72 Hours in London

I’ve recently come back from 8 days in Europe, for what will likely be one of my last work-sponsored trips for a while. The company I work at organises events in 10 cities each Spring and, this year I pulled the lucky (or short, depending on how you feel about long haul flights in economy) straw of covering London and Oslo. So off I went.

Flying in to London is always emotional for me. Whether it’s touching down on British tarmac or queuing for the Heathrow Express, there comes a point in my journey when I invariably find myself overwhelmed with feelings more weighty than nostalgia. We moved away from England when I was 12 years old; I moved away a second time when I was 24. Yet after all these years, an increasingly American accent and an address in Sydney, it’s still the UK that feels like “home”.

Pulling in to Paddington Station

I’ve gone back to London almost every year for the past five years, almost always for work or in transit to some place more exciting. Two of my best friends still live there and I’m never wanting for people to catch up with or things to do. Each time I go back though, I realise how little I really know of London. It’s one of those cities that’s both vast and deep. It has the historical monuments, the architectural marvels, the sprawling parks, the perfectly manicured gardens, the museums, the galleries, the restaurants, the shops, the people…you could spend a decade in this city and not scratch the surface. I’m not sure I could say that about any other place.

Sister Cities?

I suppose though, in some ways, London is a bit like Tokyo: it’s a city straddling the old and the new. It’s trying its best to meet the modern-day demands of a booming urban population against the backdrop (and with the infrastructure) of a practically ancient city. Hey, Tokyo is arguably winning this race, but that’s a debate for another day.

Also like Tokyo, London is a walking city. Sure, there’s the tube, but you have to walk to it and in it and out of it. The whole thing can take a while. Unlike New York and Sydney (two other cities that tend to get slapped with the “walking city” moniker), London doesn’t offer many alternatives. Cabs are painfully expensive (although that’s changing with Uber and Hailo) and car owners are kept at bay with congestion charges and non-existent parking. Like many European cities, it’s easy to rack up 10,000 steps in London, and its residents are happy to embrace all the walking and bake it into their travel time. I’m always reminded of my European friends’ penchant for walking when a casual stroll turns into a 2 hour jaunt across the city. Not something you’d do in the US.

A new favourite

On this trip, I stayed in two neighbourhoods I’d previously spent little time in: Belsize Park and Waterloo. It wasn’t long before I fell in love with the former. Belsize Park is a gem of an area in North West London, conveniently sandwiched by Hampstead Village in the North and elegant Primrose Hill in the South.
Wandering into the Heath on a weekday morning
Wandering into the Heath on a weekday morning
I was staying with a friend who’s recently moved to Belsize and, walking around, it felt like I’d been transported to a picture postcard. Beautiful stucco-fronted Victorian buildings sit along leafy streets; flower stalls and butchers add a charming old-timey feel, and boutique shops and artisanal cafés bring the whole thing to life. One of my favourite things about Belsize Park was the utter lack of tourists. It’s hard to get away from the crowds in London without feeling like, well you’ve left all the good stuff behind too, but Belsize Park does a stellar job of juggling both. It’s lively and vibrant, yet it retains that cute, village feel.

The other thing I loved about the area was the Heath. I went for an early jog and was consumed by the stunning views of London in the hazy morning light. My (iPhone) camera died, of course, so I later went back for a stroll and some less romantic pics.

Hampstead Heath at midday

I was also impressed by the food on offer. Tuesday night, my friend Neha and I walked over to Hampstead for dinner at Jin Kichi. This tiny, unimposing Japanese izakaya serves up some of the tastiest yakitori and sashimi I’ve ever had. We sat at the bar of course, enabling us to take in all the action and soak in the sights and smells that make the meal so much more of a sensory experience. One bite of the asparagus yakitori and I felt I’d been transported back to Japan! Jin Kichi is a cozy, intimate spot so if you do plan to visit, make sure to book ahead. Its Yelp, TripAdvisor and UrbanSpoon ratings can’t hurt its popularity either.

Jin Kichi on Urbanspoon

London and New York

London has always been an international city. Mobs of tourists, hordes of European students, wealthy expats, hopeful immigrants, migrant workers — take your pick, the city has them all. Step out into its busy streets and odds are you’ll hear more than two languages and encounter at least three accents before you reach the tube. What always amazes me, however, is how all of London’s international residents manage to retain their identities while living in what was once the quintessential British city.

Mid-afternoon in Hyde Park
Mid-afternoon stroll in Hyde Park

Move to New York and you’ll become a New Yorker (and in turn, an American). Before long, you’ll be walking faster, planning Super Bowl parties, running after cabs in heels, and contemplating your Halloween outfit months in advance. You’ll “do brunch” and you’ll probably celebrate Thanksgiving (you’ll also have to break it to at least one American that Thanksgiving isn’t a universal thing) and you may well end up leaving your adopted country surprisingly infrequently.

Live in London, on the other hand, and you could be exactly who you were when you arrived. You could live in the French neighbourhood, hang out with only French people and visit your French family on a monthly basis. I once had a Moroccan colleague who, after five years in London, had never heard of Guy Fawkes. When I asked why he thought fireworks went up every November 5th, he remarked that it was “some British thing”. To lean on a cliché, if New York is the melting pot, London is the tossed salad — a giant bowl of ingredients, mixed but distinct.

Highs and Lows

London’s diverse population makes for uniquely interesting conversations. Nowhere else in the world have I sat at a dinner table and debated Greece’s economy with a Greek, learned about the Bosnian war from a Sarajevan and planned a Croatian holiday with input from a Dubrovnik native. If your preference is to talk European politics and history, rather than real estate and hot restaurants, this may well be your city.

London also wins when it comes to location. The fact that you can jet off to a different European city every weekend isn’t news. It’s been more than 10 years since RyanAir and EasyJet transformed the European travel market with their cheap, no frills services, but the trend is going strong. Wine in Bordeaux, chocolate in Bruges, skiing in Geneva… there’s culture, history, architecture, literature, natural beauty, food and it’s all just a short hop away.

The downside (and there always is one), is that living in London means you have to contend with the constant crowds, the heaving tube, the mediocre food (sorry, the bar is still low) and, of course, the exorbitant prices. (I’m not going to pick on the weather because I grew up on, and secretly adore, grey skies.) London has always been an expensive city but over the past decade or so, unbridled demand from overseas investors has driven the property market through the roof and sadly pushed locals farther afield. To make it worse, London salaries, for the most part, haven’t kept pace with the increased cost of living, making it harder to enjoy all of the perks and quirks that the city puts on offer.

One of the best things about London is its permanence; come what may, this bastion of culture and history and tradition will stand strong: steadfast, unyielding, unchanged. At times though, it feels like this is the exact thing holding it back. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.

Cant Stop Eating Chocolate Digestive Biscuits

It’s been a while, I know.  But I promise I’ve been really really busy.  For example, two weeks ago I was in England, hopping between London, Cambridge and Leeds as I re-connected with some of my all-time favorite foods.  After 30 painful months of separation, I am in love, all over again, with British food.

Now, I know what you’re going to say and I’ve heard it all before: British food is terrible, bland, over-cooked, stodgy stuff that no one should have to eat.  But you’re wrong and here’s why:

1. British breakfasts are awesome.

Yes, fry-ups are bad for you, but that’s not what I’m talking about.  I’m talking about variety.  As much as I love bagels, cream cheese, capers and lox and even though I’ll admit to sneaking eggs on a roll with Tabasco from my local street cart every so often, New York’s breakfast options are surprisingly limited beyond that.  And no, I don’t really consider Dunkin Donuts or Krispy Kreme to be purveyors of real breakfast food.

For starters, there’s EAT.  Yes, they’re a chain but they’re also dedicated to fresh, quality food.  EAT serves a delicious selection of toasted breakfast sandwiches, muesli, granola, yoghurts and fruit salads.  EAT doesn’t buy a single mass-produced sandwich, soup or salad – they make everything fresh in their own kitchen with a one day shelf life.

High on their heels is Pret A Manger which, like EAT, prepares its food fresh every day (each store has a kitchen), abstains from any “factory stuff” and changes its menu regularly to incorporate seasonal ingredients.  Pret started in 1986 as a London venture by college friends Julian and Sinclair; today the company has 240 stores.  They’ve  always been a socially conscious business, giving leftover food to charities, but this year Pret launched the “Really Big Christmas Dinner“, whereby they will donate 5p from every sandwich sale through Nov and Dec to hot Christmas meals for the homeless.  While I personally prefer the breakfast food at EAT, Pret has been more successful / aggressive about growing the business.  Besides offering a wider variety of products, they have grown their presence in several American cities as well as parts of Asia.

There’s also Apostrophe, a modern London take on the boulangerie-patisserie, and Innocent Drinks, a fantastic company that makes delicious smoothies and breakfast thickies with 100% pure and fresh fruit.

So yeah, British breakfasts are awesome and worth missing.  Bircher Muesli (Jamie Oliver recipe here), REAL bacon, sausage rolls, fresh yoghurt pots (none of that giant, mass-produced, sugary parfait stuff) and yes, a “Full English” are all hard to come by in the States.

2. Sandwiches

Sarnies, butties, baguettes, paninis…. call them what you will, they run rings around their American cousins.  And to be clear, I’m not talking about artisanal American sandwiches, prepared with whole grain mustard aioli, Vermont cheddar and what not, I’m talking about the average grab and go American sandwich, vs. the average grab and go British sandwich.

First is the issue of height.  I am well acquainted with the bigger is better way of American life, but there is really just nothing pleasant about 3″ of bland meats and salads packed inside 2″ of bland bread, held together by what looks like a toothpick.

No one can fit a real American sandwich in their mouth… and even if you somehow manage it, you’ll probably end up eating an entire piece of meat or a bland tomato slice because the fillings aren’t chopped up.  Throwing together a bunch of coarsely chopped ingredients with some mustard and ketchup does not a sandwich make.

Second, is the issue of cheese.  The average American sandwich contains American cheese, a processed cocktail of emulsifiers, preservatives and colorings engineered to melt obediently at the slightest application of heat.

Finally, there’s the issue of the bread.  I don’t know why but whether you order a sandwich at your local deli, restaurant or cafeteria or buy the bread at a supermarket, American bread just doesn’t taste as good.

In contrast, the average Britain sandwich offers you Crayfish and Rocket (yes, instead of watery iceberg lettuce), Cheddar and Branston Pickle, Egg & Cress…multigrain, wholegrain, German rye… the options are endless.

3.  Desserts

As much as I respect America’s penchant for pie-baking, England definitely wins when it comes to the sweet stuff.  Maybe it’s proximity to chocolate-loving Belgium and dessert-loving France, maybe it’s a history of cakes and trifles, no matter how you slice it, the Brits come out ahead.  England has chocolate digestive biscuits and Cadbury’s. ’nuff said.  Oreos and Hershey’s taste like cardboard in comparison.

4. Borough Market

If you’ve ever visited Borough Market, you’ll know that it puts even the San Francisco Farmers’ Market to shame (which, for the record, is fantastic). Hundreds of small artisans, wholesalers, foodies and retailers flock to this bustling space each Saturday to partake in the exchange of local ‘honest’ food.  Wander past the cafes and al fresco restaurants to take in the colourful displays of fresh fruit and exotic vegetables.  Nibble on stilton and shropshire and sample the pungent patés and spicy curries.  Recharge at the fresh juice station and sip on mulled wine and hot cider at the beverage corner.  If you feel up to it, stand in line for a serving of rich, gooey raclette or for a freshly grilled burger.  Munch on your meringue, pick up some elderflower jelly and make sure you pack some Turkish delights for later.

5. Maroush, CTM and Nandos

I hate using the term ‘ethnic foods’ so I’m going to boil this down to the crux of the argument: England is really good at sussing out the “best” [insert cuisine type] dish and selling it en masse.  Rather than view this as an adulteration or departure from authenticity, I consider this a warm embrace of “foreign” culture by a hungry British public.  I love that Chicken Tikka Masala, or CTM as it is affectionately known, is India’s national dish, but only in England.  I love that people go bananas over an £9 chicken wrap at Nandos and I love that I can buy taramasalata in pretty much any grocery store.  England’s physical and psychological proximity to Continental Europe, Asia and Northen Africa uniquely positions it for access to a variety of rich culinary traditions. Joking aside, Indian food (as an example) has progressed well beyond the ubiquitous CTM and made its way into the vernacular and essence of British life.  It’s pretty easy to walk into one of Masala Zone’s many London outposts and walk out 20 minutes later with a happy tummy full of lamb roganjosh.  The same applies to the mind-blowing Lebanese food at Maroush, which you will likely encounter 11 times while walking down Edgeware Road.

I could go on for a while in defense of what has come to represent British food, but I’ll stop here.  My point is certainly not (entirely) to rail on American food since I’m a big fan obviously, but to point out just a few of the highlights of food in England which is by no means inferior to food in America.  If you’re still hesitant to skip the pond and see for yourself, I’d encourage you to try some classic British dishes like shepherd’s pie and Welsh rarebit or indulge in some cream tea, a Sunday roast or even just some fish and chips. Until then, enjoy the pics!

Full Disclosure: I got engaged in London this past weekend and it is therefore entirely possible that I am writing this post on a (British food?) high 🙂