Posts Tagged ‘london’

Lights On, Shoreditch

Monday, September 1st, 2014


London, autumn.

I stay at the Ace Hotel Shoreditch on the night after Alex Calderwood, the brains behind the entire hotel chain, dies at the property.

At the time of his death, Calderwood is a young man. Months later, it will quietly come out that he died of a mixture of alcohol and drugs.

I know none of this when we check in, when the staff can’t find the reservation, then finds it, then loses it again, all within the course of five minutes. A manager hovers behind his employees, watching the work. It’s all a little tense.

In the room, there is a complimentary bottle of champagne — the first of two that that the hotel will leave us over the course of the weekend. Later, a staff member will barge into the room without knocking with an armful of silverware.

I have dinner that evening in the downstairs restaurant with my friend V__, who lives in town. The decor is all wood and gold and geometric. The waiters wear sweatshirts and smile a lot. It’s adorable. Even jetlagged, I feel amazing. I feel that buzzy, far-from-home sense of exhaustion and excitement that only seems to come along with a flight from New York to London. My friend N_____ calls this just-landed, unacclimated space “the dizzy hours.” Plus, it’s autumn and London has that slantways orange side light. The Christmas decorations are up early. The Shard is done. You can’t complain about bad food anymore. Everything cool is British. For me, it’s the second best city in the world, sorry Paris.

Dinner is fine and they burn my steak, but I’ve never had a steak cooked exactly how I wanted anywhere but New York, so I can’t even be mad. It’s part of the traveler’s experience, the thing that makes the place the thing. Like I always say: It’ll go in the blog.

After, we could go out or we could stay, so we stay because the bar is new and the hotel is new and everyone there is noisy and pretty and it’s like a fashion show sliding between a series of small and large rooms — one with bookshelves, one with a DJ setup, one with a bar, maybe two with a bar, all of it painted in this off-blue-avocado-abandoned-mental-hospital color that matches the color of the air, of the entire night. The idea of leaving, of being elsewhere in Shoreditch, is almost silly.

We drink. There is a carafe of wine at dinner, then another drink, then an Old Fashioned, then espresso martinis. The latter have a foamy head and a star anise floating on top of each one, and they take ages to arrive. When they arrive, they arrive twice. The bar has made a mistake and the waitress shrugs. “You might as well drink them, because we made them.”

So we drink them.

Then we start chatting with a bunch of fashion photographers. I don’t remember how this started or how it ended thanks to the martinis, which go down like a double bomb of sedative and stimulant in the same gulp — more treacherous than any tequila shot. One of them tells me about the shoot he has to set up the next morning — McQueen. Another one is hitting on V___, who has told him several times that she’s married.

I think it ends — I think — because it has to. Because I have lost count of how many I drank. I remember V__ getting a cab, the headlights blaring through the homey little plants by the entrance. I remember regarding the size of the bill with a shrug and not being able to make the conversion in my head from pounds to dollars and not caring. Everything seems cheaper that way anyway. Best to worry about it in the morning.

And then I stagger upstairs. At least I don’t have to go far, but then, it’s all a nightmare of drunkennes paired with jittery, espresso-induced insomnia. I watch the ceiling of the room spin for three hours. I shove laptops under blankets in order to block the tiny flashing lights. I try to focus on the fire alarm, pray that it will be the one thing that will stop moving. I cry, only a little, over my own basic stupidity.

Over the rest of the weekend, I will see a Jez Butterworth play. I will eat Italian food. I will visit a book shop. I will walk the Columbia Road Flower Market. All of it with the pall of half-sickness hanging green around my head. I can do anything, anything, but sleep.

In the Stars: A Tale of Two London Hotels

Saturday, September 18th, 2010

The Athenaeum Hotel

The Splendid Room

I am never happier than when I step into the slippers. The whole room is a dream, it’s true, from the cornflower blue fabric on the headboard to the sparkling porcelain sink. The lights brighten and dim soothing slowness, as though a basic switch would be too harsh, too jarring a transition. The climate control system—its intake and outlets mysteriously out of sight—whispers low like a lover. But the slippers.

Their one-size-fits-all design is genderless and basic to the point of being nearly disposable, but that’s beside the point. It’s the way that they feel that counts. Covered in what looks like terry but must surely be the insides of clouds or the fleece of a thousand baby lambs, wearing them means forgetting about discomfort. About sidewalk-nurtured callouses and endless dead skin and an ankle not quite healed.

I seriously consider wearing them out into the city. Before checkout, I stuff a pair into my already-overstuffed bag.

On Picadilly, across from the Buckingham Palace Garden, I decide to splurge. Maybe for the sake of the slippers alone.

The flight to New York to London is a sensory disaster, a 7-hour exercise in time-losing, body-disorienting anguish marked by the smell of thin, stale air and the endless bellow of jet engines. A soft landing on the other side becomes my mission, more than trying to maximize time, or bound out onto the city streets for sightseeing. This is how I know I’m getting older. Instead of needing to crisscross the city at breakneck speed, gawking and eating—the touristic equivalent of rape and pillage, all I want to do now is drink tea, scribble in my notebooks, wander without a map and sit by a river.

Upon arrival, I take a too-long shower and use up just enough of the shampoo and conditioner that I can still take some home. I wrap myself into the enormous white robe, knotting the belt around twice, and finally, when my energy gives out completely, doze on a starchy white pillowcase.

I don’t want to leave. I seriously ponder it, of all the blasphemies—staying sunk into that mattress like a lazy princess—instead of using my theater tickets. Instead of getting out, taking the walk through the bleating chaos of Picadilly Circus, figuring out dinner, spinning a map around in the palms of my hands. This is what a lovely hotel does to a girl who is not used to such things, who spends most of her trips avoiding the hostel she’s checked into, the noisy teenage boys there hogging all the good bunks.

The next morning, I make tea in the neat little electric pot. I use the wireless as though I will never have it again, as though I am headed to some overgrown jungle and will be sleeping in a hut instead of to a budget hotel across the river. My iPhone sits charging on a dock, unfettered from any tangling cords, from double layers of international adapters and surge protectors. I glut on civilization, on floor-to-ceiling mirrors and stacks of white towels. I am cured of my jetlag. I’ve seen nothing of London, of the river or Parliament or the parks or the little shops. The free museums inhabit some hazy elsewhere. Instead I have a cup of chamomile tea, turndown service, as many cotton swabs as I would like, and so much more—all the confines of that little room.

Tune Hotel Westminster

The As-Promised 5-Star Bed

You pay extra for everything. For a scratchy towel and a tiny tube of manly-smelling shampoo. For each day of internet access. For the television. For use of the hairdryer that sits like an overturned turtle on a table, its cord perma-mounted into a wall, silent and dead until you fork over £2.

It is a new concept in hotels, like an earthbound Ryanair—the nickel-and-dime business model. The benefit to the traveler? You can score an incredibly cheap room in a brand new London hotel that does promise a single, notable luxury: a great bed.

And it must have been, because I overslept in it twice, once on a morning where I was scheduled to take a train.

The Tune Hotel, located in South London by the Lambeth North tube stop, has the chipper, new-paint-and-plaster feel of an upbeat college dorm, right down to the Ikea furniture in the rooms and the kids at the front desk who smile like enthused RAs welcoming you to orientation. Even the wallpaper in the rooms is cheerful—the pattern covering mine was grass green and geometric with a whiff of vintage styling—but that, and the wide window, can’t cover the fact that the room is small.

The white slab of a bed fills it almost entirely, like a giant marshmallow.

After the Athenaeum, I try not to be displeased. I really do. I try to appreciate the bed, which is very nice, and the economy of the toilet/shower/sink, which sits in a pod in the corner and seems to be molded from a single piece of plastic. But I can’t. One 5-star hotel, and I’m ruined.

Even though the Tune is spotless, I smell the sheets. (Is that chlorine?) I wonder how the all-plastic bathroom is cleaned, and how it will look after five years of use, after the grime settles into the crevices. I am frustrated by the silent hairdryer, even though I haven’t blowdried my hair in years.

I’ve slept in beachside shacks and hippie commune hostels, and on a bare bunk in Greece for half a summer without a pillow. And here I am, cranky that the air conditioning is too cold, fighting with the window shade.

So I do what I must. I leave. I strike out into the city. I wander markets. I walk across Millennium Bridge. I see two museums, the Tate and the Tate Modern. I walk along the river. I take a day trip to Bath. I travel, finally, in earnest.

Go there:

The insanely wonderful Athenaeum Hotel is located at 116 Picadilly. To get there, take the tube to Green Park or Hyde Park Corner.

The utterly serviceable Tune Hotel is located at 118-120 Westminster Bridge Road.

What Can Be Seen in Battersea

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

Asking that musical question...

One one of those mornings when I wandered around London in the dim late-summer sunlight feeling sad, I found myself south of the river in Battersea Park. I almost didn’t find myself there because a cab nearly ran me over at the intersection at one end of the Albert Bridge. You would think, at this point, I’d understand how to properly cross a street in London. Judging from the cabbie’s reaction—I honestly thought that he was going to get out of the car and finish the job—I clearly don’t.

But on that glum day at the end of my journey, when the world ahead of me seemed as bleak and empty as the cloud-streaked sky, all I wanted to do was see the power station. The Battersea Power station is one of my favorite London places, and another one—like the recording studio at Abbey Road—that doesn’t offer much to the average visitor. You can’t go inside. There are no brochures or tours. There’s no one to tell you about its history. The only thing to do is marvel at its inexplicable beauty, its lumbering red brick planted, unmovable, on the bank of the river as though it sat down there one day like a sleepy hound.

The station itself is out of commission except as a movie and music video set. It’s on the cover of a Pink Floyd album. The Batman movies were filmed there. Maybe it’s those tenuous connections to things that are so familiar in pop culture, and maybe it’s something else—the elegance of its symmetrical white smoke stacks, despite their incredible size—that never fails to charm me, that sent me across the bridge that day.

I just wanted to get close to it. You can’t, really. It’s easily visible—postcard pretty against the sky—if you stand on the bridge, but it disappears in increments when you enter the park that shares its name. I wandered around the park for hours trying to get close to it, not really sure where I was headed, getting lost on the park’s winding paths. At one point, the trees open up to a concrete pavilion lined with fountains that look like they haven’t been touched—or turned on—since the sixties. Mushroomy pods in concrete and fiberglass were intended for kids to play on them, but they were empty on this day, and I don’t know what parent would let any kid risk it. The whole thing just made me sadder.

I made my way closer to the river bank, hoping for a better view of the factory, but at this point, it wasn’t visible at all. I was—impossibly and infuriatingly—both too close and too far away. I could have, I supposed, turned back, but if you’ve ever been to Battersea, or to anywhere south of the Thames, you know that hopping on the tube just anywhere isn’t exactly possible. I kept walking.

The Peace Pagoda sprung up out of nowhere, incongruous against the rest of the skyline, in blues and golds. It’s not a monument, but a working temple where London’s Buddhist population worships, and there it is, right in Battersea park, regal and unfazed by passing dog walkers and gawking tourists. I walked in a circle around it, too distracted to take photos. In a park that brims with clutter and dark trees, the pagoda was surrounded by light and space.

That’s when I saw the little girl, sitting on a bench just outside the pagoda. She seemed too young to be alone, her little girl belly peeking out from under the hem of her tank top, but there was no doting mom in sight, no ragtag collection of siblings. Her feet didn’t touch the ground, but swung to the rhythm of the music pouring out of her earphones, the volume turned up so loud that I could hear it all the way over on the path. Her pigtails bobbed, the pink ties at the end of each one gleaming like gumballs. She wasn’t listening to an iPod or another micro-sized music player, but a portable CD player twice the size of her hands, the disc spinning furiously under the lid. The track was Bobby Brown’s “Every Little Step,” a song whose popularity in England seems dubious to begin with, but which certainly predated the ecstatic girl listening to it by a solid two decades.

I laughed out loud. She could not possibly know this song, a song from my childhood, but there it was, spinning out of her headphones and across Battersea park on a Tuesday near the Peace Pagoda, the music tiny, pint-sized, but crystal clear.

Go there:

Battersea Park is located south of the Themes. It can be accessed on foot by the Albert Bridge and by tube from the Sloane Square station, but you have to walk a bit after that. The bus might be a better idea. The Peace Pagoda can be found in the center of the park, close to the river.

Rock Pilgrimage 2: Abbey Road, London

Saturday, September 13th, 2008

Paul Is Dead

St. John’s Wood is tony and manicured and green at the height of summer, when London is neither especially warm nor especially sunny. Red brick marches. White shutters are neatly pegged back, newly painted, pristine. Nothing moves. Not a leaf. Coughed up by the tube in late-afternoon, I am spun around and disoriented, turning the map this way and that. Finally, I look up, pull myself out of the guidebook.

There is nothing else to see in this place. There can be nowhere else to go.

I follow the crowd. There are students in band-logo t-shirts and pimply kids in sandals. You know when you have reached the intersection because of the enormous blinking lights, sunny colored spheres, enormous, ugly against the trees. They scream: Look out for tourists who will stand heedless in the middle of the street. Who will scoot across barefoot, itching for a re-enactment.

I recognize it before the guidebook tells me: The crosswalk — a zebra crossing, as the English say — was moved about ten feet to the right somewhere between 1968 and now, which skews the perspective. Looking up the street from the safety of the opposite curb, you can see the album cover and you can’t. You look for codes, a single thing. Maybe one tree that stood in that moment, that still stands. Proof that it was real. Or proof, maybe, that you’ve come to see something other than just a crosswalk.

The low concrete wall in front of the studio itself, just a few yards up the street, is covered in graffiti, most of it well meaning, exclamatory, sorely repetitive. Song lyrics. Thank yous. It’s something, a place to go, a thing to visit. On this day, the London Philharmonic is recording and their enormous trailer of instruments is being unloaded by a pack of disagreeable looking roadies. They huff at the tourists to move, scowl when they keep snapping photos. Of the front door. The hedges. The street signs, which have been placed high on the walls of buildings, far out of human reach, theft-proof, graffiti-proof.

On the sidewalk, a tour guide in an enormous rainbow top hat shouts a scripted history of the band to a cluster of sullen-looking teenagers. They’re fifteen. They already know.

The neighborhood itself seems to recoil against this rabble, the leaves unfurling in the breeze. Neighbors have put up angrily-worded, neatly stenciled signs warning against criminal prosecution for defacement of private property.

I snap a photo. Two more. And realize that there’s nothing else to do. There’s no communal gathering place, nothing you can see that can’t be seen. You’d have better luck — find the real beginnings and ends of things — at home, feet up on the wall, window open, watching the darkness creep in, hidden under your headphones.

Nothing to Declare

Monday, July 28th, 2008

The Flat

In Fulham, we sit in the outdoor café of a restaurant stacked in by ludicrous heaps of cakes and pastries in the windows. Pavlovas and four flavors of tarts. Pies with inches of frosting. Crumbles and strudels. Cakes as dense as bricks and crusted with pistachios and almonds, dusted with granular and powdered sugars.

We hover over piles of eggs. Eggs! Luxury. So rare and strange. And salmon. Hollandaise sauce. Muffins. Iced lattes capped with froth. Me and the blonde girl with her pretty halo of flyaway hair and Bridge. And it’s almost normal. Almost like what we were.

After eggs, we choose a cheap bottle of white, a pear-and-banana cake and an apple creation with a pile of cream on top, and ask for three forks.

Bridge says.

“My aunt tried to get a day off from work so she could get married on SecondLife. When her boss wouldn’t give her the time off, she just decided to retire.”

I laugh so hard that tears cloud my vision, that it’s difficult to stay completely on the chair. I have not laughed like this all summer, all year.

They tell me that this is a gorgeous summer day, a day of sweeping, feathery clouds and half-sun, of almost-heat. In the Mediterranean, the places where I’ve come from, this is an indoor day, a day for the archeological museum. My body takes note, begins its reacclimation , tries hard to remember rain.


Heathrow gleams bright as though I’ve stepped out of a tunnel, been standing too long in a darkened room. In the ladies room, water pours, soap drips, air blows warm, all of it automatic and humming and regular without buttons or waste.

Four hours before, I step onto the plane and a ponytailed stewardess smiles, nods, says, “Good morning,” and my heart flips over. Oh my God. English.

I glide through customs, collect more stamps, haul my bag off the conveyor belt, fill out little pieces of paper with stubby little pencils, follow the signs. I press €90 through the slot and a guy in a striped tie smiles and hands me back £68. I wince, too scared to do the final, meaningful calculation, the one that corresponds to the currency that’s actually in my bank account.

I am so good at this now. Transport. The shift from one nation to the other. Financial denial. Thank you in four different languages.

I see her and everything crumbles to bits. Pretty little dress, hair bouncing around her shoulders. Smiling. Same as always. We hug once. Twice. On the third, we both start to cry.

We talk fast, practicalities. I need an Oyster card.

She asks if she can help with my bag, horrible thing, still lumbering behind after so many miles, ten ferries, six flights, terminals and stairs. I don’t mind the gap and it bounces over and onto the train, a perfect landing.

“Nah,” I say. “I have a system.”


Bridge’s place is one in a line of row houses with a blue painted door, a dream of an English flat flooded with light, a garden just out the back window.

I point to a place just up the road, identical to all the others. “Does Ringo live in that one?”

Familiar objects line shelves. Things I saw in New York, a time warp away. A beaded purse, a framed photo of Loretta holding a smiling baby, a plated watch without a face, stacks of books I’ve read or want to read. Miranda July, Capote, Woe Is I. An amazing pile of British fashion magazines.

I put conditioner in my hair. Conditioner — a bottle that was too heavy to carry and too expensive to buy. I stand in awe of hot water. There is no line behind me, no grit under my toes. Flip flops are not necessary. Bacteria does not threaten. I drop a handful of bobby pins on the counter without worrying that they will be moved, scattered across the floor by the careless sweep of a hand, the nudge of someone else’s towel, tooth paste tube, wet hair.

We talk over curry and salad and spaghetti squash. I sit on the couch, a lump, comatose watching a show on E! about Playboy bunnies. I have not slept in 24 hours, half-dead from another night on an airport floor, in transit, half-dozing hour to hour with one eye on my luggage, my cheek striped with red marks from the straps of my purse.

Civilization opens its mouth, gulps me down, swallows only once.

The Checklist

Monday, April 16th, 2007

We’re flying home tomorrow. We did and saw so much that it will be a challenge to capture it all here, which I will try to do over the next few weeks. This is the best list I can compile at 23:13 in the lobby of a B&B on a quiet little street behind Victoria Station while Brian is out getting water and tickets on the Gatwick Express, which we’re taking at 6:00 tomorrow morning.

- Pubs/Beverage in the form of beer
- Equus (Equus! EQUUS!!)
- St. Paul’s
- Westminster Abbey
- The honorable and majestic houses of Lords/Commons
- The climbing and descending of countles steps
- The Bloody Tower/Who goes there? Escort for the keys!
- The Churchill Museum
- The British Museum
- The National Portrait Gallery
- The South Bank
- The varous phallic skyscrapers
- Paris/Notre Dame/Drippy Catacombs/Ice cream on the Isle St. Louis
- Cheese and more cheese
- The Eurostar!
- Endless pockets of foreign currency
- Endless sandwiches in boxes
- Endless sore feet
- Look kids, Big Ben
- A diamond like a glittering golf ball
- Bus rides and bus rides/The Miraculous Oyster Card

And may God save… the queen.

The Day of Busy

Thursday, April 12th, 2007

A Cap on the Heavens

Right now I am standing at the single computer kiosk in the lobby of our hotel, on which any activities outside of ‘checking your e-mail’ are strictly forbidden.

Note the single quote.

So I am distinctly forbidden from doing what I’m doing and yet I’m going to do it anyway. Huzzah.

I am also in plain view of the very dark street, which seems dangerous so I’ll keep this quick.

Today we went to the British Museum. Today we went to Westminster Abbey. Today I saw teen sensation Daniel Radcliffe in the buff for a surprisingly extended amount of time, no pun intended. Today I had Chinese food. Today I had a sandwich. Today I took a lot of busses.

One of our guidebooks said, and this is verbatim: If you learn the bus system in London, you will swing like Tarzan through the urban jungle, and boy have we. Him Tarzan, me Jane, and we have swung the lead like a mo’fo today from Picadilly to SoHo to Covent Garden to Westminster and back again fourteen times.

Dear Mom,

I’m sorry I haven’t called you, but phone cards are hard to come by or maybe we’re just not looking all that hard or maybe I sort of secretly enjoy being thousands of miles away from home without a phone. I’m alive. I’m having a grand time. Wish you were here. Don’t worry.


Charles Dickens is buried under a plain, dark, entirely unadorned black slab of stone, and I found this depressing until my companion reminded me that those who need to continually declare their brilliance to the world probably aren’t all that brilliant in the first place.

There are no pidgeons in Trefalger Square!

I haven’t seen a single Wagamama yet. I have no idea what you people are talking about, but the current Top Shop cover girl is undeniably anorexic. I’m just saying.

Let’ face it. Rick Steves is a dork. Fashionable people will look down on his travel advice for the marginally ignorant and yet on this trip, no guidebook has served us better than that damn Rick Steves book with its damn obvious green cover.

Lonely Planet London? Way too pointless and obscure and written by people who’ve seen it all fifteen times and whose sense of wonder has been terminally sapped from their bones. TimeOut London? Nice pictures, but thin on practical information.

Thank you Rick. Although I didn’t buy a money belt. I’m sorry.

Elizabeth I and Bloody Mary lay side by side, the crazy Protestant and the crazy Catholic who hated each other, but Elizabeth got the statue — made from her death mask and including her hook-y nose — and it made me happy to see women so highly revered and fawned over, especially Elizabeth, who was truly badass as far as queens go. The tomb is ornate, a little dusty, canopied, and gilded everywhere in a corner of Westminster Abbey.

There are no crowds this week. I have no idea what’s going on.

We had cheese sandwiches in a restaurant in SoHo and the owner came and talked to us in his suspenders and bowtie and told us to go to Carnaby St. but we ignored him. He referred to the US only as ‘your country’ which somehow felt funny, a little euphamistic. Or a lot.

Your daft country.

I am leaving things out. There’s a lot to say. Tomorrow. Tomorrow.