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London Trip

posted at 12:01 pm
on Apr. 21, 2002

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I’m on my way back to Los Angeles after a week in London. Susie is sleeping beside me. The flight is 9 hours long. The movies are Gosford Park, Ocean’s 11, Mouse Hunt and Affair of the Necklace, so I’ve chosen to skip all 4 and listen to the country music radio station, which is soothingly easy to write to.

Here’s what I now know about England: they eat odd things there.

In the past week, I’ve eaten locusts, pigeon, haddock, rabbit, kudu, lychees, pomegranate, wheatabix, spicy ginger beer, lamb and flowers. And UNSWEETENED whipped cream, if you can believe that! The Brits are so wacky!

* * *

We arrived on Sunday, the day of the London Marathon. After settling into our hotel, we called up my friend Crissy and headed out for dinner. Crissy is an old friend of Naomi. Naomi is the wife of a very good friend of mine. Crissy and Susie and I met at Naomi’s wedding, and got along famously. I ended up being taken out by a large contingent of beautiful women to an Irish pub in Washington D.C.; I was dressed in a tux and felt like James Bond on steroids. But that’s not what we’re here to talk about, I just like slipping it into conversation.

Crissy is married and they live in London, at least for the next month—then they’ll return to Detroit, the London of Michigan.

The four of us met up and after a drive down very very narrow streets, ended up in a very very Pakistani neighborhood and ate some food that was very very hard to decipher from the menu. Susie chose one of the chicken dishes. It turned out to be something chopped up and served in a spicy sauce with rice—who would have guessed?—while I had lamb, and thus kicked off my week-long binge of eating foods I don’t normally eat. But this theme did make choosing from unfamiliar menus easier. Instead of picking what sounded most tasty (which is often hard to know), I decided to choose what sounded most odd. I also checked carefully that things with the word “stomach” or “brain” weren’t on the menu before I went in, I’m not totally reckless, you know.

* * *

It was great fun seeing Crissy. Her husband was a little more difficult to read. He seemed smart and reserved, and had a good sense of humor, but we didn’t seem to hit many of the same conversational notes. Still, I’d take him to Pink’s, if you catch my drift. They dropped us off back at the hotel, and we collapsed from jet lag, barely aware of our surroundings.

* * *

The next morning, I woke up at the early hour of 5 a.m. and read until 6:30, at which point the hotel’s pool opened. This was the first chance I’d had to look around the hotel. It was bland and odd and small. It seemed like any hotel you’d find attached to a convention center, but it wasn’t attached to one, so didn’t have that as an excuse.

Called the Hotel Grange, it was a bizarre amalgam of styles. The attached restaurant was a Japanese sushi place, but the lobby had a huge bust of an Egyptian king. The lights in the hallway had pieces of fabric that constantly flapped from a hidden fan, meant to resemble torches, and almost succeeding. All nice, but certainly not unifying.

The pool was in the basement, and was very nicely decorated, but at its deepest only about 4 feet deep. It was like a wading pool or a fountain, that happened to have a ladder down one side.

After breakfast, Susie headed off for a day of sightseeing and I headed down the block to the office of Reed Elsevier Science, the parent company of Variety and the location of the London variety office.

* * *

After a full day of training, I took Erich out to dinner. We ate at a restaurant called Empire—a newly opened restaurant that is in “fusion” style, which apparently means “very odd animals.”

For appetizer, I had the locust salad, and no, that’s not a typo for lotus. Locusts are grasshopper-like bugs, and the salad was a small bowl of crispy, prickly, crunchy lettuce, with what can politely be described as “protein” on top of it. The locusts were fried or sauteed or something. They were, and I’m not blustering here, very good. So good, in fact, that if you offered me a chance to eat them again tomorrow, I’d probably take you up on it. They reminded me most closely of popcorn shells: salty, savory, but slightly softer. They were the kind of thing that would taste really good on a hot day at a baseball game accompanied by a cold beer.

Susie and Erich both decline to try on, even though there was enough to go around. They had scallops i.e. slug guts, but seemed to think that was less gross than my choice. Really! I didn’t mind, I wanted to eat them all, because I kind of swallowed the first one really quickly and didn’t get much of a taste of it.

My main meal was odd, but didn’t top the appetizer. It was kudu and ocra stir fry (it’s a type of antelope) (kudu, I mean, not ocra, which is a chewy pod of icky seeds). It was in a great sauce, a cross between A1 and Teriyaki.

Dessert was more normal—lychee and pomegranate, bug free, I was told.

* * *

Friday night was just Susie and I—and we treated ourselves to dinner at Rules, the oldest restaurant in London.

The restaurant prides itself on fresh game, and in fact you can go to the Rules farm and hunt yourself a ptarmigan or a grouse and eat it that night. The menu plainly states that some menu items have a risk of containing lead pellets. But I actually chose something different that night: pigeon. The whole dish was “Pigeon and rabbit on a bed of lentils,” but that first word was the clincher for me. Here was my chance to get even with these evil birds, and in the city where they first attacked me.

Side story here: I first came to London when I was 8, with my mother and grandmother. We went to Trafalager Square, where I bought some of the most repugnant french fries ever to see the light of day. These fries were mushy, soggy, and smelled like boiled fish guts. I was delighted to be able to throw them one by one at the pigeons that hung around the square. But what started as one pigeon became 2, then 4, then 8. They told two friends, and so on and so on, and soon there was a huge rush of birds heading straight towards me. Well, being only 8, I did what you’d expect any kid to do—I threw the little container of French fries straight up in the air and screamed. This served to attract every bird in a three-block radius, and they all immediately came swooping in and tried to catch the french fries out of mid air that were now raining down on me and catching in my air and in the pockets of my jacket.

Next thing I know, I’m crying, covered in pigeon poop, and being comforted by my mom who was only laughing out loud in between big gulps of air.

Now who’s eating who! I thought to myself as the waiter took my order.

To work myself up to it, I treated myself to scrambled eggs and smoked salmon as an appetizer. An odd thing to eat at dinner, but delicious.

The pigeon came roasted. It was strong tasting, but not awful. It certainly was better than some meats I’ve had at various hamburger stands in the U.S. But I will say this—I’m glad revenge wasn’t served cold, because I think it would have been a little strong for my taste buds.

* * *

Walking around the British museum, you really realize—these people were pretty much the biggest kleptos ever. I mean, it’s bigger than shoplifting: it’s countrylifting. The biggest, most fascinating piece in the museum is the Rosetta stone. It’s a five-foot tall chunk of slate that has a proclamation engraved on it in three different languages, and it was discovered by Napoleon in 1799(?) as he tromped through Egypt. But then he got distracted by some other conflict, and he looked away, next thing you know, there’s a British soldier with a huge bulge in his rain coat saying “Ta Ta mate,” and the British Museum ended up with it.

What makes it so amazing, it not just that it’s 1700 years old, but that it was the key to unlocking the entire Egyptian language. Before the stone was found, learned scholars knew that Egyptian hieroglyphics were a language, but no one in the world could translate them despite the hundreds of samples on pyramids, tombs, pottery and other artifacts from the ancient Egyptians.

I spend a lot of my life and my job worrying about translating from one thing to another: from programmers to editors, from reporters to readers, from one computer system to another, from the business side to the editorial side, from Mac to PC, from Canada to the U.S. As a guy who is always in between two things, I really identify with the Rosetta stone, and that’s why I splurged and bought a mouse pad in the shape of it.


Across the hall from our room, the Energizer Party started at about 7 p.m. Friday night. It kept going and going. In fact, it was audible most of that night from inside our room, and was still live the next morning when we got up for breakfast. There was sounds of chatting and clinking glasses and a stereo and laughing and all those good party noises, even at 9 a.m.  Then, when we came back at the end of the day, it had picked up again, and even when we got up on Sunday morning to catch a cab to the airport, the noise continued, though there was a little moaning now. I was impressed by their stamina, but saddened by their poor choice of venue.

* * *

The security in the Heathrow airport is astounding. At first, it seems much like the U.S.—inane questions, metal detectors, many glances at your boarding pass.  Nothing you haven’t run into before.

But before you board the plane, there’s a final check that involves a metal detector, a full pat-down, removal and rubbing of the shoes with a magic explosive sniffer, and a full visual inspection of every part of your hand luggage. They even disassembled a little tiny flashlight I’d brought along, testing to see if it turned on, and making sure the batteries really did take up the whole of the interior of the tube.

Makes the measly check I had before I flew to San Jose a little embarrassing. I mean, the British weren’t even directly attacked, and they’re doing a far superior job to what Susie and I saw on the way to London.

* * *

The plane we flew back on was only 1.5 weeks old—the pilot seemed pretty thrilled by it. It didn’t seem much different to me, maybe a little cleaner, but still the same old shape and comfort as usual. I don’t know if I felt better about being in such a new plane—what are the lemon laws for jet airplanes? How long are they under warranty?

* * *

There’s an old friend of mine in London that I haven’t seen for several years. Her name’s Elizabeth, and we met up with her for dinner one night. She’s one of the friendliest, most balanced people I know. Plus, we discovered she has a spare bedroom overlooking a great big square (i.e. private park) in a hip district of London. We love her.

She took us to The Troubadour restaurant, which was very friendly. It had a cat supervising the waiters, lying on the floor directly in the path like you might expect it would. I had pasta with ham and cream and mushrooms. And no bugs.

* * *

We’re getting ready to land. There’s little time left for me to go on about the weather (beautiful), the taxi drivers (informative and funny) and the Churchill Arms (a combo pub and Thai restaurant). I’d like to describe the building where Variety is located (it’s like being inside an ice cube, but with tighter security) and tell you about lunch at the Groucho club (not as funny as you’d think it would be). Or the fact that my boss encouraged me to ride the bus without paying. But I can save that for a later entry. Ta Ta!



Previous entry:
Give me an L-O-S-E-R

Next entry:
Hard time falling asleep


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