I saw London differently this time. I saw it through new eyes. Specifically four of them, as immediately upon arriving on Saturday I came down with some sort of eye infection, which relegated me to my glasses. For the entire time I was there.
But it wasn’t just the double vision that showed me a new side of the city. It was the all new weather conditions, too. The sun was out! Like, almost everyday. Sure, there were some clouds, making me wonder if it might rain at any time. But it didn’t. Not once! It was tried and true summer. Londoner’s ate their Pret sandwiches outside on lawns during lunch and dozens whizzed by via “Boris Bikes.” (Something I didn’t quite have the courage to try, unfortunately.)
In fact, it was so warm that I noticed quite a few odd things about London in the summer. For one, they pretty much don’t believe in air conditioning. Anywhere. I guess because it doesn’t usually get that hot? All I know is the Tube, in all its clean, on-time, efficient glory, is so freakin’ steamy and uncomfortable. Transport for London knows it too, and they have these very kitschy ads reminding people to hydrate while riding.
Another odd thing the warm weather brings in London? Mozzies! I got eaten alive! I am definitely susceptible to mosquitos, so if they’re around, they’ll find me. But in London? So odd.
But perhaps the best thing about the wonderful weather was that it allowed me to wander without shivering, and determine that actually, so long as I’ve got my bearings (north/south/east/west—say by finding the Shard or the Gherkin in the skyline) this city is fairly easy to SEE. When I was here in the winter, I thought it was so hard. Like one massive West Village with odd turns and street names changing with ever step. It’s still one big maze, but to my astonishment, I could navigate it! I topped-up my oyster card like a pro, transferred trains like a local and have become fairly adept at looking right first. (Though, I definitely then look left, look right again, and left, before finally leaving the curb. So…actually…maybe I’m not 100 percent confident crossing the roads just yet.)
No matter where I went or what I did, it felt natural. I walked a lot more, too, which is something I just couldn’t do last year because it was so darn cold and so darn dark all the time. There’s just no greater satisfaction than knowing whether to turn right or left or that if you “just go down this street instead” it’ll bring you around to where you want to go.
Since I did and saw so much in the four months I was here last year—from Shoreditch High Street to King’s Road in Chelsea; from the Tate Modern to the National Portrait Gallery—I didn’t book myself silly this trip. I tossed around the idea of going to Stonehenge, as that’s a day trip I’d really like to make. But it never happened. So many other wonderful things did, though. And while my friends who live there would say that in my “just doing London casually for a few days” I probably did more than they’ve done the whole summer, it felt fluid and free.
The fun began on Saturday night at FEAST, a food festival near the Tobacco Docks in Wapping, my old ‘hood, which meant I had to swing by Stockholm Way for old time’s sake.
Then a group of us ate our faces off all night, which did nothing for our “oldness” and intentions to go out after. Instead, each of us with our full bellies retreated back to our corners of the city at around 11p.m…. on a Saturday night. Still, it was a fun, food-filled night.
On Sunday, Hannah and I had an epic day just wandering about. The goal was at some point to have a roast and read the papers, my favorite Sunday in London activity, but we started up in Hackney Wick, an area of East London where a lot of artists live and work. It was the last day of Hackney Wicked Arts Festival, which saw artists opening their studios, housed in massive warehouses, to the public. But I forgot about all the amazing street art in London, and this area was a haven for it. You didn’t even have to go inside the studios! (Though, we did.) The creativity and color was all around. We heard a steel drum band play covers of Lily Allen and Michael Jackson, sampled a few sweet treats and downed the best mojito of our lives made by a nearly shirtless man mixing them up from his barge. After hours of wandering, we did end up in Islington where I had my roast at Smokehouse, rated one of the best in London, and attempted to read The Times. (Hannah is a very fast reader and likes to talk a lot. But, actually, I loved having someone to read and discuss with.)
Monday I hung around Balham, where I was staying at Clare’s as I did last year, and got some work done and then met my friend Fran and a few others for drinks at cool pub in Shoreditch where we got to sit outside (!) and I had a requisite Shandy. Then we ate at this awesome new Peruvian restaurant called Andina.
After getting a tip to check out the ponds at Hampstead Heath for a swim, I got an early start on Tuesday and headed up on the Northern Line. Going back to the Heath was one of the things I wanted to do this week, as every time I tried to go last year it was frigid. (A romp in nature is never really fun when you’re freezing and the ground is covered in snow.)
I can’t say the pond was something I was dying to jump into. For one, I’m not much of a swimmer. I’m not good at it, and I just don’t find pleasure in or feel comfortable getting wet unless I’m really really hot. (And it wasn’t really really hot.) Plus, it had this camp-lake-icky-bottom vibe that I just don’t jam all that well with. I did lie next to the pond for a bit, which may or may not have been wise considering the mozzie situation, but ah well.
After an hour or so, I made my way through to the top of the Heath where I caught a beautiful view of London, then wound down to the other side where I walked through the insanely beautiful Tufnell Park to connect with my friend Marianne. We had a tea at her friend’s lovely home where she’s staying, and I even had a shower as it was getting late and it didn’t make sense for me to go all the way back to Balham before seeing Shakespeare in Love in the West End that night.
(WHEW. I know, my “not doing a lot” is still a lot, right? Sigh. I try. I really do.)
I met Clare in Covent Garden, which I know my way around quite well because I used to take yoga over there. I arrived in the area with enough time to refuel with a coffee at Monmouth and duck in and out of a few shops, during which I decided, once again, that New York and Paris win hands down when it comes to shopping. These big High Street shops just don’t do it for me and I didn’t really find anything I couldn’t get at home, so why pay nearly double for it here?
But I digress…because I suspect that’s a touchy subject!
After the play, which I really enjoyed despite the fact that we sat way up in the Grand Circle and they don’t give you programs, we had amazing rosemary and lemon flavored gelato on a bench. Outside. As you do in LONDON IN THE SUMMER!
As I sat there all lickety-split, I looked up to see this massive beam in the sky and realized it was SPECTRA, a public lights memorial marking the centenary of Britain’s involvement in the first World War that I had read about in the London Evening Standard earlier that day. It reminded me a bit of what they do for September 11 in New York, and so I followed the beams all the way from Covent Garden down to Victoria Gardens in Westminster where you could get up close to them. There was even a musical soundtrack, which made it all seem a bit spooky, if not alien-esque. But it was also so beautiful, especially with Big Ben and the Abbey just behind it. From there, I hopped on a bus over the Thames and got one of the last Northern Line trains of the night back to Balham.
On Wednesday, I had a coffee with an editor at Eurostar magazine, which I hope to write for when Paris happens, and then met my friend Beth at the Barbican. I know Beth from Fabulous, though she’s out on maternity leave—has been since January and will be until this coming January!—so we took her adorable son Roddy into this cool interactive “digital revolution” exhibit, oddly enough sponsored by Bloomberg. We marveled at the fact that items like an Apple computer and Speak & Spell (!) are now on display in a museum.
Eventually, I made my way back to Balham to freshen up for my last night in London—and of this epic month-long trip. I had gotten tickets to dine with Mile High, an interactive dining group that hosts dinners in random pop-up locations based on a different foodie destination. It just so happened this month’s destination was Andulucia, Spain and seeing as I had just visited that area of Spain for real a few weeks ago, I thought it’d be fun to see whether those behind this cool project can make a true salmorejo. (Turns out, they can.) Waitresses were decked out in flight attendant uniforms, we got passports (and stamps) for ordering drinks and “checking in” to our table and only had to listen to the Macarena once. I went with Rachel, Kate and her lovely friend Emma, and we had a blast.
For my final half-day about town, I went back to Wapping for another meeting with a different editor (see? working holiday!) and in doing so, got to pass by the other current tribute to WW1 at the Tower of London, which has thousands of bright red faux poppies “planted” around its moat. Each angle was more beautiful than the next.
From there, I walked over Tower Bridge along the South Bank to Fabulous’ swanky new London Bridge offices. They’re in this huge building overlooking the Shard, where conference rooms are named after classic Sun headlines and there’s a “Sun Bus” photobooth, complete with props and costumes. It’s like camp. Seriously. I don’t know how anyone gets any work done with that view and all that kitsch!
After I made the rounds and said hi to everyone, which was so so lovely, Hannah and I went for a quick lunch at Borough Market. Man, if I worked there now that’d be the end of me. So. Much. Good. Food. I had my Scotch Egg, which I couldn’t leave London without eating, and eventually made my way back to Balham where I then took a bus and two tube lines to Heathrow. Like, no big deal. I know the place. I’ve seen it—with two eyes and with four, in summer and in winter—London is now old hat to me now. In the very best way.