(These posts are arranged by impressions, not chronologically. Viewer discretion is advised)
Does London have more attractive people because it’s a denser city? Because it’s a more desirable city to live? Or is this the same principle that’s at work in all cold reads – I remember the hits and discount the failures? The eye does tend to gloss over ugly people – except the spectacularly ugly – and recall attractive ones with greater ease. Anyhow, more gorgeous women than I’d seen in Boston in a month, I saw in London in a day. Leggy blondes in playsuits; wide-eyed Pakistani in business wear; redheads dusted with freckles and curls. I’m off the market, so this is a tip for the single fellows: London. Summer. Bring a puppy and/or a guitar.
And the guys all wore amazing shirts. Such nice shirts! Sharp collars, pinstripes, cuffs just so. None of the baggy business-casual stuff America tries to get away with. “Where do these guys buy their shirts?” I asked Misch several times. “Look, you see that guy over there?” I indicated a tanned fellow with hair past his ears, the top two buttons of his fitted shirt open. Misch bit her lip and nodded. “I’ll crack him in the jaw and steal his shirt,” I went on. “Then I’ll run off while you attend his wounds. We both win.”
I failed at ordering breakfasts several times. On Thursday I had a traditional English breakfast at the Shakespeare Pub, right next to Victoria Station. I ordered tea. The waitress asked if I wanted it regular. I said yes. She brought me coffee.
On Friday I went to the Cafe Rouge (a chain of faux French bistros) in Victoria Place and saw on the menu pain perdu, or French toast with honey, chocolate and strawberries. So I ordered French toast. Five minutes later the waiter brought me two slices of toast, jam and butter on the side. Ooh, neat, a little appetizer. I ate the toast and waited. Fifteen minutes later, I flagged the waiter down and asked when my French toast was arriving. He said that he’d already brought it. I opened the menu and pointed at it, indicating the entree item with honey, chocolate, strawberries, etc. He said he could make it for me. In a fit of pique – the second time I lost my temper that trip, and it’s a rare quarter where I lose my temper twice – I told him he could bring the check instead. I choked down a sausage roll in a train station kiosk to assuage my hunger.
I set myself a quest to find some proper English pubs instead of the shiny tourist stops that flanked every Tube station. The key to finding a proper English pub is to start at a major destination, like Hyde Park or Victoria or Oxford Circus or Covent Garden. Then walk two blocks away from the flow of traffic. Walk into back alleys. Get yourself lost. Make abrupt turns. Before five minutes, you’ll have found a hole in the wall pub that’s older than the city you were born in. They will serve fish and chips, or a good ploughman’s lunch, and will have local ales on tap for a pittance. THIS ALWAYS WORKS. There is no part of London that will not have a pub in it. Excellent pubs I found this way include the Union Jack (Southwark, London SE1) and Kings Arms (Mayfair, London W1J 7QA).
At the Kings Arms, I had a ham sandwich with sharp cheddar and a local IPA. “You want that sandwich on moldy gray bread or a baguette?” the publican asked – the sort of bluff chap you expect behind the counter. I stood while eating, as the bar was filling for the Brazil/Portugal game. As I did, a salty older man stepped up next to me and flagged the barman down. “I’ll have a pint of Doom,” he said. I wondered which Tim Powers novel I’d stepped into until I saw the tap of Sharp’s Brewery Doom Bar next to him. So after lunch, I sat around and had a pint of Doom as well. Now I fear not the sting of death.
Misch discovered a pub the size of my studio apartment in Covent Garden called CellarDoor. You get to it by descending what looks like a subway entrance. They had a pair of saucy lounge singers when we found them, covering British sing-a-long favorites. A bachelorette party in ill-conceived dresses, heels and tiaras tottered around, while a couple of lads out for a birthday snorted lines off a drink platter. The entire bar sang “Wonderwall.” We would have gone back for Saturday high tea – featuring champagne and roulette – but the door was padlocked from the outside.
Misch would regularly stare at pub menus for ten to fifteen minutes. I don’t know whether this was from choice paralysis or hunger fatigue, but it usually ended with her ordering something hilarious. On Wednesday night, with only two minutes before the kitchen closed at St. George’s (Pimlico, London SW1V 1QD), she ordered the potted beef. Five minutes later, a lump of cold, boiled beef with some bread squares arrived. We stared at it in confusion. Then she ate it. “It’s all right,” she said.
Tomorrow: tourist stuff.