Yes, this trip was in February, but so much has happened since then! See you back on this side of the pond in July . . .
I’d seen the sights, taken the requisite photos, lemminged up with the best of the tourist crowds . . . So this time around I just wanted to settle in for a week and live — find my coffee shop, my pub; make a habit of my Underground stop and throw away my downtown map. It wasn’t a vacation per se — I went for a grad school interview [and got accepted!] — but with a half day of obligations floating in a week’s stay, the trip seemed perfectly indulgent. Plus MJW and I were lucky enough to have a wonderful host with loads of recommendations, and a real apartment to call home.
So we did things like this: A coffee shop slipped between glass facade and office building, no wider than a hallway, like a living tableau of “Caffeine under Fluorescents, Perched.” I was mostly enamored with that pick-up-sticks scattering of ceiling lights and the name — The Liberty of Norton Folgate — in what I imagined was hand-laid gold foil.
And this: The Barnet Bees take on the Southend Shrimpers!!! Who wants to watch an Arsenal game anyway?? Not when twelve pounds and the end of the Northern Underground line takes you right to the Barnet stadium for some top-notch footie action! [that’s, uh, the second-to-last place team in the league three levels below Premier] Nevermind rankings, the crowd heckled properly — “Hey number twenty, what kind of football number is that??” [is this supposed to be an insult of any magnitude?] — and the Bees scored an upset over the 11th place Shrimpers. Success!
And of course, you haven’t gotten to the heart of a place until you’ve trawled the aisles of its grocery stores, snatching up items with a mix of hunger and horrified curiosity. Look past the universal Kellog’s corn flakes and imported Ecuadorian bananas and you can dig up some real gems. Best item this trip: Gentleman’s Relish. The ingredient list was primarily anchovies, the label claimed it was “delicious on hot toast,” though advised you to “use sparingly” [what kind of marketing ploy warns you not to overindulge?], and it was packaged in a white plastic can with staid black lettering, looking for all the world like a tin of shoe polish lost in the condiment section. Runners up . . .
Depending on which online source you trust, the definition of squidgy runs the gamut from “soft, spongy, and moist — a squidgy cream cake” to “unpleasantly damp — in the steamy atmosphere my skin had grown squidgy as a toad’s” to “a pink octopus with beady eyes who was won at Claw Machine game by the band Of Mice & Men.” I’m not sure how any of that relates to energy, or might be found appetizing in loaf form, but someone must eat the stuff.
And sneaking in one snack stolen from the classic American repertoire, the old-fashioned, here revamped with creamy buttermilk and sold in the lobby of an indie movie theater, still hot from the fryer — for once the British version pulling off a win.
Tired of frozen fish and chips? Overwhelmed by the urban ballyhoo?? Hop a train to Hastings, the beachside pride of the southern coast! Hastings boasts the largest beach-based fishing fleet in England, necessitated by the lack of a natural harbor and resulting in skis welded onto all the boat hulls and massive winches to drag the boats back onshore after every excursion. This seemed at first cool, and then desperate, until I learned that the townspeople quickly realized that what they lacked in coastal features was more than compensated for in caves, thanks to the lucrative smuggling operations they could entertain. Years later, the local economy was once again transformed when it became, inexplicably, one of the most fashionable seaside destinations in the country. Remnants from each era remain, but the best representation of present day Hastings was discovered in the First In Last Out pub we stumbled into looking for lunch — homebrewed beer on tap, an old geezer of a mutt sprawled by the fireplace, a solid mix of young couples with babies and older folks sharing a bottle of wine, and a hearty portion of corned beef hash, beans, and a fried egg doused with “brown sauce” to pad against the salt breeze.
A more straightforward explanation of “small town”: a place with clubs like the one above and stores like the one below, which could have been transplanted into San Francisco’s Mission as a hipster homegoods outpost, except that here people not only bought eight separate horsehair brushes for eight different purposes but actually used them.
Ok ok, one somewhat touristy shot to keep you traditionalists happy.
And what I fantasize will be the motto of my oh-so-trendy life when I move to London next year — so many vintage furs, but none will do!
“I would go out tonight but I haven’t got a stitch to wear.”
[the showroom of IPR London, a fashion-oriented brand development and marketing firm, of course]