Saturday, August 23rd

Heading into the final week of my internship, I was lucky to have only a 4-day week due to the summer Bank Holiday. The concept of Bank Holidays really confused me before I came to London, so I asked one of my British co-workers about them. Apparently there’s nothing really mysterious about Bank Holidays; they’re just several days throughout the year that the banks choose to take off which means business closes for pretty much everyone else as well.

At first these random long weekends struck me as extravagant, but if you add up all the American governmental holidays that most of the country takes off - Memorial Day, Labor Day, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday, etc – they add up. We just have very specific names and celebratory reasons for most of our holidays; the Brits are more like “Eh, let’s just take a day off work.”

With a 3-day weekend over August 23rd-25th, I determined to take a day trip somewhere. Megan suggested Greenwich, which is far enough from the city center to feel like a worthwhile undertaking while still remaining within the Zone 2 rail line. I was a little shy about going by myself but finally I headed off. It was a quick journey from Holborn to Bank on the Central line, and from there I switched to the DLR, the Docklands Light Railway. After a couple minutes the train came above ground, and I had a fascinating ride all through Canary Wharf.

A couple weeks before I watched a documentary on the BBC on the development of post-World War II London. The section on Canary Wharf was particularly interesting. The docklands area – for it really was the center of London’s shipping – was effectively abandoned in the 1970s when the new supertankers could no longer come so far up the Thames. The entire sizeable peninsula, crisscrossed by canals, was left derelict until several different enterprising developers thought to redefine it as London’s new business hub. They had a lot of difficulty convincing people to move their businesses and invest in an area that was still well beyond the city center, and the steep 1980s recession made everything worse. But wow, did they ever succeed.

The train wound between dazzling glass skyscrapers and crossed sparkling, well-kept waterways dotted with boats and lined with lovely restaurants and cafes. It was like some kind of fabulous future cityscape where everything is clean and shining. And yet the contrast between Eastern London and the isolated, ritzy peninsula of Canary Wharf was stark indeed. One moment I was rattling past the dingy, crumbling, tightly packed brick tenements of Shadwell and Limehouse; the next I was soaring by elegantly designed buildings and spaces that represented the height of financial privilege. Canary Wharf reminds me a great deal of Tokyo’s business district, actually. My sister and I weren’t intending to see it – we were looking for the Imperial Gardens – but the area was so gorgeous we ended up lingering amongst the sleekly modern parks and fountains for a good hour. It’s still one of my favorite memories of Japan.

At last I alighted at Greenwich station, and . . . had no idea where I was or how to get to the park with the Observatory and Prime Meridian. Seriously, it is not clear at all from the station, which I find hilarious, as this station is supposed to be the closest to the park. Obviously I should have gotten more details from Megan before I left, but I’d gotten so used to finding my own way in the city – where most tourist attractions are clearly marked – that I didn’t think I would need them. So as I usually do in these situations, I just followed the majority. Not very many people got off the train with me, but those that did turned left, so I did too.

We walked . . . and walked . . . and walked through suburban outlying London. If this was the close station, I don’t want to know how far away the further station is. I enjoyed it though, largely because it was so different just to be outside the city center. I mean, I saw parking lots. Parking lots! I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a full-size parking lot within the city . . . or even a parking garage, for that matter. Of course there wouldn’t be, with space at such a premium. In contrast Greenwich was so delightfully normal – normal to what I’m used to in the US, that is. I passed a little supermarket that people were actually driving to. Driving! Parking their cars in the lot! Loading their groceries into their cars! Driving their heavy groceries home with ease, not dragging 2-3 bags and a liter of milk across 4 blocks while dodging pedestrians and heavy traffic! It seemed downright crazy, I tell you.

After 20 solid minutes of walking I hit the center of town that was thronged with tourists (hence how I knew I had indeed gone the right way, heh), and quite literally picked streets at random until somehow I found my way to the park. And then I wandered some more in the park looking for the observatory. By this point I think I was 2 hours into my day trip and I’d spent the entirety of it in confused wandering from place to place. I don’t think I ever really knew where I was going, which is how I somehow bypassed the main path up to the observatory and took a much longer, winding route around the back. It was certainly much more scenic, however, shrouded in greenery and with hidden gardens opening off the path.

The observatory is located on the crest of a steep hill that provides a magnificent view of the Thames and east London, as well as the surrounding park and the nearby Maritime Museum. I meandered all through and around the observatory, which is filled with the massive instruments the Royal Astronomers have used from the 17th century to the present. A very exuberant woman in period dress came out into the courtyard and told the entire history of how the Prime Meridian came about, with much hopping around and exaggerated arm gestures and cries of “ZE-RO DEGREES LONG-I-TUUUUUUUUDE!!!!” Heh. Most interesting to me was the fact that the Prime Meridian has changed location repeatedly throughout the centuries. Each new Royal Astronomer had a bigger and better telescope than his predecessor, and so would toss out the old data and do all of his own measurements. Each time the meridian moved a few feet east, until finally in 1851 they settled on the present location. Even then it wasn’t until 1884 that the rest of the world accepted it. (Well, except for France, which held out for a few more decades.)

I dutifully took several pictures of my feet straddling the Meridian in the different places it appears on the hill. It’s certainly required, don’t you think?

The original observatory building built in the 1600s, with the red ball that dropped every day at noon to let ships on the Thames know the time and thus be "on the ball"

Covent Garden Night Market

Friday, August 22nd

My time in London has been marked by my frequent trips to markets. In June we spent a morning at Portobello Market in Notting Hill; in early July we visited Brixton Market in south London; the following weeks I made two separate trips to Spitalfields Market near Liverpool Street Station. Now in late August Megan and I have taken to visiting the Covent Garden Night Market, held every Thursday and Friday this month. The first Friday on August 15th we couldn’t find the market at first, entertainingly enough. We went the wrong way around the square and paused in our battling the crowds to eat some delicious paella. It was only afterward that we realized those very crowds were blocking our view of the market itself, which had been on the other side of the square the whole time.

The Night Market is distinguished by its focus on fine foods – the vendors, in elegantly appointed black-draped stalls, were selling premium meats, cheeses, and pastries. The whole place smelled incredible. Megan happily went about using up her change on yummy cookies, bagels and nectarines, while I (still hungry even after paella) splurged on a massive crepe. We found a comfy spot on the cobblestones and merrily watched all the people thronging the square.

The next week we returned, nabbed some ice cream and found front-row spots to watch a live cooking demonstration. The chocolate-obsessed chef made a rather crazy chocolate gazpacho. He didn’t offer any tastings so I have no idea if it was any good . . . but I’m sure it was unique. Afterward we found an excellent people-watching spot on the edge of the square that turned out to be directly behind a traveling street performer’s setup. His dancing and tricks were rather bizarre but entertaining all the same. But then a drunk hobo, stereotypically and hilariously swigging a full bottle of chardonnay, sprawled on the step next to us and scared away a young child before finally driving us from our spot. The markets attract all types . . . which is what makes them the heart of city life, heh.