June 2010


Alone with my penses

I sat at my elevenses

At sixes and sevens-es…

About what?  You may ask and take me to task

For writing bad rhymes in these trying times

Okay okay enough bad poetry. I’ll stop now and explain the phrase that began this and go on to give a brief account of my second London walk on which my cousin Renuka accompanied me much to my delight and as I will explain later, gustatory gratification .

According to a dictionary, to be at sixes and sevens  is to be in a state of confusion over something, although I always understood there to be an element of rivalry between the parties that were at sixes and sevens with one another. I was not completely wrong, as it turns out. According to Peter, our guide on the Thursday night walk called the “Ancient city at night,” the phrase came to be as a result of  the confusion or rather competition for precedence between the trade guilds of the merchant tailors (excuse me, taylors) and the skinners in the City of London. The guilds were formed circa the twelfth century A.D. to protect member’s interests and were ranked according to their seniority. They were called livery companies incidentally for they got to wear a special distinctive livery or uniform too but that’s another story I got from the net not the walk. Anyway,  the livery companies for taylors and skinners (who traded in furs and were NOT tanners, who had/have a separate guild) being founded the same year were apparently at loggerheads over who got to be in sixth place. A year later it was decided in court no less, that they would alternate in ranking each year and thus they remain at sixes and sevens to this day.

Now there are other possibilities for the origins of the phrase – websites (including Wikipedia) give Chaucerian, Biblical and Shakespearean possibilities, but this was Peter’s story and I’m sticking to it! Moving on.. or rather back, our walk began at the Royal exchange at the base (and rear) of a statue of Wellington, where we were surrounded by these columned buildings that try so hard to look Grecian. The Royal exchange, the top part of the Bank of London and the Lord Mayor’s Mansion, all have this same architecture.

Thank goodness for the quintessential red double-decker buses that are so characteristic of London to remind you where you are, other than Bombay of course. From this busy hub we walked past the Lord Mayor’s where ladies and gentlemen dressed to the nines (I wonder where that expression came from?), at least one with a dress that was sweeping the cobbled streets before she entered the house, for some fancy event, and then (back to us now) down a narrow little alley along St. Stephen’s church to view another church, the one that transcended originality according to Eliot (who despite his American-ness I always thought of as English and after wandering in London I can see why).

And now my memory is getting fuzzy on the exact sequence of spots we paused at, to listen and learn, but my camera shows me a pair of original 16th (?) century houses as well as the London Stone before we stopped at our first watering hole. Here are glimpses of the Stone – stored behind a grating and marked with a plaque, which I thought was capturing since it gives the story so much better than I could…

Our first watering hole – this walk included pubs etc – was a little wine bar tucked in the middle of this financial area – and possibly one of the well-kept secretes of the city. Before we went in, we passed a mystery box on the side wall, about which we played guessing games over our drinks, mine a glass of the house red, a nice claret, a wine that I will not stick my nose up at unlike those Regency Bucks. Most of us thought it was an oven or furnace or coal storage-bin of some sort. We weren’t even close! Turns out it was a safe in the bedroom of the adjoining house. The prize for that one went to this Italian lady in our group. Fortified with our libations we walked on to the site of the original bridge and saw the livery house of the fishmongers and the site of the original London Bridge and learned about sixes and sevens, before heading out to the site of the gild-topped Monument (capitalized on purpose) and heard Peter’s account of the Great Fire.

Lovely names those streets had and thank goodness they haven’t changed… Pudding Lane & Fish  Street Hill. We saw the corner with the plaques commemorating the place where the infamous fire began, and Peter told us where it ended and why. The Monument for which the eponymous underground stop is named, designed mostly by Wren (who else) but crowned with a creation of that unsung and deeply weird hero of those times, Robert Hooke, is around the corner and you’ve seen pictures galore I’m sure or can elsewhere on cyberspace and so I won’t bother here. We passed another Wren church, which was once according to our regretful guide, one of the most  sumptuously-decorated interiors until about 30 years ago after which some catastrophe destroyed it and now he finds it heartbreaking to enter. We also passed an old building on Eastcheap (another lovely name)  bearing a boar’s head on its facade, which may well have been the inspiration for Falstaff’s drinking break.

From Eastcheap we headed to our next pub nestled in the marketplace that posed as  Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter movies. Lovely pub but unfortunately by that hour they were serving drinks only and no munchies and so I held my peace while we went to the site of the famed Lloyd’s whose modernistic and very original-looking exterior still houses a part of the original interior I believe. Standing in front of this building is an odd feeling for you really do see the old juxtaposed with the new here on four corners. There is Lloyd’s of course (photo on left), and London’s new iconic building, the one our guide so charmingly labeled the crystal phallus (right side). But then you can also see the stone medieval church (in the same picture with the crystal), which has an interesting association with one of the longest continuously-in-print histories of the City of London. There is also in another corner (not photographed) the inner city’s own Westminster Abbe-like church with headstones etc, which has been newly restored.

This was nearly the end of our tour. We ended at a pub called Dirty Dick’s whose banner I shall end the account of the walk with, and whose story is tragic indeed! But rather than repeat it I’ll exhort you to take the walk yourselves and learn about it yourselves, leaving you only with this teaser, He may have been the original Miss Havisham, of Dickens’ Great Expectations fame, who was mimicked in glorious detail by Jeanne Arnold last Hallowe’en.

Postscript: The walk ended at Dirty Dick’s but the evening was not over yet. One of the attractions of this walk was that it promised us a possible dinner at the best and best-value curry houses in London. This would be the famed Brick Lane. Nobody from the walk chose to join us, even the guide, but Renuka and I trudged down the way Peter told us and wound up at Brick Lane which at first glance with its flashing neons and pimp-like guys outside each restaurant brought to mind well, a red light district minus the gals. It also reminded me a bit of 6/7th st in the East Village in New York where the entire block between 1st and 2nd Avenues is full of Indian restaurants with near-identical menus. Same deal here with an offer for free drink etc. etc. Nothing seemed attractive – very generic chicken-tikka-masala places they all appeared to be. But we persevered and walked past all of these into one which had no over-anxious welcoming committee (in fact no one even greeted us on entry) and no menu on the window either. The folks were Bangladeshi and they seemed to my delight to have lots of different fish curries and the staple Bangla egg curry as well. We decided to eat there and our instincts served us well. I loved the fish – good and spicy – and Renuka liked her eggs, even asking for extra gravy, but the star of the show was a daal cooked together with mutton (but it was not Dhanshaak) which we both loved. We ate and ate and spent less than 25 pounds altogether, which is cheap by London standards. Then we rolled our very tired selves into the tube and home stopping to pick up ice-cream en route, only to find the man of the house already in bed, though he did get up for ice-cream.

A further postscript – Renuka & I did have our elevenses (albeit at one) aka high tea at Fortnum and Mason’s the next morning where I got a taste of a smoked Earl Grey that was delightful, along with all sorts of delectable canapes and scones and cream and lemon curd. For all that I turn my nose up at British cuisine, I do love their customs and idiosyncrasies concerning food. Enid Blyton worked her magic on me very early and it has proven indelible I’m afraid.  Viva Britannia, I write even as they lost today to Germany in the World Cup rounds and are out of the tourney this year.

Did you know how the expression “to be at sixes and sevens” originated? Or that Dorothy Sayers put in bits and pieces of her life in her various Peter Wimsey novels? Or what a triffid is/was? And how about the crystal phallus? This and other bits of arcania – as opposed to trivia as these factoids are arcane not trivial in my opinion – and trivia are the kinds of things one finds out about if you take a London Walk.

Before I go on, a caveat. Many people and groups giving walking tours. I’ve been on some in Rome and Florence. They were not bad. A nice alternative to the cookie-cutter guided tours. BUT, now that I’ve been on some of these London-walks tours I have to say… they’re a cut (and then some) above any other walking tours I’ve been on. And so while here at least don’t settle for substitutes or imitators. Check these guys out here: http://www.walks.com/

So far I’ve been on two London walks. And if I can get my act together hope to get at least one more before I leave town. (I did I did but will tell you more on that later). The first one I went on was a Literary Bloomsbury and Old Museum Quarter Walk (well, yes, remember I’m the nerd by inclination and profession, thank you very much!) on Tuesday afternoon. It’s where I learned about Dorothy Sayers and the triffids among other things. Of course the Bloomsbury staples of Virginia Woolf et al were mentioned but they were not the star attractions. As the writeup tells you, on this walk we got to explore the “other” Bloomsbury (see a little photo essay about this trip from the walks website by clicking on my photo of our walking group).

First stop on the walk was Red Lion Square. In the days of the 17th century (think Roundheads etc) this square was the site of the Red Lion Inn, which was rendered famous, infamous or notorious in its day (depending on point of view) by serving as the venue for holding the body of Oliver Cromwell, some 3 years after his burial at Westminster Abbey when it was exhumed for the sole purpose of hanging Cromwell for treason. Sorry making that hanging and beheading. Rather a bloodthirsty lot the royalists were back then. Whether or not it was Cromwell’s body that was hanged and beheaded – rumours abound as to the identity of the body that merged from the Red Lion, someone’s certainly was, while someone else’s body apparently was buried in secret at the inn. The head was displayed on a pike outside Parliament to others inclined to regicide, until it rolled into a storm gutter from whence a Cambridge student with the desire to take a piece of London back to Cambridge, took it and buried it in a “secret” place in Sidney Sussex College, where it lies still, vaguely marked by a commemorative plaque that says that the head lies “near to this place.”

So this was the story told to us by much gusto by our guide Tom, repeated as faithfully as I can from memory. I share responsibility for any factual errors. Also around this square was a plaque dedicated to Harrison of the navigational clocks fame (if you haven’t, do read Longitude by Dava Sobel and watch the BBC series with Michael Gambon and Jeremy Irons) for he lived here long before the houses were renovated, another plaque to mark the residence of members of the Pre-Raphaelite movement and also an odd building housing the Ethical Society of which Bertrand Russell was a member. Actually there’s also supposed to be a bust of the great man in the Red Lion Square park, which Tom out of deference to him chose not to show us as it has been defaced by graffiti.

From the Red Lion we headed to Bedford Row, an important address in its time and from where are visible a lane where Dickens lived for a while and probably wrote The Pickwick Papers (which we did NOT visit) as well a parallel street where Dorothy Sayers, the first woman to attend Oxford incidentally, lived from 1921-29. Quite a lady she was, and I learned a whole lot more about her after Tom was done speaking about her, and promptly went and bought her kindle-ready novels (only one so far I’m afraid but more are on their way, I hope) after the walk. Around the corner (more or less) we stood across the street from the house (Number 18)  which Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath had lived in when they first got married. The house is featured in a poem  by Hughes, read to us in sonorous syllables by Tom (the text is in the photo essay for those interested). Across the street where we stood and gazed on #18 was London’s tiniest street, Emerald Court, and one could almost imagine Sylvia (superimposed unfortunately by Gwyneth Paltrow’s face due to that movie) dragging her bike there, as well as a French dairy shop-converted to a jewelry shop where among the pieces of artistic pieces was displayed a gem of an altogether different sort – a book of Auden’s poetry!

Onward to Russell square and all that surrounds it. In all its part-gothic and all-garish glory, the Hotel Russell waving flags etc at us, on the other corner SOAS with T.S. Eliot (the American master’s) former press site, and just behind overlooking it all, the other ghoulish structure, the tower from the University, which was featured in (and finally I get to it) The Day of the Triffids, by a John Wyndham. This sci-fi offering from the 1950s was one I knew nothing about until Tom told us about it, but since it was available in a Kindle edition, I bought it and have promptly read it. Interesting postapocalyptic vision.

So we ended at the back entrance of the British Museum, in whose Reading Room so many of the intellectuals had spent so many fruitful hours. Very apropos. With very little time to closing all I had time for was a peep at the real Rosetta Stone and after looking at it carefully, I have to reconsider John Swanson’s tale (in greater detail in a previous post) that its color (black) is actually a London Grime covering for rose (pink) granite. Particularly since other more-exposed pieces of pink granite monuments from Egypt also in the museum have retained their pink just fine! So until further evidence I’ll believe the black basalt story. Also since that would have made it easier to transport these edicts.

So I was going to summarize my second walk here too, but no can do. This post grows long and the hour late. So I’ll end with a slide show of this walk (click on photo below) and a promise to return in the not too distant future with accounts of the second walk and answer some of the questions from my teaser – about sixes and sevens and crystals body parts. Oh and now there’s a third London walk to talk about! But until I do write, I prithee, fare thee well.

A little shy of 48 hours in London and I’m reminded why I so badly need to move to a place that offers a diverse and vibrant restaurant scene. From homey Indian takeout at Usha’s home, to a tapas lunch in Kensington/Chelsea with authentic Spanish morsels served up by cute Mexican waiters to Renuka and me, and a “Oh that looks nice let’s check it out,” moment in Notting Hill which took bum chum Ranjit and myself to a gem of a Chinese restaurant – neither take out nor a chain – in a strip otherwise occupied by the likes of KFCs and Mickey Ds, I’ve had quite the world tour of kitchens. In Cairo I often complain that even the best restaurants are high end of mediocre, which is only a slight exaggeration. Okay so there are great exceptions which I have to write about to be fair, but the variety is severely limited. Here in London on the other hand, even the mundane out in the ‘burbs was on the not-so-low-end of great. As in super. Yum.

Indian takeout included stuffed karelas (bitter melon – a subject I must put on my food blog) and a spicy handvo flavored with methi leaves and with a crunch topping, plus the classics that Ramesh and Usha get routinely — parathas and kaddi. I’m mentioning just the highlights, there was actually a whole lot more that we got and consumed. If not the very first night then the next morning and lunch as well I reckon, tho I was gone by that time to well my tapas lunch.  Which had the two crazy foodie cuz’s ordering up half or at least a third of the menu, with a sangria to wash it all down. Only I had the latter, Renuka being pregnant and wisely avoiding wine as well some other favorites but as soon as she delivers we are going to treat her to a plate of stinky cheeses (can’t you see why she’s a person after my own heart???), a glass of red – nah make that a bottle – preferably in Paris!

Now to explain the lotuses in the title. Well aside from the fact that it’s alliterative (lo-lo-lol) and that it is what my name means, the real reason is because it was one of and possibly the star dinner items last night. Now I’ve included them in my other blog (labeled simply as lotus root in the born of the water section) but never had them like this. Thinly sliced and gently sautéed so it was still crisp-tender, with bits of garlic and Szechuan spices, it was a masterpiece of texture and flavor. But let me back up.. the restaurant we went to is called Seventeen. As I said, two old friends (we’ve known each other since our kindergarten days) reunited and went to town looking for a place to eat. Most places we passed in the burbs were closed or just didn’t feel interesting enough and so we drove to North London. Parked the car in a reasonable looking spot and started to walk. At first it seemed as if all we saw were chain food joints but then this place with interesting decor caught Ranjit’s eye and we walked in. We looked over the menu and were about to order, when I asked the waiter what he recommended or if there were any specials. Do you like spicy food, he asked. Wehll-huh- yes! I said enthusiastically as both R & I nodded vigorously. Then you’ve come to the right place, said the waiter before whipping out a second pair of menus with their Szechuan offerings. Thereafter we did what I’ve come to learn is the wisest course when a waiter or chef cares enough to talk to you. Leave the meal to them or at least take their suggestions seriously. And sure enough we didn’t go wrong.

I just looked up the place on Google and found several reviews including a description of the fish dish we got. Water-cooked fish it was called and now I remember a dish at a New Haven Chinese place that served up a water cooked meat dish with a similar sauce. There was also a twice-cooked pork (excellent), a plate of skewered morsels that was appetizer and for Ranjit, a veritable love at first bite. Another appetizer of duck – basically duck confit in pancakes Peking-duck style at Cheema’s insistence tho god knows there was enough food and the classic rounding up with noodles in this case a bowl of translucent potato-based noodles in a spicy broth. Too much food. Yes! But we did a fairly good job, lubricating the way down with an excellent Argentinian Malbec, and also, this way various kids – Tanvi here with lotus and noodles, Cheema’s kids with fish and pork (which will be thrice cooked now) – get a taste of our meal.

I still don’t have a job other than an extension at Cairo and am still worried about all that but I’m a simple soul. And perhaps the lotuses have turned me into a lotus eater of the Odyssey losing my grip on reality, but hey, it’s hard to be unhappy or anything but optimistic  when you’re replete with good food.

Caught up in all my job search related miseries (which alas will continue for another year it appears – this peregrine feels her wings are being clipped but that’s a lament for another post) I’ve done my wonderful trip back in the beginning of May a grave injustice by not mentioning it at all on this blog, which I created to write about my travels (pretentiously some might say? called my peregrinations) after all.

Anyway a long weekend came up as so many do in Egypt – this one as in honor of Sinai Liberation day I think, and a four-day break saw me flying to Jordan for a brief break. It was a long overdue trip that I’d had many false starts to since Thanksgiving 2008 when I went to my (wholly un-regretted) sudden Swiss weekend. Oddly enough, despite having watched the 3rd Indiana Jone movie in the theaters, and many times since, Petra had not registered itself in my head as a must-see destination. More fool me! That “rose-red city half as old as time” (more on that overused but not tired quote in a minute) is definitely a I’m-so-glad-I-didn’t-die-before-seeing-this destination. Beautiful, impressive and mysterious.  Though not as old by half (ha-ha there’s that word again in in the context of Petra) as the pyramids, the history here is multi-layered because of the multiple cultures that lived and carved here. The walk through the Siq was in and of itself a marvelous adventure and even though I could knew what would be waiting when I emerged, I was stunned speechless (and as most of you know, that takes some doing even when I’m alone!) when faced with the reality. The Treasury- Khazna (very close to the Indian word actually) – is a treasure even without the Holy Grail hidden in its depths. It is the best example on site of the rose-red stone of literary fame.  Not all of the monuments are as pink, some are more banana-yellow, but it’s no wonder since Burgon, who wrote the lyrical and evocative poem Petra never actually visited the place himself. My camera unfortunately had run out of juice  and in my hurry to leave I’d forgotten to pack the charger so I did not get any photos but really, there is no dearth of Petra images floating about in cyberspace. It’s the experience that is so fantastic. The quality of the stone is truly amazing – the writer who called it watered silk was not being fanciful.

If the stone in Petra was varied and variegated then Amman provided a striking contrast because all – and I mean all – the buildings in that city seemed to be built of the same stone – same color and even the same uniform size of blocks or so it appeared to me. It was not an unpleasing monotony, just something I couldn’t help but notice having arrived from Egypt where my daily commute has my eye gazing with a glazed and jaundiced eye at monstrosities with pillars and cornices and other unnecessary embellishments that bring to mind Asterix’s The Mansion of the Gods.

Amman itself it not the most exciting of cities – sorry but there I’ve said it – and I didn’t feel any burning need to go live there the way I wanted to in Istanbul but I had a wonderful time there in the home of my friend Frances, whom I’ve visited back in 2008 October in her even lovelier home outside of Beirut. A lot of the my time in Jordan other than my day at Petra revolved around … (guesses anyone? you got it) … FOOD!  Most of it the subject for my other blog, which I’ll get to eventually but not today. I did get to dip in the oily waters of the Dead Sea and while the mud felt wonderful on my body, it did not prove as salubrious to my face. I cannot complete this post without a tribute to Amjad, the driver of the green hornet that whizzed me around the country. And to this song by Frances’ husband Alexi that is not out yet but which has lodged itself semi-permanently into my head. Too bad I don’t have a CD of it yet. Having made those tributes I’ll now sign off. More from England maybe, or Germany where I’ll be for the better part of this summer.