Hi! I’m Ana

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Day 72-73 V&A, Kensington, Tate Britain, Westminster Abbey, Covent Garden, Trafalgar Square, National Gallery, Carnaby Street, The Photographer's Gallery, Liberty London, Shoreditch 

It's mildly shocking to me that I have more friends in and around London than I do in Wellington. New Zealand experiences a lot of "brain drain". A lot of people in prime working age leave the country to work elsewhere, taking their skills and knowledge with them and leaving behind an ageing population. It just seems to be the byproduct of having an adventurous, pioneering culture living on islands far, far away from the continents.

On Day 72, we have a massive day of commuting and walking. I continue to be genuinely shocked that at around 11 am, the tubes are packed. My friend and ex-workmate, R, who I'll meet later that night, describes it as "spooning a stranger from neck to knee" and also directs my attention to the inescapable fact that she and I are at "armpit level." She fondly calls her commuter line "the misery line."

There's a tunnel leading directly from the station to the Victoria & Albert Museum. I don't have time to decompress from the tube crush. I'm right into the thick of art, walking amongst a mixed bag of statues. After Italy and Paris, I'm all statue-ed out. 

I glance at the fake David and the fake Doors of Paradise by Ghiberti and mutter something about it being out of context. A schoolboy on a dare wanders over to me and requests a high-five which I blithely ignore.    

I forget exactly what I came to the V&A for. If I'm honest, it was probably for the shop but I'll pretend that it was for the jaw-dropping amount of ceramics and porcelain.  

Through Four Square, Rob finds Tombo, a nearby Japanese place and we beat it out of the museum. It's a find! We eat well for less than 20 pounds. The food is Tokyo quality in it's precision and presentation. I coo over the beautiful little plates.

We follow it up with tea and cake at Muriel's. Because we are in the UK after all and tea and cake is an institution. I have a chocolate and guiness cake that's sky high, towering over my plate like a mini skyscraper. The lady at a nearby table is genuinely excited to see it come my way and she mouths to me, It looks amazing! I smile smugly.

We're back to avoiding the tube to get Tate Britain. The bus gets stuck in traffic because there's an accident two stops out from where we want to be. We get out with other impatient people and am shocked to find that a boy at a nearby school has been hit by a car. He's okay but is sprawled in the middle of the road, looking dazed.

The Tate Britain has an enormous wing dedicated to Turner and a new exhibit by Constable. I stifle my yawn and motor straight on to the Pre-Raphaelites. My interest goes back to a soft bound book on the Pre-Raphs that my mother had on the coffee table. I used to leaf through it, avoiding the text, gazing at the long-haired, sad-eyed ladies languishing against various verdant landscapes.

In real life, they’re so much more detailed and the colours jewel-like. Ophelia languishing in a still river strewn with wildflowers is a heart-stopper; infinity times more beautiful than the endless fashion editorial homages. Her face is painted with such delicacy and attention that it’s like a soft focus photograph.

John Singer Sargent’s study of Madame X stops me for a little bit. The end product, currently displayed at MoMA, was so scandalising to Parisian society that it ruined Sargent’s career for a time. All that acreage of exposed milky white skin and that fallen strap that he was forced to paint over later on.

Once we leave, it’s pitch black outside but barely five o’clock. We walk along the Thames and stumble past Westminster Abbey. The Abbey is closed for tourists but everyone can come in for Evensong, which appears to be mass with singing. A clutch of timid tourists are pressed against the iron railings, not willing to bargain with the two frocked guys manning the gates. I march up and say, “Evensong?” And like Open Sesame, we’re waved through with a very mild admonishment about being a little late.

Evensong inside the Abbey is free. Admittance the normal way is 18 pounds, I’m told. And there’s no little boys wearing red cassocks from head to toe with frilled necks, singing in Latin. Evensong can’t be beaten for atmosphere. We sit facing Isaac Newton. 

All around, the Covent Garden nightlife is kicking up. It’s Friday and people have the look of animals being let out of their various zoo cubicles. They're spilling onto pavements, clutching pints of beer, girls are shrieking and posing for selfies. I’m frightened that my friend while force me into one of the packed, loud pubs with untz untz music. Instead, she takes us to a cosy and incredibly civil wine bar, 10 Cases, where we drink a bottle of delicious American wine and catch up.

She's also made reservations for us at Mishkins, an American Jewish-deli style restaurant with more of that trendy “dirty” food. Even though its one of her favourite places, she still needs to use Google Maps to get us to the restaurant. This yet another reminder of how big London is makes me laugh. Rob exclaims, "How good is Google Maps these days?!"

At Mishkins, there's the young and the glamorous inside and the windows are shaded with linen curtains. I love it. We talk about London and how it changes you over onion rings, fries, mac and cheese, sliders, lamb kofta, and slaw. I say it’s like a polishing school for girls. To survive, you have to be confident, focused, and sure. To come here, you have to have a purpose and a destination. Without either, you’re lost. 

The next day, we combine the National Gallery, the Photographer’s Gallery, with Liberty London and a dash around Shoreditch. Somewhere in the middle, we manage to fit in a delicious bowl of ramen and the Christmas shopping crush in Liberty.

The first time I saw a man levitating from the ground, I was in Salzburg, Austria. I executed a classic cartoon double take. There are two rows of them on Trafalgar Square, in front of the National Gallery. They’re lined up, facing each other, each trying to look more mysterious than the last. A little boy is so awed by floating Yoda that he reaches up to hold his hand, as if checking to see if he’s real.

Rob checks in his coat and bag and lols out loud at the handwritten sign saying “2 pound donation  for cloakroom appreciated.” I follow him up the stairs as he says, “These paintings are appreciating at a rate of a million per minute. I’m not giving them 2 pounds.”

The National Gallery selection is huge and nothing to be laughed at. There’s a nice gallery full of picturesque little Monets, the beautiful Seurat painting, and some Sisleys and Renoirs. I always like the French parts of classic art galleries best of all. Surround me with Impressionist paintings of porcelain urns stuffed full of lolling flowers, landscapes of Nice and boats in French lakes, and endless views of an old man’s beloved garden, and I’ll be happy for days.

What does make me genuinely curious is being approach by one of the docents. “You cannot take a picture of children,” she says, sternly. I’m genuinely confused. “What?” “You are not allowed to take a picture of children,” she repeats again. In front of the paintings, a boy is sprawled on the floor, colour pencils scattered in front of him, drawing. “I wasn’t taking a picture of him” I scoff in a bald-faced lie. Of course I was! What’s cuter than a kid drawing in front of priceless masterpieces?

“Is that really a rule?” I press. She scans my face to check if I’m arguing but at this point, I want to know more rather than argue about issues around taking photos in semi-public spaces. I want to know this because the night before, on our way to Persephone Books, we came across a park with a sign that said adults weren’t allowed in unless accompanied by a child.

Suddenly, she’s talking a mile a minute; a true sign of a bored docent who hasn’t spoken to a living being in hours, other than shouting “NO FLASH” or “The toilets are downstairs. To the left.”

It’s the spiel I expected – parents don’t like it, we don’t know what we you’d do with those pictures, would you want people taking photos of your kids. “And it happens all the time,” she says. “We’ve only got paintings here. People get bored. The British Museum has mummies and all that whatnot but we’ve only got paintings.”

This level of intervention kind of blows my mind. It speaks of a city that is blatantly and inherently suspicious of everyone. It doesn’t know the minds of its people, because there’s just too many of them to know, yet it pretends to know what they’re thinking or what they’re doing.

 Women in pre-natal classes are given these, frankly, sickening, badges that say “Baby On Board”. When I first saw a lady on the tube with one, loudly asking for a seat, I thought What a scam. My friend, Naomi, next morning assures me it’s real, to make sure they get seats otherwise people sometimes don’t believe women are pregnant (“Just fat,” she giggles) or just ignore them.

When I give up my cushy standing corner on the tube to make way for a partially blind man with a cane, he and his friend are genuinely surprised but grateful. I think Of course you can have that corner. You’re blind. Packed elbow-to-elbow inside a busy restaurant with quick turnover, a woman is struggling to get out with her enormous shopping bags. She looks a bit lost. I say “Is it easier if I stand up and you get out on this side?” There’s that genuine surprise followed by gratefulness again.

These simple moves were genuinely not expected. In New Zealand, in either scenario, there would be four or five people jumping up to help. In Paris, so famous for its people’s reticence and shortness, we saw strangers helping old women carry bags up stairs and blind men cross the street a la Amelie. Here, in London, I can’t decide whether this lack of entitlement to being helped is admirable or just unbearably sad.

It seems everyone is out for themselves here. Even tourists taking pictures of kids in an art gallery. I think of my friend, the night before, admitting that she is a little ruder here, after only two years. Later that night, my best friend and bridesmaid admits that, after four years in the city, she doesn’t really care about people. Welsh-born Naomi, over brunch on Sunday, after I question her about all this, not questioning her credentials after nine years of living in London, admits freely to it with a wince and says, “People here can be a bit shit.”

Rob does some Four Square navigation and a short walk away, we’re at Shoryu Ramen gratefully slurping down hot, large bowls of delicious ramen. It’s salty, hearty, and infinitely comforting. Afterwards, we escape to the Photographer’s Gallery which charges a 4 pound admission fee but is worth it to support a local and independent small gallery.

We space out in front of over 400 Vivianne Sassen pictures, projected on a loop in front of us played over mesmerising atmospheric music that emits bleeps and grinding sounds. Thin art students with chin-length hair that looks like its been hacked off with a dull knife, wearing slouchy pants and Creepers linger around corners. It’s like an art gallery you’d find Kubrick setting up for a shoot in A Clockwork Orange.

Somehow, we make it through Liberty alive and in good spirits even though it’s Saturday, everyone is out Christmas shopping, and a lady on the street screamed over everyone’s heads, “KEEP MOVING!!!!”. 

I want one of everything on the third floor; the signature floral prints embossed, knitted, embroidered, printed, and handpainted onto most anything you think of – handkerchiefs, aprons, postcards sets, milk jugs, packs of fudge, looseleaf teas, sharpened pencils, tote bags. Rob has to wrestle some things away from me before I can proceed to the counter. I buy a tote bag, postcard pack, and a lipstick holder that, I find out later, only fits one of my lipsticks.

As part of Liberty's pirate ship Christmas display, there's gold coins hanging from the ceiling, swaying above the women's shoe department. It's literally raining money in there. The message is a bit pointed. A sweet girl runs around the store trying to find me any size 38 Liberty print Vans to replace the ones I left behind in Florence. All out. 

Saturday night at Shoreditch and I’m apprehensive. I’m not exactly dressed for partying. I’m in jeggings, a half-hearted patterened Zara top, and my New Balance sneakers. At the Canvas bar where we meet our friend, I go to the loo and the two girls are doing their lipstick in the mirror, cheeks glistening with glittery blusher, shoulders protruding from skimpy lace camisoles.

We were headed for Night Tales but lose the will to go when we see the unmoving queue. Shoreditch isn't our friends' stomping ground. Choosing where to live here is so important. It defines who you’ll see, where you’ll go, what you’ll become. Take a person out of their borough, and suddenly, it’s us tourists who live two Overground stops away, who can navigate around the area at 9 pm on a Saturday night. Of course, with no reservations, there’s an hour long wait for table at Pizza East, unappetising looking restaurants with no one in them, and a closed Mother Cluckers chicken van. Somehow, we blunder into Rosa’s, a truly average but flashed up Thai place. Tomorrow morning, I'll be back in the area for brunch. I'm like Shoreditch's biggest accidental tourist fan.

fortieth floor hijinks

from ottolenghi to a food truck in shoreditch