Sunday, July 5, 2009
I have a favorite city. It is not the one I live in, nor is it the one I grew up in. It's not even close by, which means I don't get to spend time there nearly often enough. I'm not sure if I will ever live there, or even if I would absolutely want to if I could. But when I'm there, usually for one week out of the year, two if I'm lucky, it's feels like I'm both on a fabulous vacation and right at home.
I know some people think I'm crazy for being crazy about London. It's busy, it's crowded, it costs a fortune to take a taxi anywhere, it costs a fortune to do just about anything and you need a compass to find your way through the seemingly plan-free street plan. All of those things may be true, but it's still my favorite city and I personally think the absurd pattern of streets just adds to the charm. But if you're still in doubt, let me elaborate on some of what makes London my favorite home away from home.
Ever So Helpful
If you've been to England, then you know that they drive on the opposite side of the road. Meaning the traffic is coming from the opposite direction that we as Americans are used to looking. Thankfully, most intersections have "look left" and "look right" helpfully painted on the ground at the start of the crosswalk so you can be certain you won't be surprised by the oncoming traffic. And then there's the Underground, which is in my opinion both the easiest subway to understand and navigate and the cleanest. At some stations, there is a recording reminding you ever so kindly to "please mind the gap" between the train and the platform. And if the general politeness and helpfulness of the city planning wasn't enough, just ask someone for directions. I've never had someone ignore me or refuse to help me, unless of course they were travelers too and didn't speak the language or know where they were any more than me. I was once lost near Borough Market, trying to find my way to the Millennium Bridge and a very nice cell phone sales guy with a head full of flaming orange hair gave me directions not once, but twice, laughing a little when I showed up for a second loop but more than willing to point out the path again.
Hyde and Seek
Without a doubt my favorite city park in the entire world, Hyde Park has a little bit of everything. It is a way to get from West Kensington to Oxford Street when you want a little break from the bustle of the city. It is a place to sit by a pond or stroll through the trees. And my favorite, it is a place to rent a lounge chair for a pound or two, grab an ice cream cone from the vendor if it's a rare warm day, and sit and pound the keys of my laptop while the world wanders by. I've seen family picnics on the grass, orations and rallies at Speaker's Corner, young lovers enjoying a sunny day, kids playing games, even a wedding party. When I'm there on my own, it's a place I yearn to share with those I love.
If you can read English, a walk through London shops is entertainment in its own right. Yes, technically we speak the same language. But even though we use the same words, they often mean different things. A Big and Tall store in London is called High and Mighty. A shrimp and rocket sandwich won't shoot you to the moon, but it will have a healthy dose of arugula along with the shellfish. Trousers are pants and pants are in fact, underwear. A macintosh may well be a computer, but it's also a raincoat. A trip through the market or to a restaurant is sometimes a puzzle-solving exercise. I happen to love puzzles. Bubble and Squeak anyone?
These Boots Were Made for Walking
Okay yes, it costs a small fortune to take a taxi anywhere in London. But the beauty of London is that most of the time, you don't need to take a taxi. I've already said that the Underground is easy to navigate and pretty darn clean, but a lot of times, you don't need that either, if you've got a perfectly good pair of feet and some decent walking shoes. I've easily spent a day in the city without taking any wheel-based transportation at all. It's not a big place and if you've got a little stamina and a healthy does of curiosity, walking is the way to go. You get to see the things you would miss otherwise. Plus you get to burn off the fish and chips you ate at lunch and not feel guilty about the sticky toffee pudding you're planning to have at dinner. Speaking of toffee...
Oh, My Sweet
There's a lot of negative press surrounding English food. I happen to love it, particularly when it comes to dessert. The English call all desserts puddings, something that took me a trip or two to figure out. Incidentally, they call all Indian food, Curry, which was a problem for me since I happen to love Indian food, but detest yellow curry. But back to my sweet tooth. There are a couple of traditional English desserts that to me are without equal in the States. Sticky toffee pudding is one. It's kind of a cake with a toffee syrup on top of it. Incomprehensibly, there are actually dates in the recipe, though you can't taste them at all. It's all brown sugary, buttery, gooey goodness and I'm getting hungry just thinking about it. A close runner-up is Banoffee pie. Now, how we never managed to figure out that if you put bananas and toffee together in a pie it would be nothing short of divine, is beyond me. To all you naysayers about English food, have some fish and chips followed by a slice of banoffee pie, and I think you'll find you stand corrected.
Not to quote from a Julie Andrews movie, but these are just a few of my favorite things. I really could go on about what I love about the place - the historical sights, the quirky pubs, mushy peas, how the yogurt is weirdly better over there, crumpets, Borough Market, Spitalfields, my crazy friend Barbara, the bathtub at my friend Andrew's house and yes, even the rain. It's far from a perfect place, and it's not the only city I want to see, but for an adventure, a break or special trip to share, its the perfect city for me.