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from ottolenghi to a food truck in shoreditch

Day 71 - Barbican, British Museum, Persephone Books, and Shoreditch


The food in London revives me. Even when the city winds me up, makes me mad, or drains me, sitting down to eat somewhere new and exciting and unknown is the main pleasure of this place. In other cities, our touristy wanderings and meals coexisted as a unified whole. Here, food is a beacon.


Barbican Food Hall

London, of course, doesn't make it easy for you. You have to score a table or be organised enough to reserve first. The night before, we tried to get into Ottolenghi in Islington for dinner. The lady on the phone laughed. There's not a seat going for a month.
British Museum Cafe
The beauty, however, of being on an extended holiday is the high likelihood of getting into over-booked restaurants by eating outside normal peak hours. So, the next day, we're at Ottolenghi's for brunch at 11 am. The interior is sparse and, trust me on this, sort of fancy-toilet styles. One couple are having the bread platter (literally bread and condiments) and they have to toast their own bread.


Neither of us order anything vaguely Mediterranean. There's Turkish style breakfast but I still can't look Turkish food in the eye. I order a very ordinary but very filling French toast and Rob gets a spruced-up scrambled eggs. My French toast tips more to savoury and eggy rather than indulgent and sweet. It's one of the most virtuous French toasts I've ever had.


The sun is kind of shining. At the bus stop on the way to the Barbican, I stand in a narrow patch of sunlight, sandwiched between the side of the bus stop and the rubbish bin. I'm desperate for Vitamin D.

A trip to the Barbican Estate is genuinely exciting. Yes, a lot of people think it's hideous. Brutalist architecture in London is unapologetically concrete and made with materials that gobbles up the little light there is, extending it into shadows that makes these unforgiving rectangular blocks seem more like a bank vault.


The Barbican Estate isn't any different, no matter how many beautiful emerald green stretches of water, fountains, and plants on balconies. The enormous towers sticking out behind the more low-slung buildings are hopeless and jarring to look at.


However, the ideas behind the Barbican Estate seems as relevant now as it ever was; a self-contained place of community, a combined fortress against the world, a sea of people in their concrete boat playing table tennis in summer and sunning themselves in the conservatory in winter, an ideal world perfectly balancing connection and isolation.


We spend a long time inside the Barbican Art Gallery, stunned by a knockout combo of iconic and interesting photographs, thoughtful and confident curation, and quietly sleek gallery space of the Constructing Worlds exhibition. It turns out to be the one and only exhibition we're willing to pay for in London.


I bring down the tone of the day by acting on a tip off some passing Cockney builders give me. "REEE- AAA's in there," they say, cocking a thumb towards a room with a sign outside In Style Magazine. "Who's Rita?" I asked. "Reeee---AAA Ora." I peer through the glass panels on the door and there she is; blonde, on gold platform shoes. I wave. She waves back. It's all dead exciting even thought I can't remember the last single she released.


We get back on the double-decker bus to get to the British Museum to see the mummies. We're trying to avoid the Underground. The bus is slower, for sure. And we end up sit behind a girl with dirty magenta hair, with shooting stars tattoos for eyebrows, swilling beer from a giant can, warbling a Rihanna song out loud to herself. However, it's cheaper, less crowded, a bit cruisier, and there's nothing like peering out the window at a city you don't know.


The British Museum is pretty old school. Most everything boringly set out in glass cases, scattered labels, terrible lighting.


There's brisk but defensive text at the entrance to the Elgin Marbles/Parthenon Sculptures; without Lord Elgin the sculptures on the Parthenon wouldn't have survived, it was sold to us fair and square, we've given some of it to the new Parthenon museum anyway. That sort of thing. There are things from all around the world. It reeks of colonialism and dodgy deals made during the golden age of British archeology. 


A ten-minute walk away, I drag Rob to Persephone Books. It's an independent publisher and bookshop that specialises in publishing new editions of out-of-print twentieth-century female writers . Each book is lovingly bound and produced with beautiful dove-grey covers, period end papers, and matching bookstores.


I'm in book heaven. I buy a postcard with an illustration of the bookshop and Ruby Ferguson's Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary. The woman suspects I'm a big fan and sends me off with the annual catalogue and a small magazine of short stories for free.


At the end of the day, we're drinking in a Shoreditch dive bar, We Are Big Chill. The lady in her suit and heels gets no respect at the bar when she orders a Chardonnay, Rob reports back. The place is chilled, everyone's in sneakers and people wheel their bikes right inside. It's kinda perfect after an enormous day trekking around London.

I pay 5.50 euro for a delicious honey beer called Hiver Beer, doing a good deed at the same time since a portion of the sales goes towards pollinator charities. Rob laughs and laughs when I call the beer "eee-ve-rrr" as in the French for spring. I sneak the beautiful bottle into Rob's backpack as a souvenir, like a total hoarder. 


After, we're eating in "tea brined, buttermilk soaked, twice battered fried chicken" from Mothercluckers, a food van in a parking lot with nearby picnic tables underneath a marquee. The chicken is moist, the batter Cajuny, light and finger licking good.


Not satisfied with having stuffed ourselves with some seriously heart-attack inducing food, we wander round to Box Park to Dum Dum Donuts. The guy is just closing and wants to go home. 


Suddenly, we're going home with 13 donuts for 8 pounds. I have a spiritual experience consisting of extreme gratitude. I'm in a container, shrieking, "I think I'm going to cry" as I watch a big burly man depositing donuts one by one into a large box. Later, when I tell friends from London about it, they look mainly unimpressed - eight pounds for thirteen donuts is, I'm told decisively, not a deal. Apparently, you can get the same at Sainsbury's for half price. Hmmm. Sainsbury donuts. Sure.  


Wandering around Shoreditch on a quiet weeknight, the first thing I think of is JACK THE RIPPER. It's terribly cliched but the neighbourhood, no matter how gentrified it's become, is scarred and faintly threatening. Everything feels a little on a knife edge.

you can check in but you can't check back out

hanging out in stoke newington and scowling at Tate Modern art