend, then?” 

“Um…” I thought back to a half a month before, when Tom and I had defined the relationship but had also not said expressly, the terms “boyfriend” and “girlfriend.” 

“…I guess?” I started to explain that we were dating and we hadn’t really ever said those words, and I cringed as I spoke, part of my consciousness stepping out from my body and watching me explain a rather simple but in the same way complicated situation to a woman who honestly had no business but who seemed at once to care too much and too little. She didn’t have time for incoherent explanations, thank god. 

“Look, he’s your boyfriend,” she snapped, “So just say ‘boyfriend’ and not ‘friend.'” She manhandled my passport, stamping it with a withering look and then waved me off.

A few feet past her cell there was a massive, brightly lit banner that said, “Welcome to London!” and showcased many a smiling Brit. Not surprisingly, my customs officer was not among them.
The view from Tom’s window. 

Two hours later I was at the corner of Curtain Road and Old St., where Tom’s corporate apartment was located. We stood across the street from each other for a few moments, waiting black London cabs and red double-deckers roll by. I smiled between each vehicle. Tom waved to me from across the street. I waved back, the hem of my leopard coat billowing in the brisk London air. The light changed and he walked over. I thought he was smiling but as he came closer, saw it was a pained expression with a smile plastered on.  

“What are you wearing,” he said.  

I was confused. Hadn’t he said it was “hot?” 

“You don’t like it?”

“You look like you escaped from the jungle.” 

I was thankful to have brought along another coat in a much more subdued black. But still, I liked the leopard and felt that he should know. 

“Okay so what? If I wear it you won’t walk with me?”

“Oh I’ll walk with you,” Tom said, taking my suitcase, “Right into a coat store.”
Sure that’s all they took? 

Calling Home from a London Pub

In London, this past week, I visited POI for a second time. On my second night there – perhaps it was my third, I can’t remember – it occurred to me I ought to call my parents. We were on the second floor of a pub in Soho when the thought occurred and I told POI that I’d be back. He handed me his work phone, saying the signal was better, and I took it downstairs, past the bar which was, at 10PM, packed with tall, well-dressed British men. In the States I would have assumed they’d all just come from work, but it was a Saturday night and they seemed to just be dressed that way, regardless. It had been overly warm in the pub and I did not bring my coat with me, finding the cool air outside refreshing. I wondered what I would say to my parents as I dialed. My father picked up, as my mother was teaching her Saturday morning Chinese classes.

“How is it?” my father asked.

“Good,” I said, “We’re out with his friends right now. I just thought I’d say hello. I haven’t called in a while.”

“Well, we’re doing fine too,” he said, and then did the thing he always did when I asked about their weekend plans, which was list all their upcoming dinner engagements. It was going to be a busy weekend for them as well. He listed the usual suspects and the usual restaurants. Same old same old, he said, though I knew he looked forward to it.

POI and I were headed to Cambridge the next morning, and I told my father as much.

“Ah,” he said, “Well. Didn’t you want to study there at some point?”

I laughed. It was typical that he would remember something like this. Every elite school I had ever even just vaguely remarked about wanting to study at, he remembered: Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, Yale, Brown, “Yeah, and I still do…just not sure what.”

“Oh please, please,” he said jokingly, “One degree at a time. Finish the one you’re working on now.”

“I know,” I said. A group of young, drunk teenagers walked by, some stumbling more than others. They laughed loudly just as they were walking by.

“Are you at a party?” my father asked.

“Outside a bar,” I said, “We’re heading over to karaoke soon.”

“They karaoke over there in England?” he said, “You went all the way to England to karaoke?”

“More or less.”

Other photos from that night are expectedly blurry.

On the curb next to me, three young Chinese people stood staring at their smart-phones, trying to make Karaoke plans of their own. They heard me speaking Chinese and took turns stealing glances in my direction. I smiled. Had they called their parents yet? I wondered what they were studying.

“Well,” my father said, “Enjoy yourself, I suppose.”

“I know, I will,” I looked up to the steamed windows of the second floor, where POI and his friends,- three Asian Americans and two Italians chemistry students – stood chatting around tall pints. I told my father goodbye and to not miss me too much.

“And you try to miss us a little more,” he said, “But thanks for calling.”

“No problem.”

“Oh,” something occurred to him.

“Hm?”

“Write something,” he said.

“What?”

“Write something,” he said, “About your time there. About Cambridge or London or England or whatever it is you’re going to do. And share it with me. I should like to know even though I still think the words on that website of yours are too damned small.”

I nodded slowly, taking in the scene before me on the street on a corner in Soho square, thinking about the people upstairs, all of whom I’d just met. I thought too about the songs I was about to sing in a small, dark room. Inside the pub, one of POI’s best friends in London was buying shots of tequila at the bar. Somewhere down the road, friends of friends were making their way out of the Tube to meet us. More shots waited at another bar. Poorly performed covers of Miley Cyrus. U2 and Taylor Swift and Backstreet Boys. Rent.

I would write, I told him.

We hung up and I went back inside, running into POI’s friend at the bar. He handed me two shot glasses and a small plate of lime wedges.

“Can you handle all that?” he said, “One of them is yours.”

I nodded, and carefully ascended the narrow stairs, spilling just a single drop of Jose Cuervo on my left hand. I was aware that I wouldn’t write anything that night. Or the night after. I wouldn’t write anything for the next two weeks.

London Travelogue: Photos of Borough Market

One of many entrances to Borough Market.

POI did not make it to lunch. He was held up at work and I, being of the understanding-and-generally-capable-of-entertaining-myself-especially-when-in-a-foreign-country-sort, made my way around Borough Market, tasting more cheese samples than I had appetite for.

She was very generous with the samples.
Foreshadowing.
I couldn’t tell if these mushrooms were very expensive or not.
Wheat grass being turned into green water.
As opposed to old season game.
I truly regret not eating one – actually, all three – of these.
He was also very generous with the samples.
As opposed to the Not Posh At All Banger Boys on the other side of the street.
In case you forgot why you were at the market.
Gorgeous Friday afternoon light.
I took this photo to show how long the line was for Applebee’s takeaway. Applebee’s in London is quite different from Applebee’s in the US, which is essentially an institution for obesity.

When I was in danger of becoming ill on cheese and jam samples, I walked behind the market down Stoney Street and towards the river.

POI things it is incredibly creepy that I like to photograph children in school uniforms. Perhaps. But as you can see, I keep a safe distance.
Apparently this is where I was.
For those of you who follow me on Instagram: the original caption is probably still best: “British guy behind me: ‘Rihanna wrote a song about these.'”
Fashionable people getting ready for Friday after work/class drinks.
“Are they real?”

POI eventually arrived at 3:30PM. He had apologized profusely throughout the day, pushing lunch back until it was clear he would not make any hour deemed appropriate for lunch. I was not angry – it seemed reasonable that POI do well at his job. Logistically, it was the reason I was able to visit. Back in New York POI had been the most punctual of men while I, normally a punctual woman, was late to every single date.

“The trains,” I would say, breathless from having jogged from the subway station, “I just…don’t understand them” (when in fact I suddenly turn into a sloth whenever it’s time to leave the apartment).

“That’s alright,” POI would say, “You’ll figure them out soon enough.”

He arrived, grinning. Work was over and done with; the weekend could now begin.

He clapped his hands together. He had not had time for lunch and was hungry.

“Let’s go find me a grilled cheese sandwich.”

A blurry photo, but suffice it to say it was the mother of all grilled cheese sandwiches. Seeing it, I conveniently forgot all the cheese samples I’d already had and took a huge bite.

And a beer. We went round the corner to The Rake, one of POI’s favorite pubs in the area, though he seems to like most pubs. There was a small outdoor area populated with colorful metal chairs and voluble, easy-going men who were anything but rakish. It was Friday afternoon and they had left any work-related worries behind at the office. Now it was time to have a pint.

We sat outside on a bench next to two men in suits. They sat opposite each other with their legs crossed and I could see their patterned socks. I could not decide if they were careful dressers or if men in London simply wore patterned socks. POI, in a fleece zip up and checkered shirt had other thoughts. He disappeared inside. The men in patterned socks talked shop, then went on to discuss their female colleagues, who had not been invited to the pub. I looked around – there were no women in the patio and only one girl inside the bar, but she seemed to be a student or someone on holiday. Women, it seemed, stayed later at the office. Even on a Friday.

POI returned holding a large pint for him and a half-pint for me.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Apple beer.”

“Like a cider?”

“I asked for cider,” he said, “but the bartender gave me a look and said they only served beers.”

I took a sip, “Tastes like cider.”

POI laughed, “Well, here, it’s an apple beer.” 

I produced the Lamington. He had sent me on a mission to find one while he was at work. POI is not so into sweets but he very much likes Lamingtons, an Australian dessert. At Borough Market, they are quite hard to find and I spent nearly twenty-minutes going from pastry tent to pastry tent, soliciting confused stares.

“A what?”

“A Lamington? It’s a….sweet thing?”

“A banana tart?”

And many such conversations. Finally, a Turkish man put down a tray of turkish delights and raised his arm slowly to point somewhere behind me. He nodded gravely like a prophet and in thickly accented English said, “There, that red tent. There you’ll find the Lamington.”

Big pint, half pint and Lamington (the unicorn of desserts in Borough Market).
We shared the Lamington, him taking much smaller bites than I. Our Friday afternoon began to unfold.
Soon, there would be drinks on the sidewalk with his coworkers – an international set from South Africa, Canada and New Zealand and a single, notable Brit named, incredibly, James Joyce. We would move indoors to another pub, where the Canadian, after getting the phone number of a young British woman, would return to our table and casually mention that he had a girlfriend.
“How long have you been dating?” I would ask.
“Three years,” the Canadian would say with a shrug.
The Brit named James Joyce would gasp and wonder if he ought to defend the honor of British women, because the Canadian had made it seem so easy. 
There would be a late dinner at POI’s favorite Indian Restaurant, just steps away from London Bridge, followed by a silent but satisfied bus ride back to Curtain Road. I would watch the city fly by from the second level windows of London’s famed double deckers and look forward to the days ahead. But mostly I would enjoy the ride back to Curtain Road, sitting side by side with this person of interest.

A London Photo Diary

For London, I missed one day of class.
Thursday morning in London town.
I landed at 10AM and did not arrive at my hotel until 11:45AM. The drive into the city was much longer than expected.
“What do you mean, ‘Is the traffic always this bad,'” the driver laughed, “This is good, smooth traffic. An hour from Heathrow into town is good. When it’s bad it’s terrible,” he waved at the road where all the cars seemed at a standstill, “This is very good traffic. You are lucky.”
He was neatly dressed, in his early forties and from Bangladesh. He spoke accented English in a soft measured way. Had I met him elsewhere, I would have thought him something other than a driver, but he was a husband and father too, living in London with his wife and two young children. He was wary of being priced out of the city. We talked about the cost of petrol (over 10USD per gallon!) and the growing number of bankers and real estate developers, the former who seemed to be the only people who could find jobs and the latter who were coming in to build extravagant flats only the superrich could afford. As we drove through various neighborhoods, he gave me a brief summary of each, quoting the average price of the flats.
“This neighborhood used to be affordable. Now it is no longer so.”
“See that building there? The smallest, lower level flats are said to start at ten million pounds.”
“This was not such a nice neighborhood but now the prices are going up because it’s being developed and more wealthy people are coming in to buy the homes for cheap.” He shifted in his seat, “Well, cheap for them.”
We passed tall glass architectural landmarks which made him shake his head, (“Soon there will be no one left but finance types and foreign businessmen.”) In the city, we drove in brief two-minute intervals, several yards at a time before stopping for many minutes more. London has very few highways, it seems. I remained undecided about roundabouts.
In front of the Holiday Inn Express, he put my suitcase down and surveyed the East London neighborhood where the Person of Interest (POI) lived, just up the street from the hotel in a blandly furnished but spacious corporate one-bedroom flat. POI had described the neighborhood as “the Brooklyn-ish borough of London.” “It has a lot of character,” he said. POI likes character: old stone buildings, fireplaces, quaint towns called Bath. The neighborhood had its seedier bits, I would learn, but gentrification was well underway.
Old Street Tube Station.
POI was at work. Check-in, take a nap, he said, and I’ll meet you for afternoon tea. I unpacked, showered. My room was on the 9th floor had a small window overlooking neighboring rooftops. Briefly, I considered heading out earlier to explore the city, but stood for a while in front of the window before falling onto the bed. “Hm,” I thought, “I’m in London.” I fell asleep.
Glistening rooftops.
Directly across the street from the hotel, amazing feats of graffiti, not so amazingly captured by my camera.
At 4PM I met POI for afternoon tea at Apsley’s in The Lanesborough, a swanky hotel in swanky Knightsbridge. We sat down at a quiet corner table. POI He had had a trying day at work and asked our server if they served beer with afternoon tea.
Remnants of afternoon tea at Apsley’s at the Lanesborough. Not pictured: the beer POI ordered.
A much better photo of the dining room taken from the hotel website. We sat in the back corner and had a very good view of very wealthy people taking tea. I think I was the only person to ask for seconds that day. Or ever.

“Certainly,” our server nodded. He was a young, South Asian man, dressed in a fitted white uniform. He stood ramrod straight and spoke with reassuring courteousness, a result of what I imagined was rigorous hospitality training. When the beer arrived, he poured it neatly, lifting the bottle with an elegant steadiness. I was transfixed. When I asked for seconds of the pink strawberry dessert below, (you can do this at British high teas) he said, “Certainly. I shall bring it straightaway.”

At a neighboring table, a lanky blond man in his early thirties ate alone, slowly working his way through eggs benedict and an afternoon tea tower for one. In between bites of cucumber and coronation chicken sandwiches, I wondered if he was waiting for someone. Perhaps his wife? But no one came and after a time, he left, much of the tower untouched.

The dessert tier BB (Before Betty).
After tea, POI suggested a walk through Hyde Park before heading to the theater. We had tickets to Monty Python’s “Spamalot.” There was a lake in there somewhere, he said. We could walk alongside the water. It was getting dark and we missed the lake by a few hundred yards. Instead we found ourselves at a crossroads somewhere at the heart of Hyde Park.
“Look,” POI joked, “We’re at a crossroads.”
So we were. A Muslim woman in a Burka pushed a stroller past us. We couldn’t see her face, but there was little light left and soon, it would be hard to read each other’s expressions.
POI suggested we have a glass of wine. I nodded and we walked out of the park, down into the tube,  wondering where to go. The Sherlock Holmes appeared, as though by magic.
Gentlemen standing and having a pint. This is common, to stand outside of or even across the street from the pub and tell your friends, “Come over! We’re at the pub!” when in fact you are probably outside the pub.
We sat outside at a small sticky table. A young Saudi man with an open delicate face approached, holding a pint and a pack of cigarettes. He was well dressed in a tailored slim black coat. An oxblood scarf hung around his slender neck. He did not appear to be waiting for anyone.
“May I put this here for a minute?” he asked, hovering the pint over the edge of our table, as though we’d say no. We nodded.
“Thanks,” he said.  We continued our conversation.
The young man smoked and tapped his cigarette towards the ground. Some of the ash floated our way and landed on POI’s suit. POI cast an annoyed look in the Saudi’s direction, but he did not notice. Instead, he came closer.
“It’s so refreshing to hear non-British accents,” he said, smiling. POI and I looked at each other – the Sherlock Holmes was quite a touristy bar – when I’d gone inside to use the restroom had heard several American, French and German conversations inside and spied a Japanese couple mulling over the menu near the door. His teeth were white and straight and his skin and hair gave off the healthy sheen afforded by a rich but moderated diet. He had what I could only place as an international accent – a hint of everything and indicator of nothing, except a privileged life lived in fine metropolises the world over. He might have gone to school in Switzerland, Hong Kong or Dubai. He took another drag of the cigarette – a certain carelessness in his eyes as he blew the smoke away – and asked where we were from.
“New York,” said POI. I added that I was originally from California.
The man nodded. He had gone to international school and guessed that POI had as well. I wondered if there was some sort of tell. POI had no discernible accent – he sounds completely American to me – but ten years in another country ought to make, at the very least, subtle alterations to ones’ tongue. The Saudi was here just for the night, revisiting an old haunt. He used to work around the corner in banking but was now in real estate several tube stops away.
“It’s not far,” he said, “but it feels like another world. I like it much better.”
He and POI spoke for a few minutes about real estate prices. The Saudi man was on the other side of things, perhaps the son of one of the superrich real estate developers who was making life in London an impossibility for the Indian driver. He did not see what the problem was. The “rise” – if one could call it that – in housing prices seemed reasonable to him. Better to get in early when things are not quite as expensive as they could be, just a few years from now. POI disagreed, but it was not a night to be arguing with strangers regarding economics. I watched them talk and wondered where it was the young Saudi called home. After a while, he excused himself to smoke alone on the curb.
The Shard at night.

The next morning I awoke at 5AM. I wrote a few emails then uncharacteristically went for a run. I ran up the street and past POI’s building. His lights were still off. I turned onto Hoxton Street and jogged past bright bakeries, cafes and delis. A fine mist fell the entire time so that when I was ready to turn back my hair was quite damp.

Diversity.
The Paris Cafe in London, where neither French nor English are spoken. Not sure why the man and woman are green.

I turned back onto the corner of Old Street and Curtain Road and looked up. The light on the fifth floor was on. POI was awake now too.

Dawn at the intersection of Hoxton St. and Curtain Road.
Breakfast essentials of an American man in London. Not pictured: my expression after trying Marmite.

POI had a half day of work before it was the weekend. Now it was time to see the city.

Flowers in London are cheaper than in New York City.
Though not quite as cheap as my flowered skirt from Forever 21.
The smart, decisive Shard and an unfortunate recycling truck that simply would not move.
An interesting way to disguise (or draw attention to?) rubbish bins.
I did not visit.
POI and I made plans to meet for lunch.
“Where?” I asked.
“Borough Market,” he said, “I’ll see you there at noon.”
Aka: more cheese samples than you’ve ever seen in your life.