Friday, August 12, 2005

The British Experience

The first thing I noticed after arriving in London was that someone had turned the volume down. Catching the subway in New York, my carriage companions were two extraordinarily round African American women who enthusiastically broadcast their conversation to anyone in the Lower 48 who cared to listen. On the London Tube, of course, no one even so much as sneezes lest it be mistaken for an invitation to exchange small talk. After a week of glorious, but voluble, New York, the relative reserve of London came somewhat as a relief.

There are many pleasures to be had in a short stay in London. There is tea in the afternoon - or morning, or evening, or whenever else it takes your fancy. The British, I have learned, are the largest per capita tea consumers in the world, and (spuriously or not) nothing could have communicated "Britain" to me so clearly as my afternoon spent sipping Earl Grey in a Fulham tea house. There is the predictably unreliable weather, which struggles to reach low-20's under grey skies in this, the warmest month of the year. For some reason it was a source of comfort to me each morning. There is the Tate Modern art gallery, housed in an old power station and containing thrilling thematically-arranged exhibitions of the gallery's permanent collection. The gallery sits across the River Thames from St Paul's Cathedral, designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1675 and one of the most enlightening church experiences a non-believer could hope to have.

Not many things are more British than Chicken Tikka Masala. It is rated as the most popular dish in Britain, and in 2001 the foreign secretary, the late Robin Cook, described it as "Britain's true national dish". One night E and I sought out some CTM in Brick Lane, a thin strip of road overflowing with Indian and Bangladeshi restaurants. Touts approach you from all directions, and the idea is to work up an appetite haggling before eventually sitting down to your meal. "Did next door offer 20% off? We can offer 25%, and a free bottle of wine." After fifteen minutes or so we were worn out and more or less chose the restaurant closest to our sore feet. I was determined to have a "British experience", so I ordered the CTM (mild, sweet and bright red) and the "lamb curry" (thin and watery). Whether or not the food was worth the exhaustive pre-dinner negotiations, it was far better than what Brick Lane diners were once accustomed to. One restaurant used to offer free curry, ladling it out from a large cauldron to Brick Lane's bravest customers. But on one particularly busy day, the curry supply went low and 30 people got food poisoning - it emerged that the restaurant had not been emptying the cauldron at the end of each day and the food at the bottom was somewhat aged.

We are now in Aberdeen. We are lucky to be here, as industrial action by the caterers and baggage handlers almost prevented us getting on a plane. According to our pilot, it was "all a bit of a shambles". He was quite forthcoming with all sorts of information, including hints on when we should look out the window to see points of interest, the type of aircraft ahead of us in the landing queue and, of course, the fact that our bags weren't going to be joining us in Aberdeen. But he said everything in such an endearing Scottish accent, and made such liberal use of the word 'wee', that we could hardly begrudge him the bad news.

Updated New York photos and incredibly cute photos of my nieces - London and Scotland to be posted soon


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