Changing Places

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View from Kensington Palace.

A post shared by Kimberly K. (@inwritefield) on

It had been a long time since I’d been to London. A LONG time.  Some things haven’t changed.  If you close your eyes and throw a rock in any London shopping district, you’ll hit a Russell & Bromley shoe store — just like in the good old days.  (Think Gap stores in the U.S.)  Russell & Bromley has lovely shoes… and the boots. Oh my, the boots!

Hobbs and Jigsaw are still in business too, enticing vain and materialistic females like myself with their beautiful shoes and clothes at ridiculous prices, thanks to crummy exchange rates.

London taxi drivers are still courteous and friendly, and so well-educated they need never ask their passengers for directions.  (San Francisco taxi drivers, I’m talking to YOU.)  My driver from King’s Cross station not only remembered the residential street of my little Kensington hotel… he also knew the street number off the top of his head.

Walk down any London street, and seven of ten passers-by will be either American, or speaking a language other than English.  London remains one of the most culturally diverse cities on earth, so if you dream of luxuriating in the sounds of Dr. Doolittle or Mary Poppins…. You should probably just rent a DVD instead.

Everywhere you look, there’s history.  That’s always been my favorite part.  That, and the taramosalata – a Greek dip made of salted and cured cod roe, lemon juice, olive oil and vinegar.  It’s nearly impossible to find in America — even Greek restaurants in the U.S. seldom offer it — but it’s everywhere in Great Britain.

Some things probably haven’t changed, but I’ve just become more aware of them as I’ve matured.  For example, it occurred to me on this trip – now that I have a bum, 40-something knee that is practically devoid of cartilage – that London restaurants all house their restrooms downstairs.  That is, down a steep, winding staircase with tiny steps.  At the end of a long day of pounding the pavement, a visit to the loo feels a lot like a forced march.

I do not understand the origins of the term “skip to the loo” but I’ll tell you this; It isn’t British.

Still, there have been changes since my last visit.  At pubs these days, you are unlikely to get traditional English peas as a side dish.  Instead, your fish and chips or burger will be accompanied by puree of peas.  Sometimes (i.e. at the Britannia pub, Kensington) the puree is yummy thanks to garlic and spices mixed in.  But in other cases, when it’s straight puree, it’s decidedly Gerber-esque.

The only change that truly disappointed me in London was the infiltration of American chain stores.  On just a few blocks of Kensington High Street I encountered a Gap, an Urban Outfitters,  a TJ Max, an American Apparel, three Starbucks and a Pizza Hut.  There was even a Whole Foods, with prominent signage urging patrons to order their Thanksgiving turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce early.  Huh?  Like I said, there are loads of  American ex-pats in London.

On the King’s Road off Sloane Square there’s both an Anthropologie and (gulp) a Banana Republic.  A little piece of my soul died when I saw that.

At its core, much of St. Andrews remains unchanged; The University is 600 years old, and the small town is full of medieval ruins so modernization isn’t a priority.  There’s still just one cinema, but alas there is now also an H&M, a Subway and a Starbucks.  Today’s St. Andrews pub grub includes truffle fries and gnocchi.  Gnocchi!

Progress is not all bad, however.  At the renowned Thai restaurant Nahm-jim — new since my last visit, and deemed the best Thai restaurant in Great Britain by angry chef Gordon Ramsey – I had something called “haggis bombs”, fried wontons filled with that special Scottish meat concoction.  They were delicious!

St. Andrews has always been a tourist destination, because it’s the Home of Golf.  But its transformation to a shopping and foodie paradise is more recent.  I blame Wills & Kate.

I agonized about bringing my monster, back-breaking camera on this trip.  What if I lost it, or dropped it?  Luckily, I didn’t and I didn’t… and I have the pictures to prove it.

Happy Burns Night!

Robert Burns

Sláinte Mhath!  Or in other words “Happy Burns Night”!  Aye, it’s January 25th, the day when Scots — and Scot-ophiles — everywhere celebrate the birth of famed Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759 – 1796).

A fascinating tidbit from Wikipedia:  While Burns Night generally coincides with the poet’s birthday, the celebrations may “in principle” be held any night of the year.  Nice to know that if you ever decide to hold a Burns Supper in July, you won’t face fines or jail time.  You will, however, run the risk of a hangover beyond anything you might experience after even the rowdiest July 4th barbecue.  Burns Night tends to be held once a year, because most of us wouldn’t survive if it happened more often.

In some ways, Burns Night resembles Thanksgiving in the United States. There is no retail component, so no gift giving is required.  And there’s an emphasis on food and drink.  But at its core, Burns Night is all about gratitude — Scots’ gratitude because they get to be Scottish.

I’ve attended a few Burns Night celebrations over the years, and they are a blast.  Men wear tartan kilts and “Address The Haggis”.  The poem is a long one, so I won’t repeat it all here. But it starts with:

“Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,

Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!

Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,

Painch, tripe, or thairm:

Weel are ye wordy o’ a grace

As lang’s my arm.”

The basic meaning?  Haggis is the most Scottish of Scottish main courses, and it deserves a grace that’s eight stanzas long (i.e. as long as my arm).

Not a fan of stuffed sheep’s innards?  Go for extra helpings of neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes) washed down with single malt Scotch. Eventually that haggis will look and taste like Niman Ranch tri-tip. Trust me.

Alas, this year Burns Night fell on Wednesday.  Hump Day.  Whole Foods was fresh out of haggis.  And without haggis, neeps and tatties are nothing more than… vegetables.   So I made due.  I ate whole-wheat pasta with leftover pesto and parmesan, then took a wee peek at my Penguin Classic “Selected Poems of Robert Burns”.  I listened to “Sunshine On Leith”, an ode to Scotland by The Proclaimers.  And I marked my calendar for January 25, 2014… when Burns Night falls mercifully on a Saturday!