April 2009


I’m very out of place in Hampstead, as a student. It’s a lovely place to live but I feel very out of place. Most of the residents of Hampstead are bankers, as I’ve discovered being on the Metropolitan line during morning rush hour for the first time. The route goes straight to Aldgate, which is near the financial district.

Tina and I headed to Brick Lane in the search for some great curry. As a vegetarian, I don’t think it really met the expectations I had from hearsay, but the sweet stores are to die for. Anyways, I know East London in terms of its immigrant population while Tina thinks of East London as Shoreditch and financiers. In fact, Brick Lane is situated right next to the financial district. We both visited Queen Mary’s and on the side of the street I was walking, I saw lots of small Mulsim-owned restaurants, Wahabi women, etc. But Tina saw bankers.

It’s amazing how two completely different worlds just spill into each other like that. It’s just as true in Philadelphia, New York, Boston, especially Detroit where one street makes the difference between grinding poverty and grinding rich. Since central London is so small, this is all still in Zone 1 mind you, the disparity is far magnified. I don’t know if Tower of Hamlets is necessarily defined by grinding poverty, but from what I learned at a job interview with The Arbor, a non-profit working with the Banladehsi community near Queen Mary’s, their narratives are defined by their marginalization. I know I shouldn’t be surprised by any of this, I’ve read many studies showing this pattern around the world, but visually…You walk down from Brick Lane to aldgate and it goes from graffiti and small markets to these skyscrapers and polished streets and fountains and…wow.

Each little piece of London is so well self-contained. On the one hand, it’s slightly disturbing. But it also offers so much to explore, so many stories waiting to be discovered by me, as they have been by many people before me. I hope to come back and continue exploring London, some day.

(DC wins for the worst irony. I was living in GWU housing, five minutes from the White House, and I would always pass the World Bank and IMF on my way to the bookstore or something. Right outside their doorstep would be a line of bodies of the homeless. The parks seemed little more than a nod towards the homeless as outdoor accommodation. It was just incredibly awful.)

****

After a week of idyll sunshine, it’s back to rain again. Gloom.

Yesterday, Tina and I went to a famous Indian restaurant called Hot Stuff. It’s gotten rave reviews from The Times (New York and London) and its webiste advertises people not to come because it’s gotten so popular. It’s really a tiny little restaurant tucked in a street in Lambeth. Unfortunately, the Victoria line was down, just yesterday, so May whom I was supposed to meet by exit 1 never made it.

When I arrived there half an hour late, the waiter gave me a not-very-happy look, understandably because there was a line outside soon after. But after Tina and I settled in, the waiters and owner were really friendly. I didn’t read the reviews until today and I just realized how unusual it is to meet someone who is quoted in an interview. Even as a collegiate reporter myself, interiveews in newspapers have always been distant figures and…anyways, the restaurant held up to its review. I have an expectation about what Indian restaurant food will taste like, and it wasn’t like that at all. I imagined it’d be a better version of the typical, but in fact, it was exactly like my mother’s cooking. The saag paneer and the dhal that I ordered were two dishes I grew up with and I’ve never tasted dhal like that before. It was a really nice treat, bringing back memories of home. It was a very precious considering how far I have come from home*. I definitely want to go back.

Oh, and it’s true that the final price of the meal doesn’t correspond to the prices. Let’s just say that I was very happy with our value : )

*When I leave London, I leave straight for New York with just a few hours of “home” in between. And then back to uni. What’s home anymore?

I traded Rob some canned chopped tomatoes for some port. It’s spicy, fruity, chocolaty. Um, anyone who knows me knows that it’s dangerous in my hands, for myself, because it’s so good.

In other news, London is as sunny as ever and I am having a wonderful time.

Birbal was a famous or mythic jester in Akbar’s court. Akbar liked to test Birbal’s wit by presenting him with various puzzles. One day, Akbar asks Birbal to determine how many crows were in Persia (was it persia? Akbar’s empire). Akbar warned that if Birbal was wrong, he would get his head chopped off. (A bit like the mad queen in Alice in Wonderland. hmmmm) But Birbal gave a confident answer. (It doesn’t matter the number.) “If there are more crows, then they are they are visiting their friends and family here. If there are fewer, then they have gone on vacation.”

That pretty much describes Covent Garden mid-morning. I still haven’t figured out the normal London schedule because I’m pretty much self-employed as a student. I make my own hours and just need to turn in these papers by deadline. Usually I don’t get out of Hampstead before 10 and reach central London by 11. I find the tube to be really busy at 10:30 or so, which I consider late morning. It surprises me how many people are just getting to work at this time. But once when I took the tube at 7 in the morning with my Mom, I found it equally packed. I guess the working people just come in waves every hour and its most busiest at half past. For example 9:20, the Jubilee is empty by 9:30, its packed.

I wanted to work at a cafe today but I didn’t realise it opened at 11 and I arrived earlier than I expected. So I walked around to Covent Garden to finish reading this book while enjoyign the warmth of the sun. One of the outdoor restaurants was quite full and I was wondering who these people were, on a Wedesday morning just taking it easy. I sat on a bench a little ways from it, where three other people were also just sitting and people-watching. well, I discovered that both sets of couples were french tourists. I realised that this bench consisted of French and Americans. The two biggest tourist groups of London. And I’m guessing that the restaurant probably fit into the same demographic.

The next time you are in London and see people wandering around during normal working ours, we are the crows of England’s favorite friends.

(The cafe I am in also consisted of French people and two sets of people interviewing for jobs. And a student.)

Guess what? It’s been sunny all week!

So what if the week’s only been two days so far. Yesterday, May and I lounged in the sunlit grassy lawn of the SOAS courtyard and wandered around Russel Square/Euston Square with a free sample of Starbucks mocha in our hand.

Lounging is bliss. Especially when you’ve been holed in the windowless British Library for hours, the outdoor piazza seems heaven.

I look forward to further interruptions of sun-lounging today.

Hello, I’m not embarrassed to be an American any more because all feelings of shame have been diverted to the French. They are the new Americans: loud and therefore slightly obnoxious and they are everywhere.

Mind you, London is still one of the most proper cities. Compared to New York, at least. Decorum is exhibited in public spaces and even a little bit distinguishes them.

So when a loud French voices pierce the silence of the underground, we notice. I notice that its is no longer the Americans and the English probably notice that someone is interrupting their peace, once again, even if its not the Americans. (Reading The Remains of the Day make me realize how the relationships between the Americans and the English, and the English and the French seem quite the same still. That the French are the new Americans is merely a rehashing of old frenemies.)

But as usual, the French are obnoxious with far more elegance and delicacy than the Americans. Their accents are smooth and they dress better and…

Damn, we still lose.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Metropolitan line resembles a commuter route in the types of its destinations and the design of the carriages. Its an express from Finchely Road (zone 2) to Baker Street (zone 1, major hub)  and its the longest continuous journey between two stops that I’ve experienced. Its the longest amount of time I am in a carriage with the same people.

Its expected that its pretty quiet inside an underground train. Yet something about the metro line dramatizes this silence until it becomes so materialized that it makes me feel tense. I am tensely aware of everyone around me and the rickety sounds of the train rattling on the tracks makes us even more afraid to say anything.

Although silence on the tube might seem natural strangers seem uninterested in eachother, that’s not true. I think Londoners are repressed. I know they are repressed, judging from the “love struck” section of the London Paper. The instructions for submitting a request allow you to text in love sightings from anywhere in London. That means if I see a guy at a bar in Soho and I can’t get the nerve to talk to him, I can try to anonymously reach out to him via the london paper.

But these messages are always from sightings on the tube.

“Hey foxy lady on the Victoria line 9:27 pm on Friday. You were wearing a green dress and I winked at you. Did you notice? Fancy a drink?”

The silence is really everyone’s checking each other out. But no one says anything! and the silence on the tube is really a silence of awkwardness rather than disinterestedness.

I try to look around and wonder who these anonymous love-struck tube riders are. I try to notice people looking at each other but everyone seems so perfectly bored or absorbed in themselves that I wonder if the love-struck section represents such a minute proportion of the tube riders that its a coincidence. I imagine there should be many love-struck individuals who don’t text in their sentiments. (I mean, some texts even include a marriage proposal!) They only publish 10 a day, which of course represents a tiny tiny fraction of tube riders. But that makes it all the more like a romance. Mystery.

I wonder if anyone has responded to a message. I wonder how far this has gone, I wonder. Meanwhile, I’ll keep investegating with my eyes.

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