Monday, October 5, 2015

A London Summer

My London summer was uncharacteristic, certainly not touristy.  I went mainly to meet my friend Nora, and I stayed close to where she was, in central London.  I had a little baby in tow, who was too small to walk or spend more than an hour or hour and a half outdoors before crashing.  I myself was tired and sleep deprived and not up for anything more strenuous than walking in the parks!

I was visiting England after fifteen years and though I can't say that I ever knew the city well, my general perception was that it had changed in some way from the city I had experienced before.  People seemed kinder, friendlier (at least in and around central London and Cambridge, where I stayed).  Second generation Indians (even first generation settlers) seemed more sure of themselves and their identity, and were more at ease while dealing with a 'desi'.  My experiences at Heathrow and with taxi drivers were much pleasanter than corresponding experiences in America (where somehow I feel people often seem to feel they have to prove something even in very brief interactions or conversations and there is a lot more latent aggression).

There was more poverty evident (the first time I saw people begging on the main streets of London) - a different kind of poverty from India.  Here, there is a lot more of it, but everyone on the streets (by and large) is Indian or even if they are from neighbouring countries, they look Indian.  In London, the beggars were all immigrants, and it seemed to me that several were educated and had seen good days at some moment.

Despite this, and despite the economic and political policy pressures, there was also a sense of ease in the atmosphere.  People were moving around, laughing, talking, smiling and - shopping- and not all were tourists!  Flowers hung from street lamps (and they were well tended).  "Flowers?  Friendliness?  London has changed!" said some of our friends.  Other Indians visiting from here have noticed it too.

The Wimbledon was in progress.  Unfortunately the ticket prices were astronomical.  Leander Paes and Martina Hingis played a terrific game though there weren't many people to watch them.  Some things had not changed!

The food was excellent (I have always enjoyed food in London and other parts of the UK except the really low priced street food and fast food chains).  Summer fruit was at its best.  There was a lot of organic and local produce available, which was very welcome.

A lot of new cuisines seemed popular.  One that we really liked was Pachamama on Thayer Street, that served Peruvian food.  I had never before tasted these flavours - they were unique and delicious.  Their wooden interior was also cheery and welcoming.

 A surprisingly good (and reasonable) restaurant was part of an Italian chain called Zizzi (we ran in here during a blustery evening, on Wigmore Street).  I found their summer desserts were the best I had in London during this stay.  Their pizzas were quite different from the usual, with multigrain dough and interesting vegetable toppings (every table had someone ordering a pizza, which is why we ordered ours!).

At tea time we often tucked into the cakes that the British are so good at making (perhaps part of the reason they sailed to India centuries ago)- moist, spice laden, with nuts or ginger or dried fruit.  This is an art we have not really mastered though many of these ingredients are readily available here.  Scottish salmon, oat biscuits, ham, Stilton - we enjoyed all these and more.

City birds!  Seagulls, starlings, pigeons...  An aggressive seagull chased a pigeon into our apartment one Sunday evening.  The pigeon was paralysed by fright and the windows were paralysed by years of not being opened.  We ourselves were partly paralysed by uncertainty - how should we get the bird out without it hurting itself and the baby?  We finally called the serviced apartment office staff (without much hope) and someone kindly came up and helped unjam the windows.  Seagulls were perched atop churches and pigeons, of course, thrived everywhere as they always have done.  I kept the windows closed when going out, not because of burglars (as most people advised me to) but because of the pigeons.

The weather was warm!  A heat wave was in progress and we needed fans!

Nora recommended a terrific bookstore called Daunt, with a different selection from the usual.  Waterstones (the big chain) was also better than many other international ones that I have encountered.  We found several old English favourites including Olga da Polga (by Michael Bond, the creator of Paddington bear).

London rates very high for baby friendliness (except for British Airways - but are flight companies ever baby friendly?  I think BA is particularly brusque or perhaps I just had an unusually difficult time with them).  Babies are out everywhere in the city (with prams designed to handle the streets and the weather).  Most restaurants have high chairs.  Baby food and baby wear are designed for comfort and practicality.  This made my stay and travel much easier than I anticipated.

I found people were also remarkably good and sensitive with Nayan.  This included all our friends as well as many passers by on the streets.  People smiled, nodded, talked kindly and gently, but no one yanked his thumb out of his mouth or gave constant advice or asked why he was or wasn't doing what he was supposed to.

In general, I was surprised by how liveable and likeable this part of London was.  Most Indian cities have become almost unliveable.  Though we all live here, there's a lot of effort involved in organizing simple day to day matters.  (Of course, things are much more affordable in India, in particular health care and some services but still the lack of concern for the average citizen and the lack of pride in our surroundings is something lamentable).

There was a fair bit of traffic, but there wasn't a constant din - no screech of brakes and loud impatient horns.  I could walk on the streets (pavements existed!) and go shopping with Nayan, without worrying about the pollution or the parking (yes, despite what Londoners feel, the air is much cleaner than Bangalore and infinitely better than Delhi).  My baby spent a lot of time entertaining himself by looking down at the stream of cars and red buses from our window, a habit he has retained (which is helpful here during the traffic snarls).

As it was easy to walk to very nice shops and restaurants, I did not use any public transport for my daily routine.  As I found my work being done in half the time, I managed to catch up on long lost sleep.  Evenings were peaceful and pleasant.  I could watch the trees swaying in the breeze.  Offices around us closed at a reasonable hour and people spilled onto the pavements, talking and drinking, but there was no loud music, no raucous chitter chatter, no mountain of garbage and plastic thrown on the streets.  A lot of cigarette smoke but that was about the worst of it!

The extra hours of daylight also meant we could walk a lot more in the evenings.  At night, the street where I stayed (Chiltern street) seemed to breathe easy and sleep peacefully.  I could see the silhouette of the brick walls and roofs slowly darkening and then the stars appearing above, while I drifted to sleep.  I almost expected to hear bells chiming in the distance!

For me, it was the perfect kind of holiday - with welcoming and caring friends, lovely conversations, nice walks, wholesome and delicious food and plenty of sleep.  I couldn't have asked for anything more.

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