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Eatng and Working in London, if Briefly

Note: I was in London so this is now three months old. Oops. This trip was made possible by a fellowship and accompanying grant offered by the Soane Foundation based in New York, NY. I offer my thanks to both the Soane Foundation, the Soane Museum in London, and the incredibly cognizant staff of both organizations. Any and all views expressed below are mine and mine alone, I bear all responsibility-- this is a personal travelogue.

The Marketplace of Understanding

One of the things I enjoy most about visiting another place for an extended period is the chance to craft a new life, if only briefly. It’s during these trips that I do rash things like decide to exercise regularly, change my diet, dress in a new way, or just spend more time reading. On my quest for understanding the true nature of other cultures, when visiting other first world places I often gravitate to the most telling of locations: the grocery store. Inspecting a foreign grocery store will tell you a lot about the status of a people and this is how I’ve spent more of my time in Britain this year than I would like to admit. The result has been entrée into domestic England, a world never encountered on previous trips as an occasional tourist.

One trip to Marks & Spencers and I’m quite sure that the world is coming to an end. Ten kinds of juice, all in wonderfully designed packaging and featuring cleverly combined fruit flavors; socks, panties, and bras an aisle away from bread and biscuits; a third of the store given over to pre-packaged meals one of which is labeled “contains no skin or bone.” If this really is the end at least it’s all neatly wrapped in plastic.

Instant Coffee

Waking up in a mild fog of jetlag I found the cabinets of my furnished flat replete with the collected remnants of previous brief stays: half emptied and oddly assembled condiments and fixtures. Tea, yes, but I needed something stronger. I needed coffee.

My love of instant coffee came, well, instantly. With my first cup of rehydrated freeze-dried flavor crystals I was hooked. As quickly as the matte brown shards piled at the bottom of my cup had melted into a coffee-smelling liquid I had fallen in love. This has something to do with the color and texture of the actual crystals themselves, the simplicity of coffee from a glass jar, and the ease of the ritual. I wake up, turn on the socket, set my vintage 1980s “West German” water pot to boil, and the morning coffee is taken care of without the hassle of grounds or filters.

Over the course of just three days it has turned into an obsession. I’m no longer happy with any old instant coffee-- now I want the perfect instant coffee and can scarcely pass a grocery or convenience store without checking their stock. Budgens provided Cadburry mocha satchels, Marks & Spencer’s had canisters of latte powder, and Selfridge’s introduced me to the world of flavored coffees with Boater’s Smooth Vanilla. Something in the neighborhood of three month’s supply of coffee is already in my cupboard and I’m still searching.

Pork: The Fruit of the Gods

The British do not know pig like Americans know pig. The red, salty, crispy wonder that we cook in a skillet is here rendered a flabby slab of salty, pinkish gray. You can get “crispy bacon” which seems to better approximate what we know more simply as “bacon”, but the category is much larger in Britain. Put another way, there is nothing appetizing about the name “Budgen’s rindless back bacon” nor does the product itself have any redeeming factors. America: 1. Britain: 0.

Crumpets

Totally by accident, I literally ran into crumpets displayed at Tesco Express. There were situated at eye-level on the end of the bread row and such began my second British love affair. A bit like the bastard child of a pancake and a waffle, the crumpet features a smooth, crispy-when-toasted bottom and a pockmarked top filled with small holes formed by yeasty bubbles escaping in the oven. The contrast between crispy and supple makes eating the crumpet a delight of texture, primarily, but also a good medium for whichever jam or jelly you fancy. The things we know as “English Muffins” in America are a poor imitation of this pleasure. America: 1. Britain: 1.

The Tube

Later, during the morning commute, the tube is a scene: a man’s eyes and nose have found their permanent home on his face as if arranged by head-on collision, a woman with a shiny chin, girls who find love stories in the distorted reflections of curved glass, boys who are obsessed only with trainers. A poster claims that 2004 saw 583 injuries and 5 deaths.

Abundance

Things that London seems to have in abundance lately: Starbucks, nectarines, body odor in the tubes, and multiracial babies.

The Soane Museum

With days spent in the research library, attic offices, and far reaches of the museum, this time in London is my first introduction into the sometimes arcane worlds of historical preservation, curation, and all of the issues that research into these areas entail. Example one: white gloves. There come, when traveling, moments which mark true departure more than physical dislocation. This is not a condition of merely experiencing something different, but knowing one has stepped definitively into a new world. It wasn’t the towering shelves and teeming archives of original source material that described to me a previously unknown world, but the mode of care and slowness that one switches into when putting on a simple pair of white cotton gloves.

Having spent a good chunk of time researching the Soane Museum using published sources it was, of course, amazing to suddenly have access to the real thing. Not just the actual interior of the building, which I had visited before and is easily accessed with a small donation, but the drawings themselves. And the backs of the drawings too, which were sometimes even more informative. Always with the help of my gloves, I spent two weeks sifting through the leaves of unbound volumes and larger ink and wash drawings documenting the development of the houses at nos. 12-14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. In particular, my interest is in the location of Soane’s professional offices at the back of his personal house and how, over the years, these two entities twisted together. This will be explained more when I have finished producing the actual work I set out to do.

Thinking about the good fortune of my privilege as I wandered the crypt of the museum on a Monday, when it’s closed to the public, I recalled an unlikely parallel. Earlier that morning I had rode through the Queensway tube station on my way from Notting Hill Gate to High Holborn. At the time Queensway was closed for renovation following the summer bombings so it was usually deserted. On this morning, however, when we passed through Queensway at a deferential crawl there was a lone worker wandering the quay in a hardhat. Access to the private life of a museum, then, is a bit like occupying a closed subway station: one feels the thrill of access to the off-limits, one knows the world is rushing by outside, and one enjoys the cloistered security of being inaccessible. Described to me as a “mansion of margins” by Ben Cerveny, working at the Soane House is to know the margins of the margins and occupy them with joy.

And also

Any trip is made better with the company of friends to guide you, especially when they’re adventurous nomads or knowledgeable locals. Thanks to Haiyan (and steve!), Hanna, Rod, Dan, Celia, and Matt