Friday, May 29, 2009

Driving on the Wrong Side of the Road - Part Two

London Town Tourist
(Part One available on my business blog - )

Driving back to Heathrow from Derby is a three hour affair. Now that I’m comfortable with the left-hand shifting, looking out over my right shoulder for traffic, and diving in and out of the roundabouts at breakneck speed, it’s time for me to give up the car. I have an acquaintance in London. I know him only from our interactions in the online forum on a bicycling website that I write for occasionally. We’ve never met.

Yant sent me a few recommendations for lodging options in London for the two days and nights I’ll have to be tourist. First choice was a funky little place called the Hoxton Urban Lounge. Now that might sound like more a club than a hotel, but the name is quite apt. It sports itself as a trendy hotspot for a younger crowd in London. Located in the city centre neighborhood, The rates, as it turns out, are very reasonable for such a well situated and apportioned place. $89 pounds, (about $150 per night at current rates.)

I check in to the friendly place, which features one of the nicest hotel rooms I’ve had at ANY price, and shower up and change my clothes. The hotel is full of great attitude at every turn, witness "Boring Sign No. 5." Things like this were all over the place. Today is Friday and as such my official letter writing day wherever I am. I head down to the nice ground floor lounge to grab my first London pint, find a huge chair in the bustling room, and nestle in.

By the time I’ve written my first three letters, my Blackberry rings and it’s Yant at the other end saying he’s only minutes away. Tonight we’re intending to simply grab a drink and get to know each other. We head out the door and within two minutes we’re in the midst of at least five pubs that have all spilled out onto the streets with Friday afternoon clientele.

In this way it’s really no different than the states. There’s a mix of people, all colors and races, sexes and persuasions. Most wearing some sort of business attire, others just jeans and a soccer jersey. The insides of each pub are spacious despite the hour. Most people simply get their drinks and head directly out onto the narrow streets. It’s a gorgeous warm day in London.

Yant and I have a great chat while I drink a couple pints of Spitfire Ale to his Thomas... something or other ….. Then we get hit up by a beggar for some change. He asks, "some spare change for the Chicken Tikka?" We give him some pence. It was a great pitch!

I give Yant a present I’d dragged with me from my friend Dennis in Traverse City. Dennis stayed with Yant last year while here covering the World Track Championships in Manchester for the Fixed Gear Gallery. Yant and I finish our second pints and head off down the road to find another pub and maybe something to eat. He drags me through one backstreet after another with similar scenes of young people spilling out onto the streets with pints of beer in their hands. It looks not unlike Bourbon Street in New Orleans, except it’s simply much more civilized.

After wandering a bit we stumble into a place to eat solely because it’s got the smallest crowd in front of it. One look at the menu and we’re sold. Prices are reasonable and the food looks decent and unusual enough to be interesting. Once inside we realize we’ve managed to find something special.

The Hoxton Apprentice Restaurant, (no association with the hotel,) is a training facility for long-unemployed city dwellers. The restaurant puts them to work while teaching them a sought after trade in high-end culinary work. The food is excellent!

We finish up and stumble back towards the hotel, but not without first finding another pub or two to knock down a few more pints. It’s a real treat to have someone to show me around, and to tip a few with. I’m enjoying this trip. About midnight things begin to wind down in this neighborhood. Many of the pubs have specifically restricted licenses that mandate closing their sidewalk business at a given hour. Some have “ten o’clock licenses,” other elevent o’clock, and so on. We choose a place called the Foundry. It’s about as rough a pub as I’ve seen so far. In the US it might qualify as a biker bar. But all the people outside, (over a hundred,) are sitting on little three-legged stools which they’ve collected in gregarious amoebic clusters on the sidewalk at the confluence of four major streets.

Yant has suggested that we meet up again tomorrow early for a real tourist day in town. So we call it a night, but not brfore I grill him as to thr local late night traditions of pub enthusiasts. The power of colonial transference is readily apparent when he shoots back his answer. “Curries and kebabs man!” All of the U.K. has somehow taken on the fast-food likes of its once colonized distant continent.

I walk Yant to the Tube station, seeing him off, and stop by the Turkish Kebab shop for a little nightcap. It’s my first chance to do some people watching on my own where I can blend into the crowd a bit. In a tight space, no bigger than my condo’s bedroom back home, I squeeze in amongst ten or twelve others and get the attention of Amir behind the counter. I order a lamb pita with rice, and say yes to the question “salsa and salad?” The salad is lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumber all piled onto the already huge pita. The salsa is some extra potent Indian hot sauce with essences of gara masala and coriander. Amir takes the massive thing and skillfully rolls it all up together in several layers of foil and wax paper. The smell coming from the package is both shocking and delightful. I get the whole mess to go, and start my stroll back to the hotel to catch up on email, call Torie back in Montana on Skype, and get a few hours sleep before my host comes calling again. Tomorrow is a busy day.

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