London Town

rachel-king-london-regent-streetAfter three weeks in France, I was itching to hear a bit more English being spoken. So I went to England. Well, that wasn't the only reason. The primary reason would be that my dear friend Mary was organizing a petite reunion of the J-Schoolers in Western Europe (more like those in London and +1 from Ireland and +1 from France). When I woke up on Friday morning, I could see some sunlight breaking through the clouds, so I had some hope for the day's weather. Typically, what the weather is in Northern France, it is in England. But as the day progressed, I saw it deteriorate all along my journey, finally culminating in pouring rain when exiting King's Cross-St. Pancras International Station.

It didn't help that back in Montreuil, I realized as soon as the TER pulled away from the station that I had forgotten my Oyster Card AND my Eurostar tickets. I was slightly nervous all the way to Lille that I going to have to pay a hefty fee for getting duplicate tickets, since it said so on the email. When I got to the SNCF counter at Gare Lille Europe, I asked the woman to reprint my tickets, when she replied, "C'est pas possible." (It is not possible.) My jaw dropped. I said nothing. My face must have gone pale. (But judging by the photo above, I'm sure you can guess I did make it to England this weekend.) I think she realized my fright by my lack of motion or life in my body, so she went to go talk to her supervisor. He came out with her and started speaking to me in English. He then pulled out a notepad of Eurostar tickets, gave them to her and she hand-wrote my new ticket. The forms were obviously old since they still said "London Waterloo" on them.  But both of them were very nice, and probably extra so since I didn't cause a fuss, yell or throw a tantrum when I almost didn't get my way.

While I will say the Eurostar is an incredible feat and the simplest way to England possible (I've taken both plane and ferry there), it isn't the most comfortable ride. Second-class on Eurostar is just as cramped as coach on any airplane, with the exception that there's no middle seat. But I was in London from Lille in less than 90 minutes. I was invigorated right when I stepped off the train, despite the rain. Few cities delight me and make me as happy upon arrival as London does (a short list would include SF, NYC and Paris). I can't quite explain the feeling, perhaps its the familiarity with the city at this point. (That isn't to say I don't get lost in London easily. And I think I have a pretty good sense of direction. But that city is an absolute maze.) I was also delighted to see Mary waiting outside the Arrivals exit when I ran out the door and practically tackled her. After a quick trip back to her house in Northwest London, we made our way back in to Spitalfields, where I had my first burrito in weeks. Normally, Mexican food is one cuisine I have learned to stay away from in Europe, since only once (in Paris) have I had anything remotely good (or even edible). But recently, Nick and Frank opened up their own burrito shop in London named Poncho No. 8. Europe is a desert, and Poncho No. 8 is an oasis. I don't think that's an overstatement, as I'm quite hard to impress when it comes to Mexican food. I recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who finds themselves in London. Plus, it was especially nice that there were specially-made burritos there waiting for us after-hours, thanks to the order that Laurence kindly put in for us.

Most of the rest of the night consisted of drinking several (and several more) rounds of wine, beer and shots of Sambuca at The Three Greyhounds in Soho (which I mistakenly kept calling The Three Broomsticks, which is actually found in Hogsmeade). If it weren't for lots of water and a Subway sandwich that hit the spot, I might have been worse off in the morning. While I wasn't completely myself the next day, I was up and ready before noon for some brunch and shopping near Oxford Circus.

Naturally, Mary brought me to an American-style diner, except they served British-style breakfast. Quite the "special relationship" combo. Afterwards, we met up with her friend/bandmate David, and we set out to complete the one other objective I had for the weekend (besides the burrito): visit Europe's first Anthropologie, which was supposed to have opened on Regent Street in September. The key phrase: supposed to. It wasn't that I was going to buy anything, as since I only have U.S. dollars in my bank account, and I haven't been paid in Euros yet, it would be too expensive for me to buy anything yet. I was really just going to look. But, alas, I couldn't even do that. Once we found it, there it was: the windows covered in paper and the doors were shut closed on a bright, sunny afternoon. I threw myself at the feet of the doors and wept. Well, sort of. More like I pretended to do so and we all laughed for a few minutes straight. I guess I'm just going to have to go back to London next month.

Anyway, after the failed trip to Anthro, we hopped on the 23-line bus towards Mary's house, and more importantly, the Sainsbury grocery store near her house. However, London Transport is ridiculous, and we were forced to take three separate 23-buses to get uptown. (There was a 15-20 minute stop at Primark, which I discovered along the journey, and I CANNOT WAIT to get paid so I can go back there.) Most of the bus ride consisted of Mary telling us about her dreams about the Queen (I guess it's something they all do in England, as I've never dreamt about her. I've never dreamt about any American presidents either. I might have had a nightmare about Cheney once. Oh no, that was an eight-year reality...), and learning how that in middle-class England, when adding the suffix "-ed" to the end of any noun can exemplify how drunk one was the night before. For example, "I was so bungalowed" last night. Try it.

After about an hour and a half (or more, who knows), we made it to the Sainsbury. The highlight of this store was when we pressed the "Press Here" buttons on all of the plush pumpkins on the shelves, which proceeded to sing "I Want Candy." Otherwise, Mary picked up all the necessary ingredients for dinner, while I picked up all the necessary ingredients for Pimm's.

Dinner was quite a success, albeit my petite cold clogged up my nose to the point where I was having difficulty breathing for most of the night. Mary made a vegetable-style lasagna, while Gabriele brought the Spotted Dick. I'm usually scared of most English food, especially given that a lot of dishes have misleading names (See: Sweetbreads). But this has to be one of my favorite English foods now (although, the only other two things I really like are Cottage Pie and trifles...). It was especially delicious drizzled in creamy custard. Plus, anything goes well with Pimm's. Anything. This evening was definitely more tame than the previous night, given all of our hangovers, but it was still lively and late nonetheless. Plus, it was especially nice to see some familiar, friendly faces after moving over to this side of the pond. (Coincidentally, there was another reunion going on over on the other side of the Atlantic, and they all walked to Brooklyn. Too bad I can't be in two places at once.)

Sunday was basically a travel day. I got up again around 10 AM, at which point Conn realized he might miss his flight back to Dublin, so everyone's goodbyes at Mary's house were quick. I was a little nervous about making it back to King's Cross on time when the Bakerloo train decided to sit at one station for 10 minutes.  But alas, I made it back to King's Cross, with £5 to spare. I spent half of it on a copy of Hello! with Kate Middleton on the cover and a bag of cheddar -flavored Kettle Chips. The rest is in my coin purse, mixing with some Euros and ready for their next trip up north in November.

Lunch in Brussels

rachel-king-brussels-belgian-waffleAfter a week of exploring Lille's crowded squares, gothic churches and lively nightlife scene, there weren't many options available on a Sunday afternoon. Usually in France, grocery stores, bakeries, many shops, etc. are closed on Sundays, and no one was going to show available apartments to my friends that day either. Plus we were hungry. So what were we to do? Have lunch in Lille? No...we went to Brussels! Why? Because we could. Brussels is just a short, 30-minute ride on the TGV from Lille. And with our SNCF resident discount cards (for ages 12-25), it was only €13 per person to get there. After waking up around 11:30 AM (I think we got back to the Hôtel Moulin d'Or from O'Scotland and the African Bar on Rue Solferino around 3 AM), Rachel and I got ready slowly, as Liana and Pat eventually arrived at our hotel room. We had bounced the idea around of going to Belgium soon, but as we sat in the hotel room with the French music station playing on the TV in the background, we realized we had nothing better to do. I checked the schedule online, only to discover that the next train was in 30 minutes, and the following train wouldn’t depart from Lille until after 3 PM. Thus, we sped across the street, through Gare Lille Flandres and then the following 400 meters to Gare Lille Europe. Actually, we made it with plenty of time to spare since there wasn't a line at the ticket counter.

I had been to Brussels once before in July 2004, and the weather was much fairer and warmer on that Sunday in late September than that chilly, foggy summer day. I never really planned on returning to Brussels, since there really isn't much to do there besides eat. When we arrived in Brussels (Brussel/Bruxelles, depending on your language of choice), we had to walk a bit to reach the center of town, as we arrived at Midi Station instead of Central Station. After a 10-minute walk past a sketchy flea market and a more rundown part of town, we made it into the Grand Place of Brussels. However, most of the square was closed off since they were cleaning up from their Braderie. At this point, we remembered the reason we came to Brussels: LUNCH. There are several culinary specialties in Belgium, namely waffles, chocolate, beer, mussels and fries. First on our menu were fries. We found a sandwich shop off of the main square where we all got sandwiches with both meat and fries within the bun. It was simple, cheap and delicious.

We had to walk around a bit before moving on to the next meal. As we passed through the Grand Shops corridor, I remembered something I wanted…no…needed to buy: a Swiss Army knife. On the previous night, we had two bottles of wine and alas, no wine opener. Except then Liz showed up with her trusty Swiss Army knife with a corkscrew attached, and we were set. Not only did I realize that would be useful to have around in France, but also a pair of scissors and a small knife couldn't hurt too - in case I have to fight off some wild animal out in the country where I'm living. Thus, we found a very nice shopkeeper, who informed us what was legal and not legal in Belgium and France (Mace and switch blades are not.) He suggested we travel to Holland if we want either of these items.

After walking along for a bit further, checking out boutiques here and there (including a store that had a full-size Nimbus 2000 in the window), we started making our way to the famous baby statute in Brussels. Unfortunately, about a block before we got there, some local police yelled at us. We started crossing the street when the green walk signed appeared, but by mid-street, it was red. And they don't really give you a warning with a flashing sign or anything to that effect, so we were caught red-handed by the police. It was a little startling, since they seemed really mad at us, but we walked away with a sneer verbal warning.

After being made to feel like criminals, it was definitely time for waffles. I ordered a strawberry and chocolate syrup waffle, which was so big I couldn't even finish it. We washed our waffles down with some local Primus beer (and a €3 water for me, hmph) before heading to Gare Bruxelles Central to buy tickets back to Lille. After waiting in line for at least 10 minutes before reaching the ticket counter, we were informed the next train to Lille was in one hour from Gare Midi on the Eurostar. We got on one of the shuttles over from Central to Midi, and made it almost just in time to check-in for Eurostar.

This was my first trip on the Eurostar, so it was quite an adventure. It's also far stricter than the TGV. The morning train was like hopping on the subway. The afternoon train we were booked on was headed for London, with just one stop in Lille, thus even though we were only going to France, we had to check-in at least 30 minutes prior to departure, go through security, and even speak to UK Border Control. When I got up to the UK official, she looked at me very sternly and asked me how long I was going to France for, which I responded by saying for several months. This caused her to raise an eyebrow, but I quickly pointed out my visa, and she responded by asking me why I was going to Lille. I said I teach English there, which produced a very large smile on her face. I found this hilarious, but I don't think it would be a good idea to laugh in front of UK immigration officials. They scare me a bit. The train ride home was quick, and it felt like we were barely moving. High-speed rail is just fantastic.

When we got back to Lille, we were all a bit tired. Thus, most of the evening was just finishing off the last bottle of red wine we had in our hotel room, watching some more French TV and packing up our bags as it was the last night at the Moulin d'Or. I also had to tuck in early, as I had to get up very early for the TER train to Montreuil-Sur-Mer, the town where I am living and teaching this year.