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.
This is a story about my favorite sandwich. You can find the best kind in any box in the United Kingdom.
I stand in front of the open cooler, ankles pursed together, hands in the pockets of my red woolen coat. The boxes ware stacked so perfectly. I can’t help but wonder, did the staff receive tutorials on product placement during training?
It must be, that if something so mundane as a sandwich is displayed in such a smooth, geometric fashion, it makes it more appealing to consumers and therefore, I contemplate, the odds of a purchase are greater.
There are more varieties of sandwiches than I have ever seen before. Some elements, I am familiar with – sandwiches with ham, sandwiches with turkey, sandwiches with mayonnaise, mustard, lettuce and tomato. Except there were no predictable “baloney and cheese” varieties like those found in American sandwich shops. These have creative twists to them – pairings of different tastes which I’ve never dreamed could be possible.
“Parmesan and celery,” I think aloud, examining the pink box. “I wonder how that is?”
The less expensive options are the vegetarian sandwiches. These typically consist of a dairy and a vegetable. The more meat, the more exotic the combination, the more expensive the price tends to be.
“Prawn St. Marie,” I hold up a light blue box to my face. Between two slices of chocolate brown wheat bread is a mess of peachy-pink goo. White mounds protrude through every now and again. “That’s a fancy way to say ‘shrimp salad’ I suppose.”
I look at sandwiches with smoked salmon and cucumbers. “Too raw,” I think. I find one with avocado, spinach and pine nuts. “Too messy,” I reason. I pick up a brown colored box stacked high on the top shelf.
“Cheese and onion?” I grimace. Gingerly, I place it back on the shelf.
“I suppose I’m going to have to be boring and predictable,” I whisper tomyself as I reach into a middle grating for a light yellow box.
“Egg Mayonnaise and Watercress,” I smile softly. “Perfect.”
In a public square outside of Marks and Spencer, I find a quiet bench and sit down to eat. The sandwich is the perfect consistency – more egg than mayonnaise, as opposed to the artery-clogging alternative I am used to in the States. The watercress, not normally found on the US version of an egg salad sandwiches, provides a clean crispness to the meal. The wheat bread has traces of walnut baked into the dough, and is outlined with grains. This is no ordinary sandwich. Who knew something so simple could be such a culinary masterpiece?
I contemplate licking my finger and picking up the crumbs left at the bottom of the triangular box. Enough is enough, I agree. Tomorrow, I can get a whole new sandwich. This one was absolutely perfect, just the way it was.