I hopped across the channel on Thursday to see some friends and take a break from…SPEAKING FRENCH.
My gosh, I don’t think I realized how much I missed being able to properly express myself. Don’t get me wrong: I love learning another language; it’s one of the reasons I chose to give Paris a go. But sometimes it makes my brain hurt. I pretty much feel an IQ level below everyone else ALL THE TIME. I can’t take a conversation beyond “C’est une jolie chaise!” (That’s a pretty chair.) So you can imagine my delight when I’m able to say something like, “That’s a pretty chair. I like how the back curves and the cushions are embroidered.” That said, I also realized how very much engrained the language is becoming. I automatically want to say “merci” instead of “thank you” and “pardon” or “excusez-moi” for “excuse me.”
So that was my first observation upon landing back in an Anglo-speaking country last week. Here are a few other things I missed—and didn’t miss—about London.
THINGS I MISSED…
Gosh I love reading the papers in London. There are so many of them! Though, by the time I left two years ago, I had pretty much boiled it down to two: The Sunday Times and The Observer. Reading both in a day is a huge feat with all the glossy inserts and sections. Over the last three months in Paris, since my French isn’t up to par yet, I still read the New York Times—and I read it on my phone. But there’s nothing I love more than finding myself a comfy spot on Sunday and flipping through newsprint. In New York, one of my favorite places to do it is either in my backyard at home in Long Island when the weather’s nice, or at Jack’s coffee shop in the West Village. In London, it’s practically required to do it in a pub over a Roast, and that’s exactly what my friend Hannah and I did on Sunday. Whatever articles and inserts I didn’t finish, I had for the many tube rides I’d take, which brings me to…
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: It’s the best underground system in the world. With one exception: It shuts at midnight. Otherwise, it’s clean, it’s reliable, it’s intuitive (holla Oyster card!) and it’s fast, which for such a large, sprawling city is tres important. In fact, while it zooms quickly, the distance between stations really proves how large the city is. In Paris, one stop is practically seconds from the next and more often than not if you’re only going one or two stops it makes more sense just to walk. But in London, one stop could be a giant leap for all London-kind, which brings me to…
THINGS I DIDN’T MISS…
London is so freakin’ big. It’s a sprawling city and you can’t get anywhere—anywhere!—in under 20 minutes. Whether it’s a 20 minute walk, a 20 minute walk to the tube, a 20 minute walk to the tube AND a 20 minute tube ride PLUS another 20 minute walk. Paris and New York both feel way more compact. People live next door to the hip, hot new restaurant or upstairs from a dry cleaner or pressing. They live in the West Village or the Marais or Montmartre. In London, “flats” and neighborhoods are far removed from even the most basic necessities, making a milk run a major ordeal. (Though, at least in London you can do it in sweats.) Each neighborhood—or postal code as they’re known—feels like its own village…that’s a far away land from anything else.
The street crossing!
In Paris, I have to use my brain to speak, which seems fair. But in London, I have to use my brain just to cross the damn street. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to looking to the right first when walking and someday Blighty’s gonna knock me the-F-out as a result.
I realized all the aforementioned over the course of the last five days while staying at my Fabulous-with-a-capital-F friend Rachel’s apartment in Islington in northeast London. Sadly, she wasn’t around to have a slumber party with me, but that meant I had her entire flat to myself! It was such a treat, coming off of three months living in fairly basic (and very small) apartments. She’s done such a lovely job with the decor and I loved getting to know this part of London.
On my first day, her friend Iain met me at St. Pancras and helped deliver me to her flat (20 minutes on the tube, 20 minutes from there). Then we went for lunch and saw the Guy Bourdin: Image Maker exhibit at Somerset House, which Rachel recommended. Seeing as the late fashion photographer was French, it felt super apropos and I really enjoyed the clever campaign work he did for shoe designer Charles Jourdan.
That night, I met my friend Fran at Keeper’s House in the Royal Academy of the Arts for a drink. We then ate dinner at fancy-shmancy Hakkasan, an over-the-top global restaurant chain that serves overpriced Chinese food. The scene was a bit much for both of us, but we were gabbing non-stop and then even got into talking to the couple next to us who eventually insisted we taste their dessert. Next thing we know we’re double fisting our after-dinner wine and a glass of champagne they sent over. Then we realized it was midnight and we had to catch the tube lest we turn into pumpkins! It was a super fun night with a great girlfriend. (Subsequently, another thing I miss. But that’s a whole other blog post.)
Friday, I got some work done and met up with two more friends I hadn’t seen in a while. Spoiler Alert: One of them is the subject of my next blog post. ARE YOU DYING WITH CURIOSITY??? TUNE IN ON THURSDAY FOR A REAL THROWBACK…
I also treated myself to a massage at Cowshed, which was way too short. (#FirstWorldProblems) I finished the night eating solo at a fish ’n chips spot in Islington. I opted for a shrimp burger, because I’m not really into the super fried filet. But super-fried chopped shrimp in between two pieces of bread with aioli is A-OK. Also, chips and mushy peas!
Saturday I got up early and took the tube 20 minutes (times two) all the way to Waterloo Station in south London to get a national rail line to Salisbury where I then got a bus to Stonehenge, which is about 30-minutes from the station. Lest you think my getting that all in one sentence meant I didn’t have to run to make the 10:20a.m. train from Waterloo you are mistaken. I honestly can’t believe I made it, but I suppose I’ve finally got the insert-chip-card, enter-your-code routine down pat.
Despite it being a totally touristy, tick-off-a-list thing to do, I’ve wanted to go to Stonehenge for some time. I added it this trip because, well, you know I can’t sit still for very long and like to explore new territory. Unbeknownst to me it was about 15 degrees colder in Salisbury and soon upon arriving I realized there’d be no way to stop the tears from streaming down my face and the guck from dripping out my nose. Lovely, I know. But it also felt like some weird cosmic reaction to the stones, which many people have healing powers. (Newsflash: I still have a lingering cough.) So I stuffed my headphones into my ears to listen to the audio guide while taking in the green fields, sheep grazing them and the massive stone structures installed amid them over 5,000 years ago. Remarkable. I walked completely around the stones, marveling at their changing shapes and colors and stayed for about an hour and a half before taking the mini bus back to the visitor’s center where I indulged in a much-needed hot chocolate.
I got back to London with enough time to shower and relax before dinner with Hannah at Primeur, another local spot Rachel recommended. (This one was actually only 5-minutes down the road. For real.) To get a reservation I had to Tweet at the restaurant, which felt oh-so-twee (!), but also kinda cool. We had a great dinner and bottle of wine, which subsequently left us in a food coma, unable to at least pretend we can hang tough on a Saturday night anymore.
On Sunday, I strolled the neighborhood, going in and out of all the cute boutiques and shops near—ahem, 20 minutes from—Rachel’s house. Then Hannah and I went to a pub where I read the papers and she proceeded to interrupt me and steal my mustard mashed potatoes. I wouldn’t have it any other way, though.
Late in the afternoon, I trekked it up to my friend Beth’s house which is “close to Rachel”—aka a good 20 minutes via two tube lines. We hung out with her 14-month-old Roddy and just caught up over tea. I got home in time to settle into Rachel’s lush L-shaped couch to watch the BAFTA’s, which felt so amazingly indulgent. An award show! In English! On a screen bigger than my laptop!
Monday I got up and out early to wait on line for same-day tickets to Merchant of Venice, which was playing at a theater close to Rachel’s house (you know how close). Fran saw it and said it was a cool and contemporary interpretation of the classic Shakespeare play, only instead of Venice, this one takes place in Vegas. I got the last two seats together for my friend Kate and I. Then I went into “town” where I met the most lovely publicist for lunch at the most delicious restaurant Nopi by Ottolenghi. It felt like I was meeting an old friend.
After a stop in at TK Maxx (that’s right, in London it’s TK Maxx, not TJ Maxx) for some things I refused to spend ridiculous money on in Liberty (candles, an umbrella), I got back home in time to do some work and then turn back around to meet Kate at the theater.
The play was super cool, though I always forget how soooooooo verrrrrrrry loooooooong Shakespeare is. Not to mention that I didn’t realize how little I knew this play, so to see an interpretation of it made it very difficult to understand. Luckily, I had my own “Shakespeare for Dummies” in Seat D10. Kate, who did a thesis on the play back in school, gave me the full rundown at intermission, so by the time Act II started, I was totally enraptured as opposed to doing the head-bob thing that was happening during Act I.
After the play, we went for a cheap, but delicious late dinner to catch up and both did another hustle to make the last tube home.
And that was the extended weekend that was! A mix of seeing friends and eating good food and walking a lot to tubes and, most of all, flexing my native tongue. Even if I told the same stories over and over again to different people, at least I was able to tell them.
Et maintanent, Je suis prêt a Paris encore! (And now, I am ready for Paris again.) Time to create more stories to share. In English or French, only time will tell. Probably in longer than 20 minutes, though.