A few weeks ago I had the extremely good fortune to get invited to stay a week in London completely for free (well, after train fare). That’s an offer you just can’t refuse. So I packed up my laptop, arranged cat-sitters for Sésame and was off!
I love London and try to visit once a year. As a native English speaker living in France, it’s always somewhat refreshing to step on a train and in a couple of hours arrive at a place where I can just open my mouth and start talking with zero thinking-ahead time. Or rather, knowing that whatever I say will be completely normal. Or as normal as American talk can sound to English ears, I guess. 🙂
But more than that, when I arrive in London I always feel a general sense of comfort that I don’t get at “home” in Paris. It’s less densely populated, for one thing, and sidewalks are wider. People are much friendlier, something that even my introverted self values highly, as loyal readers will recall from this episode. And it’s also one of the vegan capitals of the world. So even though I like many aspects of living in France, a trip to London always feels like a visit almost-home.
Since I visit fairly often, I have the luxury of exploring the city at a leisurely pace and visiting just a few sites in each trip. This time, I mainly hung out with the friend who invited me, worked (as I couldn’t take the time completely off without longer advance notice) and enjoyed the city’s street art.
Allow me to take you on a little guided tour of my week.
First, the bricks! One of the first things I always notice when I get to London are the many brick buildings – bricks being rather few and far between in Paris. There’s something very grand and majestic about them, and something warm and inviting too, don’t you think? The university I went to in Milwaukee had several old brick buildings with ornate decorations (a bit like the one with the green door above), so bricks often bring me comforting memories of strolling about the campus, my mind filled with some fascinating thing I’d just learned, and of breathing in the vanilla scent of an old book I’d just cracked open at the campus library. I miss those days.
And the doughnuts! Somehow I’d never noticed before that doughnuts are largely absent from the pastry landscape of Paris. Logical enough, right? Since they’re not a traditional French thing. But neither are cupcakes or chocolate-chip cookies, and those are all over the place. So I think some room could be made for doughnuts. When I was still living in the States I wasn’t particularly a doughnut-eater, past childhood at least, but I was fascinated by the doughnuts London seems to suddenly have in abundance, and with very original flavors/themes. The nice thing is that most mainstream doughnut purveyors now offer not zero but several vegan options! The same is true for cupcakes (see photos). This was not the case just a few years ago, so things are really starting to move.
From this excited description you’ll probably assume I spent my time in London eating doughnuts. But I was actually more interested in their existence, and in taking photos of them. I ate just one during this visit: a massive caramel buttercream and speculoos-encrusted affair with coffee glaze called Houston, We Have Biscoff from Doughnut Time.
It also happened to be unseasonably warm and sunny the week I was there, especially for a city known for being overcast and foggy. The first day was as chilly as can be expected for mid-April, justifying tights and a light jacket, but after that it was positively summery. The sun shone brightly the whole rest of the week, and fruit trees were in full blossom. At the end of my stay, a local joked that I’d just experienced all the sunny days London would have in 2018. That could very well be true! In any case, I felt lucky to be able to soak up the sunshine and synthesize some vitamin D after the long, gray and depressing winter we had.
I really appreciated the nice weather as I walked around the city in search of street art! The piece above is by Steve Powers. Incidentally, when making this piece he commented, “I love working in public and I love painting brick walls. London has some of the finest brick walls in the world.” You see what I mean about those bricks!
Two works by the world’s most famous street artist, Banksy. The one on the left appeared last year on a wall of the Barbican when a retrospective show dedicated to Haitian-American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat opened there. In it, we see how Banksy imagined the late artist (depicted in Basquiat’s signature style) being received by the British police when arriving for his own exhibition. Surprisingly enough, the Barbican did not repaint the wall and even put up some Plexiglas to protect the street art.
A piece on Old Street by Ben Eine.
Left: Queen Elizabeth II as the guy from A Street Cat Named Bob, down on her luck and trying to sell copies of The Big Issue (Loretto). Right: giant stick people look down benevolently upon Shoreditch (Stik).
I also did some hunting for mosaics by French street artist Invader to up my Flashinvaders score. At the time of my visit, London had 84, so this became a rather big undertaking. With the help of a local space invader hunter, I was able to find 77 of them by the week’s end. Below is a selection of my favorites.
My space invader hunt took me to a place I somehow hadn’t been aware of but that’s now my new favorite London museum! So I’d like to take a moment to share some glimpses of it with you…
If, like me, you love the city of London and also enjoy seeing how people of the past lived, this museum is for you. It takes you through the city’s history from Roman times to the present, giving you a sense of how things once were in the form of artifacts and models. Included are souvenir mugs commemorating Charles II’s coronation, amulets for warding off the plague, very old false teeth, the actual wooden walls from a 1750s prison cells complete with graffiti by prisoners, a series of streets and shops from the Victorian days, fashions of the 20th century, models of row houses, Elizabeth II’s coronation memorabilia and finally books printed in other languages for immigrants to England (including a book designed to teach children of Polish immigrants to read and write their parents’ language – Polish now being the second-most spoken language in the UK).
My very favorite this time was a new 100% vegan pub called The Spread Eagle near Hackney. It opened in January and right from the start, a waitress explained to us, the owners made sure that everything used there was vegan, from the alcohols and other beverages (free from animal-derived filtering agents) down to the cleaning supplies and hand soap in the restrooms (from brands that don’t test on animals) and the upholstery on the bar seats (something other than leather/wool).
From Wednesday through Sunday every week, they serve super-delicious vegan Latin dishes by Club Mexicana. We had the chick’n “wings” with hot sauce and salsa verde, beer-battered tofish tacos, jackfruit and garlic tacos, a giant salad with popcorn chick’n and finally deep-fried ice cream with Mexican chili-chocolate sauce and cinnamon. It was so good that before we even finished eating, I started feeling sad that I couldn’t have it more often. If you’re in London but can’t make it as far as this pub, or the days don’t work out, you can find Club Mexicana fare at Camden Market seven days a week.
Another pleasant surprise in the good-vegan-options-at-mainstream-places category was Leon, a chain with locations all over the city. One evening when I was tired from walking too much (see “street art” above), not wanting to go anywhere far from the place I was staying, I wandered in to see what they might have.
I tried their meatless meatballs – made with eggplant/aubergine, black olives and rosemary and served over rice with some kind of magical tomato sauce and garlic aioli – and was blown away! I’m hoping and praying they come to Paris! Incidentally, I found their recipe for the meatballs, but they don’t say how to make the sauce… I think it’s too top secret to share. 😉 Another time I stopped in, I found that they also offer several vegan dessert/pastry items, like this baked pistachio & rosewater doughnut. So I guess I did have more than one doughnut on this trip after all! But this one was normal-sized.
So there you have a few ideas for things to do and places to eat next time you’re in beautiful London.