Some Saturdays Have Greatness Thrust Upon Them

Today was what I like to call a great Olivia day.

Which is not, as it might sound, a day dedicated and centered solely on celebration and appreciation of me. Though, according to my mother, “everyday should be Olivia day!” which is a statement that can only be attributed to the tender and gracious generosity of motherhood. No, this kind of day falls too comfortably into genus Jong Un, which is a classification I’d prefer to be disassociated with.

An Olivia day is a great day filled with quintessentially Olivia things. Today, those things were a glorious morning in southeast London, an afternoon at the Globe, and a religious ramen experience.

I woke up before 7 (I have miraculously become a morning person, which was previously a goal in my five year plan so, post-grad achievement wise, I am excelling) for a beautiful run through Southwark, Bermondsay, and the City. After cleaning up and making myself presentable, I wandered through SoHo and Covent Garden in their quieter hours. Tried on a couple pair of jeans without hyperventilating (gold stars all around) in the changing room, looked at a lot of shoes, and treated myself to a real cup of coffee before trekking back home to Southwark for a 14:00 showing of Twelfth Night at The Globe.

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The Shard, mid-run, pre-rainclouds. Look, I know it’s mostly unoccupied and owned by the very Qatari real estate agents that are driving up the cost of living in London, but damn if it isn’t photogenic.

At this point, a soft grey blanket of rainclouds huddled close to the Shard, and I knew from days of anxiously checking the BBC and tracking the weather up to the hour, that the skies were scheduled to open up at exactly the start of the show. So I came thisclose to skipping the performance and taking a nap, but I am so glad I sucked it up, coughed up three pounds for a tacky plastic poncho, and stood for nearly three hours in the rain at a show that absolutely comes in my top five best I’ve seen in London.

Feste is a gorgeous, magical drag goddess. Malvolio is a spritely but ferociously smitten wisp of genius physicality. Sir Anthony a flamboyant would-be adonis if it wasn’t for his scrubby mustache, persistent lisp, and general lack of masculine

IMG_9200.jpgvirulence. Mariah is deliciously coquettish. Duke Orsino’s “if music be the food of love, play on” becomes fresh and sultry as a pop song that I wish Harry Styles would consider covering (this is an official plea to his agent). And of course, the initially composed and statuesque Olivia – charmingly girlish in her smitten-ness. A luminous moon hangs heavy in the background, and we get the impression that the whole thing is a little enchanted (aren’t all of Shakespeare’s lovey comedies?) as soon as the stage lights go up. All of it glitters under two disco balls and a crystal chandelier, and Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” reverberates behind it all. Many of the lines have been rewritten into songs, giving it an indulgently guilty pleasure Abba vibe, and the costumes can be characterized as Scottish highlands chic with a 70’s disco glam flair.

When I left the theatre, the tips of my fingers were blue, but I was dizzy with delight and had to keep covering my mouth because smiling foolishly for no apparent reason is considered manic by the English.

The only remedy for frozen fingers and the sort of rain-cold that seeps into one’s skin despite the thin layer of poncho plastic separating one from the elements, is ramen. If the culinary focus of my first go around London was curry, than the focus of my second is most definitely ramen. And lucky for me, I’m only a couple miles from Brixton – home to, of course, the best jerk chicken joints in London, but also lots of reputable ramen.

If one were to ask for a ramen recommendation when visiting Brixton, she would be directed, firstly, to Koi Ramen’s permanent spot in Pop Brixton – the boxcar park/microcosm of gentrification in the area, crawling with city-slickers crammed into narrow spaces between craft cocktail carts and independent brewery pop-ups, polishing off tapas and tacos and chuckling knowingly to their mates in that British way that British people do. Koi Ramen is a solid joint, but I think the folks at the set-up in Pop Brixton at least have gotten a little bit too comfortable. On busy nights, they dish out the stuff in bulk. The stock is solid and the Tonkatsu broth is rich and heavenly. But I expected a little more tenderness from the pork belly and the egg was overcooked and not nearly salted enough.

The best ramen I’ve had to date is the one I ate today, just a mere hour and a half ago, at Okan Ramen – an unassuming noodle bar around the corner from Brixton village. Normally, I’d order the Tonkatsu – if there’s pork belly on the menu and you don’t order it, what the heck are you ordering instead? But I went with their signature dish (which, while not cooked in a pork based broth, does have sliced pork pelly) and knew, from the first spoonful of chicken broth, that this must be the place. Don’t worry, David Byrne, I found it.

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Days like these I wish I were a prolific food blogger so I could feel more entitled to take pictures of my food instead of just basic.

A nice balance of sesame and soy, a sizable heap of bamboo sprouts, and tender pork that, had it been any softer, might have dissolved – though it maintained a richness that paired well with the silky broth. And the egg… I will dream about that egg. I wish I had 20 of that egg cooked exactly the same way on every dish I eat from now until my last meal and yes that includes dessert. Savoury and gooey, it coated the back of my tongue with its salted golden viscosity and I had opened my mouth to a sunrise. Or maybe a sunset, when the sun hesitates and blurs on the horizon and spills over the landscape like a thick yellow yolk. Regardless, it was spiritual, baby.

Also, it was really solo-diner friendly. There are lots of places I want to eat at in London, but a solo diner can’t just walk into Barrafina on a Saturday night and expect the staff to be super psyched about seating her. I went a bit earlier in the evening to avoid this awkwardness and was served punctually and respectably, which doesn’t always happen in the British service industry.

And now, I’m going to finish American Pastoral to fulfill my book a week quota, and then pass out to a dream of salted egg yolks and merry romantic mishaps under full moons.

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It’s the summer of love at the Globe and also for me in a very ramen-centric way.

 

A Day on the South Bank

The more I head north of the river, the more I wonder what the heck I’m doing on a stuffy Central Line train, air vents lazily exhaling hot recycled tunnel air and failing to facilitate, despite their label, much-needed “ventilation,” while the vessel shudders on tracks beneath the same tired sites on the red ribbon of train line.

This isn’t entirely true. It’s just that it’s been a particularly sweaty week to get intimate with my fellow passengers on the city’s network of underground traveling saunas, and I’ve always kind of loathed the Central Line to begin with. I feel claustrophobic, dehydrated, and anxiety wracked just imagining the sheer density of bodies that reaches peak suffocation around Oxford Circus and Piccadilly Circus, and I know I’m not alone in my aversion.

Also I have a vivid memory of nearly getting stuck in the closing doors of a Central Line train and, instead of recovering gracefully and nonchalantly as you might expect from someone who once took ballet for three months in elementary school, I just kind of fell forward, belongings scattering, onto my hands and knees, properly scuffed and so painfully American. Disheveled? Rushed? Audacious, even, brashly betting my own flawed human agility against the measured timing and resolute omission of the sliding doors? These are not qualities of the British temperament. At least not on public transportation.

 

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Actually pretty good advice.

Traumatic experience on Central Line aside, I do love a long stroll through Hyde Park, would gladly spend a day (and the night, if they’d let me) losing all sense of direction among the artifacts in the Victoria and Albert Museum, occasionally splurge for brunch among the pastel paintbox houses and blooming storefronts of Primrose Hill, savor the view of the skyline from Hampstead Heath, and am allured by, but can’t quite emulate (I own too many clothes from Banana Republic), the grungy chic vibe of Dalston and Hoxton. This summer, however, I’m calling Southwark a home, which means spending a lot of time south of the river where the vibe is noticeably different. No major circuses, no stark white rows of posh Mayfair townhouses. Artsy lofts and studios in ashy brick buildings juxtapose with sleek curves and edges of glass and steel. Londoners huddle in cozy wine bars and pubs tucked in narrow corners between or under bridges, and the Shard peeks over it all. It’s also home to the iconic mascot for post-industrial revitalization – the looming smokestack of Tate Modern – as well as the Eye, the National Theatre, the British Film Institute, and Shakespeare’s Globe.

Summer mornings on the Jubilee Walkway, which runs along the Thames, are worth waking up to beat the crowds for. The South Bank also makes for a great run – lots of inspiring sights to distract from the burgeoning pressure of lactic acid accumulating in your lower extremities. I’d start down near Tower Bridge. In fact, a whole day on the South Bank might look something like this.

Spend mid-morning salivating among the stands of and in the tunnels along Maltby Street Market in Bermondsey – perhaps a late breakfast or early lunch, there’s a word for this I think. Bring friends and divide and conquer. Traders shift regularly, but some staples include tender dumplings from the Gyoza Guys, the sugar-dusted progeny of a decadent affair between a waffle and a doughnut deep fried, frosted, and dished by Dhan Waffle, and the “osmosis” of Mediterranean and North African cuisine made with love at Devi’s. There are also a number of smaller cafes and a couple wine bars for drowsy Sunday mornings when the only remedy is the hair of the dog.

I recommend taking the scenic route past City Hall and Tower Bridge on your way to the Tate Modern. I love this area of town for hanging out, reading a book, and people watching. This time of year, there’s a stage for live music and kids activities, as well as ping-pong tables, seating under artfully strewn tea lights for a hipster rooftop party ambiance, and some pop-up drinking and dining options. It’s like a casual lawn party only in the seat of London’s government, which by the transitive property means it’s Sadiq Khan’s London Lawn Party and this is really cool #TeamKhan.

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“Hey MTV, welcome to my crib.” -Sadiq Khan, after his election probably

Like modern art? Despise modern art? Pretend to understand modern art in front of your friends from Brooklyn but are actually too ill-equipped to form an honest opinion on the whole concept due to your lack of exposure? The Tate Modern is a great place for a crash course in Kandinsky or a dose of Dali. Right now, I’m into Louise Bourgeois, featured in one of the Artists Rooms, for her haunting, corporeal large-scale sculpture. Go to what draws you in, investigate what repulses you, and take in the industrial vibe of the place itself. Swing back after dark on the last Friday of the month for late nights at the Tate, which feature DJ’s and special lectures and always offer cocktails. Kind of like Night at the Museum, only I’m thankful the sculptures in the Bourgeois room don’t have sentience.

I can’t suggest a day south of the river and not urge a long, leisurely, perusal through Borough Market. Navigate by free samples – especially on slower days – of British cheeses, charcuterie, artisan breads, candied nuts, and the occasional spoonful of curry. Again, bring a crew or several stomachs in order to taste the breadth of cuisine offered under the trestles. My favorite stand is a satellite kitchen from the folks at Gujarati Rasoi (here’s my initial review, a deep cut from the archives, written while still in a warm haze of slow-burning Gujarati spices), though the curry spice mingles enticingly with the berbere of the nearby Ethiopian stand. But please, give this street food mecca the time it deserves. And get dessert.

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The Shard/Southwark Cathedral. Have you guys met before?

If you can’t deny the food coma, Southwark Cathedral is a welcome sanctuary to the crowds and heat of Borough Market in the summer. Its hushed interior and spiraling ceilings can only complement your alimentary trance, and the gardens behind it offer the subduing white noise hum of the nearby crowd with the tranquility of the holy space.

Other gems of the South Bank include festivities at the Royal Festival Hall or the guy that sells books under Waterloo Bridge near the National Theatre, where you should book tickets for whatever’s on ahead of time or drop by to inquire about last-minute sales the day of. If you didn’t get tickets to a show (see: my current woe that both parts of Angels in America has sold out Hamilton style), there’s lots of outdoor seating and a bar at the NT. A drink or two with a good book or a close friend during the dusky hours of a Friday evening on the South Bank is definitely my cup of G&T.

You could take a spin on the Eye and should, of course, ogle at the Palace of Westminster and tip your hat the Big Ben across the river, but be back in Bermondsey for dinner. If the tapas gods are smiling favorably down upon you, you’ll squeeze between fellow diners for a smidgeon of counterspace at José, where Iberian ham will melt in your mouth and you will shamelessly order small plates of pisto, prawns, and patatas bravas and wash it down with whatever sherry piques your palate. Maybe go early? I don’t know, this place is always packed, but for good reason.

Don’t think about your waistline.

Any self-respecting anglophile will revel in the presence of the Globe Theatre, and catching a late afternoon, after dinner, or midnight show here is an essential experience for fans of Shakespeare. There are 700 five-pound tickets available for every show, and the price is absolutely right if you’re willing to stand with the plebs on the ground level for the duration of the performance, which is where you can catch me on Saturday, July 22 for the 7:30 showing of Twelfth Night. It will totally be worth it.

Any night in London can be punctuated with proper pub carousal, and my best advice is to wander a bit until you cross one that vibes with your mood. Walking up the bar and ordering a pint is still kind of a satisfying novelty for me. Camden Hells, if they have it. Or anything that dulls the mild ache of miles of South Bank under your feet.

You can take a rest day when you’re not in the greatest city in the world.

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Sunset, Tower Bridge. One of my favorite guilty pleasure tourist-y hangouts.