Thursday, April 30, 2015

London: The Small Big City

Some kids grow up with fairy tale books. I grew up with British Literature. Sure, I had the French one, too, available, but my heart belonged to The Brits. There is some reverence about, an elegance, an order to it all. Unlike the French spirit, which is more haphazard and unexpected, the British folks are serious, balanced and possessed. With unexpected bursts of passion and lots of violence. I have always felt that we’re kindred spirits somewhere, in another life.

When I graduated college, everyone saw me moving to London. I remember my first trip to Margate (County Kent) – I sat down on the sidewalk and cried: I had found home and I never wanted to leave. I loved what I saw of London 19 years ago, in between the stops of the tourist bus that took me there. And I have longed to go back and to take it in at my own pace.

This year, this dream became real. We spent 5 days in London and we savored it. Or at least I did. You know: we always spent time reading about what we will do, and even plan a few things. We asked friends who have been there before what are the “must see”-s, we asked co-workers who live there how to effectively spend our limited time there. We took notes and we built an online portfolio of ideas, plans, pictures, “to see”, “to eat”, “to visit” things … And the minute we get off the plane and we get sucked into the first London cab, we let ourselves be swallowed by the whirlwind which is this old and beautiful city. We get carried away, and as one of my London friends said, we keep walking on to discover the magic behind every corner. And this curiosity becomes the only thing that drives us onto our journeys … Just like that, in an instance, the online portfolio is a thing of the past!

And magic this city has. I enjoyed the history lessons the most. I guess, after living in The States for 17 years, I was almost forgetting how heavy with history Europe really is. Every place we visited was a reminder of how old that country really is, and now young America is, by comparison. Not only every place we visited, but every wall and every statue we passed.

My husband’s favorite spot was Westminster Abbey. It is a strange place, really: a bit gloomy, more a huge mortuary than a true church. You step on graves and the names on them give you chills: Shakespeare, Dryden, Cromwell, Elizabeth I, Mary of The Scotts and so on … Like I said: my “fairy tales” …

My favorite spot was a somewhat “obscure” one – it was not something we planned to see, something we stumbled upon quite by accident: The National Gallery Museum in Trafalgar Square. We went in just to kill some time and because it was free. The amount of renowned Renaissance and Baroque painters whose works were exposed was astonishing! I thought I would have to make special trips to Madrid, Paris, or The Hermitage to see some of this art with my own eyes!

I mentioned before that we “kept walking” to discover what’s behind every corner, and with just one exception of the first day of the trip when we took a double decker bus to The Tower of London, we did indeed walk everywhere. We stayed in the Covent Garden area and we walked to Trafalgar, and Buckingham Palace and Westminster Square, and Waterloo Bridge. We stopped here and there, for snacks and beer, in between the history lessons.

And that brings me to my second huge surprise of the trip: whoever tells you Brits can’t cook have not been to England! Or … they lived in America way too long and their taste buds are damaged by too much cheese and butter! London folks know what to do with their meat and potatoes, let me tell you! Meat tastes like meat, not cheese, not bbq sauce, not soy, and etc. Potatoes are not greasy and tasting like oil – they taste like spuds! I did not have one bad dish there, and I tried their traditional food (fish and chips and bangers and mash) as well as other foreign cuisines, too, like Indian, Thai, even Italian – all delicious! My favorite, believe it or not, was breakfast toast (no butter – yes!) and the assortment of jams and preserves that they served it with. And yes, we had lots of beer, tea as well as gin, of course.

Although it is a busy and bustling city, we always felt safe here. There are policemen at literally every corner and bend in the road, in parks, museums and security at every hotel door. After walking the streets of Covent Garden for five days, we felt like we lived in a little borough, really, not a huge metropolis!  

I will leave you with the pictures from this trip. I wish you could smell the streets – a mixture of gas, cold spring air, and dust; I wish you could hear the incredibly noisy streets, half traffic and half construction work – a city always renewed, reinvented and restored; I wish you could see the richness of people’s races and cultures walking these streets; I wish you could taste the food – strong flavors, full of personality and uniqueness, without being loud; I wish you could be amazed at the spotless sky we had for 5 days straight and ask yourselves if you really are in the UK; I wish you could hear the steps of history chasing you on every alley, stories of torture and jealousy, betrayal and revenge. I wish you could smell The Thames and imagine that Dickens’s benches smelled that much more. I wish you could go and discover your London. It’s to each their own. 

An old landmark: The Houses of Parliament on River Thames: click on the picture for the whole album.