London is the capital of England.
The first time I went to London, I was a senior in high school. It was the first time I had ever traveled outside of the country. It was my first trans-atlantic flight. We were getting ready to put on a production of Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona and to our good fortune, we were also seeing it performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon. They took us on a tour of the Globe Theater and we also went to Camden Market. I stood in front of the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum, and I almost peed my pants laughing at my friends when we visited the hokey London Dungeon. I had a crush on my tour director – he turned out to be gay. I missed it a lot when I came back to the United States.
The second time I went to London was the summer after my freshman year of college. I’d broken up with my boyfriend and was looking for a bit of fun. It was a study abroad trip and I took classes on British history. I learned about every king and queen of England (and some Scottish ones too), from Alfred the Great until Queen Elizabeth II. We visited a lot of castles, a lot of churches, a lot of cafes and a lot of gift shops. We drank a lot of Strongbow cider, at the pub, and in Millennium Park (after the pubs closed). I went on a few dates with a drug dealer from Croydon and an engineering student who brought me Goldfish crackers from his recent trip to Canada. I missed it even more when I came back to the United States.
The third time I went to London was right after the last time I studied abroad. I had a stopover in the city before embarking on a bus tour of Europe with Contiki. I went back to my favorite fish and chip shop. I walked along the Thames near my old university. It was colder now, and there were Christmas markets. I met my best friend, Dana, who was studying in Buckinghamshire. We took a ride on the London Eye, and I remember feeling how ridiculous it was to pay almost $30 to stand in this pod, overlooking the city at night, when I’d seen the entire city from the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral nearly three years prior for only $4. We found a winter carnival and I remember riding on the Tube and thinking about how small it was compared to Prague’s massive, boxy metro cars.
My best friend is going to be living in London this summer. I think I might go and live with her too.
The heat wave of 2006 gave us a very different impression of a city that was typically shrouded with gray skies all year long. The evenings, without use of an air conditioner, are brutally hot – one had to sleep nude or else risk illness due to overheating.
But the mornings are mercifully cooler.
We converge at Waterloo Station before walking down that ever-lasting platform to a train that would take us somewhere new and exciting, historic and inspiring. I remember the smells – the smoky scent of coffee, the cinnamon sweetness of cappuccinos brewing for the commuting crowds, fresh-cut flowers at the Marks and Spencer’s kiosk where I always bought a boxed sandwich for breakfast. There’s nothing like an egg and cress sandwich at 8:15am.
Our tickets are handed out and we board different compartments of the train, with their plastic and plush seats decorated in bright orange and blue designs.
I love living in the city, but I also love leaving it as well. There is something about finding yourself looking out to a corn field minutes after the train has left the station, that is so outside of anything I have ever known. Where I came from, it is the city, followed by the suburbs, followed by the slums, and then, if you are lucky, maybe you see an acre or two of cleared land. Nothing like this though. I have to drive for hours and hours if I want to see so much as a farm stand on Long Island.
My friends chat or sleep, but my face is pressed to the glass. I love the way the sunlight makes nature look golden in the mornings, how all you can see is a rolling meadow with a dot in the distance; a house, no doubt, an old house, that has been passed down and is made of brick-red painted wood, with white trim. Public transportation isn’t so bad when you’ve got something nice to look at day after day.
We end up in Winchester, or Oxford, Bath or Edinburgh. The view is always the same, except when we pass through Newcastle – that is a bit different.
But English scenery will never disappoint me, I think.
Enchanted by the prospect of seeing King Arthur’s fabled “round table,” we head to Winchester, England, on our first out-of-London field trip.
Winchester Castle has survived well, despite being almost 1,000 years old. Perhaps it’s due an invested interest in English culture and the country’s dedication to historic preservation, but the old hall, towering 55 feet above my tilted head, is as authentic as if I were its original inhabitant. On the stone wall in front of me sits the faded, multicolored round table. For a moment, I’m humbled.
“Unfortunately, it’s not really King Arthur’s table,” Dr. McCandless, my professor, shatters my enchantment. “Edward I was obsessed with the King Arthur legend. He created it and used it during his stately meetings to emulate how the ‘once future king’ might have conducted himself.”
Slightly disappointed, we disperse into smaller groups and take our time walking about the Great Hall. Meg notices how the natural light shines through the ornate stained-glass windows, casting interesting shadows across the walls and floor.
“Take my picture,” she asks, posing at the window, looking into the light in a somewhat holy-manner. I snap her photo, and ask her to do the same.
The contrast in the photo is incredible. The shadows and the light work together in a way to highlight my skin and eyes, silhouetted by the dark adjacent to the window, the blackness of my hair. It’s striking.
I wish King Arthur had been real.
We take a cab to Chinatown.
“Do you have a place in mind?” David asks as we stroll through alleyways chock full of red and gold souvenirs. We’d met in an online chatroom prior to my arrival in London. David was sweet and courteous enough, but I knew there was something…dark about him. We went on a few dates because he was definitely an honest guy, he just didn’t always tell the truth.
I shrug. It is chilly and I put my jacket on. “Not really. Just somewhere that looks good.”
We study a few outer facades. Were ducks hanging in the window? How clean were the tables? What kind of ambiance did the lighting provide? Some restaurants have a few criteria, but none had all. We agree on a decent-looking place on the main road, and walk inside.
A small, wrinkled Asian man leads us to a table in the basement of the restaurant, despite there being plenty of open seating above ground. Only one other couple is seated in this Chinese restaurant dungeon. The lights are too bright. The decor akin to that of a 1980s soap opera set – fan-shaped mirrors, pastel-colored tiling.
“…not exactly the kind of place I would have pictured for a date,” I mumble as we look at the menu.
“Yeah love, it is a bit dodgy, innit?” David replies in his South London cockney accent. He sneers at the empty dining area.
“It looks a lot nicer upstairs, why did they shove us down here?” I ask
“Should we make a run for it, love?” he makes a motion like a hitch hiker towards the exit.
I nod. “Yeah. Let’s go.”
We tramp upstairs and pass the maitre’d. “We left somefin’ in the car chap, be a jiffy right back.” I’m not entirely sure the man at the front comprehends what David conveyed but either way, he doesn’t raise an eyelid.
“I can’t believe we just left the restaurant,” I acknowledge as we look for a new place to dine.
“Yeah, well, like yeh said,” David replies. ”It’s no place for a propa’ date yeah. Let’s find somewhere new.”
To me, it seemed odd that a Chinese culture such as this should exist in London. Chinese settlers made sense in America – their history went back far beyond those of typical Atlantic-crossing immigrants. But London? What did they build here? Chow Mein and plastic junk shops? Not only that, but it was incredibly weird for me to hear any ethnicity outside of Caucasian speak in a British accent. Just not something you really prepare for when living in the Anglo-Saxon haven of your girlhood dreams.
We settle on a new place, a bit more sparkly than the last and definitely more populated. They put us at a table meant to seat six, but at least we are sitting. Our menus are handed to us and the host leaves.
The menu is extensive, but something is amiss.
“All of the prices are handwritten,” I remark.
He studies the items. “You’re too right, love. That’s queer.”
“That typically means it’s a tourist menu,” I remember reading in my travel preparations that hand-written or penciled-in prices are ways that foreign restaurants scam their customers. They had two menus available, and the ones with scribbled in numbers were often inflated beyond belief.
“This is so sketchy,” he says, closing his menu. “Do you wanna split?”
“Again?” I laugh. But indeed, I do.
“Yeah chap, we forgot somethin’ in the car, we’ll be right back, honest,” David repeats to the drowsy waiter who eventually comes around to take our order.
“We’ll be right back,” I echo as we all but run out of the dining room.
We can’t stop laughing in the street upon our exit. To abandon a restaurant one time is different, but twice is criminal. And there is a lack of new places to stalk out as well.
“Shall we go for steaks?” I ask, eying a cheesy European joint at the far corner.
“Capitoll idea love,” we walk arm in arm down the alley to the entrance of civilization.
Most times when I think about my impromptu dates with Englishmen, that story comes to mind.
I’ve never been to London during the holidays. I’ve been in summertime, and in the dead of winter in February, but London on December 13th is charming and nostalgic. Storefronts are bedecked in Victorian-themed Christmastime window scenes, pine needle garlands wrap around lamposts and hang above on electrical wires. And then, there are the markets.
I do so love a good European Christmas market.
Dana, her friend Roger and I meet at Fishcoteque, the greasy fish ‘n chips shop I used to frequent while a student at King’s College. Dana and Roger are studying music and television production at the University of Buckinghamshire – although they’ve been in the United Kingdom for three months now, this is their first time ever visiting London.
We decide to do some touristy things – take a ride on the London Eye, walk to Westminster Abbey. From Fishcoteque I lead them on the familiar path towards the river Thames, past the National Theatre where in the summer, Shakespeare is performed for free. I can see the Oxo Tower, looming in the background, where I was stood up one time after my date was arrested for dealing drugs.
God, I miss London.
The Thames is brightly lit tonight. Market stalls selling festive wares make me smile, putting me in a rare holiday spirit. One kiosk in particular catches our attention -
Rows and rows of British candy neatly sit within nested boxes. Dana, with her perpetual sweet tooth, immediately digs in. She collects enough sweets for all three of us and explains how much better the London Eye will be, now that we have gummy worms.
Later that year, Dana discovered she was hypoglycemic. All I can picture is her viciously tearing through the buckets of British sweets, and eating half of the bag herself that very evening.