[I forgot to mention in this morning's post that It rained overnight, and everything was wet outside when I woke up. Luckily, it ended up being sunny and beautiful all day.]
[I also forgot to mention that I somehow managed to get a huge scratch on my sunglasses I bought for this trip. Something must have rubbed against them in my purse. Good thing they were cheap and I brought another pair ]
I wandered to McDonald's to use the internet connection. My laptop battery started dying before I could finish with the pictures. So, I wandered across the street to an internet cafe. Its 3 pounds per hour for a connection, but they are turning a blind eye to me using power. It takes a while to get photos uploaded and named, etc. Read email, yadda yadda.
On the flight over to London, when I was telling Chris about my family's English history (traced back to the 1100's) and the Hayden castle, he said that his brother lives in that area and he might be driving there Sunday to get out of town for the Marathon. He would keep me posted via email.
Also, as we were parting ways at Victoria tube station, he said if I liked Indian food to give him a call and he will take me to an area where there are a lot of Indian restaurants, and hopefully to one really great one in particular.
I decide that I'm not going to take the Sunday drive. I want to see the more touristy sites and get some photos. Maybe even get some pictures of the marathon since I'm here and won't likely have that opportunity again. Not to mention that it's about a 2.5 hour drive each way.
Indian food sounds like a great option for dinner tonight, though. So, I wander out to call Chris on a pay phone to see if the offer still stands. I discover that most London payphones have wads of paper jammed into the coin slots, or the coin slots are damaged. After about 3 attempts at the second phone, it finally accepts my coins, and Chris picks up. The call ends abruptly after about 10 seconds. I'm not having much luck getting the phone to take coins again, so I walk down the street for a couple blocks trying each phone along the way. At about the 5th phone, I find one that will take coins. Of course it is the first booth I've come across where the door is missing, so I'm hoping the traffic noise doesn't interfere. We have a brusque conversation concluding that he will meet me at the McDonald's at 7pm. It's 5:30ish now. My laptop is charged so I can do more work online while I wait. I can also fill out the postcards if I decide not to get online.
Chris shows up shortly after 7 and I'm impressed since London traffic is like nothing I've seen before. On the way to his car, I see a city worker pulling a large container with a vacuum hose along the sidewalk and I comment that I 'now understand why London is so clean'. Chris points out that we are in one of the better areas, Westminster - where there is tourism and government, but it's not this clean everywhere.
I also mention that I've noticed there is a clear lack of public trash receptacles - and the ones I've seen are these sturdy concrete jobs. He says that started in an effort to minimize the IRA bombs being dropped in trash bins (and now to minimize other terrorist organizations potentially doing the same thing). Wow. Ok.
I mention my amusement with using McDonald's as my home base and that I would have expected wireless to be available at cafe's like it is in the states. He says that McDonald's had some bad press and they are doing what they can to attract business. Well, it worked on me.
Chris drives us along the tourist route pointing out the sites. (There is a man who lives in a tent in the park. He has been there since the Iraq war started and the government has made a special allowance for him to stay there. Fascinating.) The traffic is horrendous, and I know it must be a pain for him, so I'm grateful. I'm particularly fascinated as he points out some of the original very old buildings that were not destroyed by German bombs in WW2. This is an eye-opener for me. We also go past part of the original Roman wall. Everything here makes me realize how young we are as a country in the U.S.. It's one thing to know something cerebrally, but to have the tangible evidence really drives the point home.
It takes about a half hour to get to what he says is the "East End" - not to be confused with "East London". It's an area that used to be where the lower class laborers resided. It's still less affluent, but the gap is not so wide. (Later, over dinner, we discuss concerns about how this gap seems to be widening again in both our home countries.)
We park and walk down to a street lined with nook restaurants along both sides sporting colorful lighted signs. (I can't recall the name of the street. Maybe Chris will leave it in the comments.) You can smell curry from the end of the street. There is a hopping brewhouse and a film festival going on. 3 men are playing live music out front. This area seems to be the place where hip London youth go to be seen.
Each Indian place we pass by has someone out front trying to pull you in with a deal. Chris said it's illegal so they stopped doing that for a long time, but it's started back up again.
We reach the restaurant that he says is the best: Aladin Balti restaurant (nobody soliciting here - just a bouncer to keep people from pushing their way in). They know him, and he says they will call us when a table opens up. So, we continue to wander through the crowds taking in the sites and smells. There is an Indian sweet shop that I drag chris into so I can take pictures because it's so fantastically beautiful the way things are layed out. We picked out a few things to try after dinner.
Chris shows me one of his favorite streets in the area. he used to live there his last year of college. The buildings are extremely old and some have been restored, but others have left the brick in it's original condition. In spots the brick is still nearly black from all the soot and smoke that used to hang all over London from the chimneys and burning coal.
Chris talked about the time when the Huguenots came through. (I wish I could recall what he said. I've been trying to enjoy my experiences in the moment instead of staying behind my camera and my notebook all the time. Unfortunately that means I lose a lot of details. But I have a great time!) This street reminds me of New Orleans. I think its the dark energy that swirls around the buildings... like they want to tell you their sad stories.
We walk back on another street that has the most interesting Moorish architecture on the building facade. At one point near the end of the street - they have built a modern glass building that comes all the way up to the facade leaving only about 5 feet between. They have propped the facade with wooden beams. So odd.
[It seems like all of London is in transition. Old and new together. Overlapping. It's not a clean transition anywhere tha I can see. You will have very old things in varying states of repair right next to very new shiny things everywhere you look.]
[At some point, Soho comes up and it reminds me of Salena Godden. I wish I was getting a chance to see her while I'm here . Have a wondrous tour love!]
Apparently it's common that a restaurant will not have license to sell alcohol, but you can bring your own drinks if you like. So, we stopped at a tiny shop and each picked out an Indian beer to take to the restaurant.
We wandered back to Aladin to check the status of our table. Not ready yet. There always seems to be a rotating mob of people trying to talk their way inside. Once people get a table, they are loathe to leave it, apparently. There isn't the same kind of 'rush the customer to turn the table quickly and make bigger profits' mentality here.
We end up waiting outside quite a long time, but I'm perfectly happy people watching and listening to the live music from down the street.
I comment that I like how most women here wear scarves, because I love to wear scarves, but its less common in the states. I also express my bafflement at some of the fashions. Are bubble skirts really needing to come back from the 80's? He says I notice everything. But i I know that's not true generally, so I think I'm just in observation mode. Besides, this is all different for me, where it's the norm for him.
A group of girls is trying to get into the restaurant and they are passing a wine bottle between them. I'm surprised to see anyone drinking on the street in such a blatant way and Chris explains that it's perfectly legal. At that point, I express my surprise that everyone is not drinking on the street while walking around. He seems to think that would be in poor taste. There is some cultural difference there, and we are both curious as to why. I explain that the only place people can drink in public in the U.S. is Nevada (I think). So, it seems like a novelty that you can only take advantage of if you are on vacation in Las Vegas or something. I still can't quite comprehend why it makes any difference in tastefulness whether you drink inside or outside if its all equally legal. But we chalk it up to a cultural thing. Moments after this discussion, we both realize that the girls passing around the wine bottle are American and exchange knowing grins.
[Chris says he has seen various minor celebrities and some MPs at Aladin on occasion. I say "I assume that doesn't mean 'Military Police'", and he laughs and explains that its a common reference to "Members of Parliament". Ah, ok.]
We eventually get settled into our table on the small downstairs part of the restaurant. The music is at that festive level where everyone has to speak loudly to hear each other, but you can still be heard. They are playing what I might qualify as "Hindi Club Mix" but Chris called it a name I can't remember - something related to Bangladesh. It's warm and cozy and the food is worth the wait. It's fantastic! There is orange zest in the Raita. Wow. Each dish has a unique exquisite blend of spices that I wish I could bottle and carry around with me to take out and sniff whenever I please. Heavenly.
Part of the reason this restaurant is so popular (besides the amazing food) is that about 20 years ago, Prince Charles himself made a speech about how this area used to be full of sweat shops and has vastly improved. And he mentions this restaurant in particular. By special request, they will play the tape for the guests. Lots of folks were requesting it, so I had the privilege of hearing the tape and cheering with everyone when the restaurant is mentioned. Woo hoo!
[I've noticed that you don't get water served at restaurants. If you ask for it, they serve you tap water.]
After we eat, there is one more sight that Chris says is not to be missed. The famous Bagle Shop. They are open 24/7 and have been around for a very long time - since this was a Jewish district. They hand-make the dough. Too bad I was so full. I would have loved to try a fresh baked bagel. And my photo turned out blurry. More excuses to return
It's getting late and I have sweater layers but no jacket, so I'm getting chilly. We head back to the car. I'm closing my eyes half the time in the car because I can't seem to get used to the way people drive here. We talk about the differences between the countries in this respect and I also share my amusement with the cars in general.
I also realize that something is missing here in London that makes it seems very different from home... Mexicans! I have come across a few Spanish speaking people, but not a single Mexican. Nor a Mexican restaurant. Apparently there are a couple of Mexican specialty restaurants, but that's it. He said the population equivalent here would be the Pakistani and Indian. There are probably almost as many middle eastern restaurants here as there are Taquerias in California - so that makes sense.
Chris drops me at my hotel. We divvy up the desserts and say our thanks and farewells. [Thank you so much, Chris!! Let me know if you and Paula want a tour of Santa Cruz next time you are in The States!]
I check the time in the hotel lobby. It's 3 minutes to Midnight. And, yes. That caused me to get an Iron Maiden song stuck in my head. It seems fitting - since I'm in their home country.
I'm exhausted but I take a bite of each dessert because I'm curious and don't know if they will still be good tomorrow. The beige blocky one is the only one that doesn't make me cringe. It reminds me of something I've had before, but can't put a finger on. Perhaps marzipan.
One last random observation about London for the day. They can do just about anything with brick. I've seen more shapes, sizes, colors, patterns, and uses of brick since I've been here than I could ever have dreamed. I guess it's likely it stands out more to me being from California. You rarely see brick used in Earthquake country.