Sunday, August 26, 2007

Holiday in the city 1

What a lovely Bank Holiday weekend this is turning out to be. Though the weather is being typically variable - vacillating from sunny and warm to grey and cool - we began the weekend with no plans whatsoever. We are simply going to spend three days enjoying our city and doing things as and when we want to.

On Friday, M and I met up after work for a wander around the Global Cities installation in the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall. The show charts the rise of the modern phenomenon of the ‘megacity’ - principally Cairo, Istanbul, Johannesburg, London, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Mumbai, Sao Paulo, Shanghai and Tokyo. Though I enjoyed reading the statistics and learned some new facts, I found the overarching negative narrative a little too Sociology 101, a little too undergraduate for my liking. I am fully aware of the risks inherent in statistics such as "In 2007, for the first time in history, 1 out of 2 people will be living in a city", or "1 in 3 city dwellers live in slums", or "Cities produce 75% of the world's carbon emissions", or "Mumbai adds 42 people to its population every hour". They do concern me. But as a city girl at heart I couldn't help but find the movies (one example above) and photos of city life exhilerating and stimulating. It was particularly inspiring to see the largescale chromogenic photos of Andreas Gursky's Los Angeles - the City of Angels' grid layout pulsating with golden electricity in the night, and the multi-coloured windows of his Copan block of flats in Sao Paulo. At first I was annoyed by the cramped layout of the installation, with its amateur building site feel, but as people jostled me to get a better look at things, I appreciated the experience more and more.

Afterwards, we ate at the nearby South Bank branch of Pizza Express, with a table overlooking the river. Though I can eat out at some very nice places here in London, I am not usually a food snob. I'm quite happy popping into Nando's for a big plate of chicken peri peri with fries, Giraffe for a brunch of huevos rancheros or Strada for a risotto after work with colleagues. I draw the line at Pizza Hut but I can usually count on my pizzas at any Pizza Express branch to be fairly generic but tasty. However, my usual Veneziana pizza on Friday had too few capers and sultanas on it, a soggy stodgy base and red onion rings cut far too thickly to eat. The service was also poor - it took ten minutes before waiters passing by the shattered shards of a wine glass on the floor bothered to actually clean it up. I'm not going to rush back again.

We awoke on Saturday to blazing hot sunshine. We drank mugs of strong Sumatra coffee and ate slices of the date and walnut bread and Caerphilly and Hampshire camembert cheeses we had bought on Thursday at the Covent Garden Night Market. Then we headed out into town. There's a marvellous kitchen catering shop called Pages on Shaftesbury Avenue. From there we bought a box of steak knives, as we don't own any.

Then we headed down to Embankment and battled the thick sweaty crowds, mainly tourists, onto a boat that took us down the river to Greenwich. Though I'm not a tourist, I still love going down the river in a boat. I sit back and enjoy the London sights floating past me - St Paul's, the Gherkin, Tate Modern, the numerous Wharf apartment conversions, the glimpse of the old Millennium Dome as you pull up into Greenwich Pier. It's also enjoyable watching all the tourists thrust their digital cameras at everything they see. Just like me in New York or in Bangkok.

I haven't been back to Greenwich since I was an undergraduate at Goldsmiths and visited weekly to go to the cinema at the Picturehouse or shop for secondhand clothes and books in the many eclectic markets there. I never remember it being so busy with tourists though. Today the small town was crammed, not just with bodies but with traffic. And Greenwich has become High Street Anywhere. We didn't linger long.

We were in Greenwich to see an exhibition of Keiko Yamamoto's intimate family photographs at the Viewfinder Photography Gallery. In 1999, Yamamoto took photos of the inside of her family home in Tokyo - capturing private moments such as shadows cast by washing on the line (top right), sleeping faces, and tabletops cluttered with dinner remains. Later, in London, she photographed the view from her window - her reflection seen through the smeared glass (top left). Private, stolen moments; fragments of time. Fleetingly captured and displayed. We may go back and buy one.

We DLR-ed it over to East London and ate our usual vegetable samosas, chickpea curry, fish curry and pilau rice at our favourite no frills Sweet & Spicy cafe on Brick Lane, surrounded by kitsch and camp posters and paintings of Bangladeshi amateur wrestlers. It's the only place we eat on Brick Lane really and where many Bangladeshi locals eat too.

We popped into the Whitechapel Gallery to see Amar Kanwar's film A Night Of Prophecy. The camera seamlessly panned from Mumbai shanty towns to caste struggles in Andhra Pradesh to separatist conflicts in Kashmir against a soundtrack of resistance poetry. It was interesting to watch for a little while, but half an hour into this 2 hour film and the political narrative - as poetic as it was - began to grate on me so we left.

We returned to the South Bank and drank beers in the BFI's Benugo Bar while trying to eavesdrop on a conversation between an Iranian actor and director Mike Leigh also drinking beer at a table beside us. We were all there to watch the Argentinian movie Born And Bred. A handsome young interior designer with an equally handsome wife and daughter lives the good life in a beautiful home in Buenos Aires that could have come straight out of a Wallpaper* shoot. A car crash leaves him abandoned and devastated in the snowy wastelands of Patagonia, where he tries but fails to work through his grief as an unkempt and unrecognisable hunter and rural airport labourer. The cinematography both in glossy Buenos Aires and in bleak Patagonia is breathtaking and sublime. But the story ran out of steam with an ending that didn't quite work for me, and the character development was incredibly weak. I wonder what Mr Leigh thought of it.

We returned home and M cooked me a simple but exquisite dinner of juicy fillet steak cooked rare on our cast iron griddle, with fries and a tomato salad. And for dessert? A box of Quality Street!


Olivia said...

I'm no food snob either, as long as it makes me happy I will eat it. Far from the me that can take pleasure in roast guinea fowl with foie gras at the Arts Club, there is the simple, down-home me that misses fried green tomatoes and hot rolls at The Potatoe Patch near where we lived in Texas.

Sure I can go to Yauatcha and savour my designer dim sum followed by shanghai lily cake and orchid tea, but I'm almost more content to dive into simpler dim sum at my fave "London Chinatown" restaurant on Gerrard Street. Very happy tummy.

On Ealing Road in Wembley and Station Road on Harrow are two Indian cafes called Sakonis (also found in other parts of the UK as well as Dubai). Simple, no fuss, but an ace buffet and awesome mouthwatering plates of chaat, and I love to finish with a most satisfying cup of masala tea.

Planethalder said...

I agree. When it comes down to it, I can think of no better places to eat than vegetable samosas from Sweet & Spicy on Brick Lane, lamb kebabs and bulgar wheat from Antepliler on Green Lanes or salt and pepper squid from Chinatown's HK Diner. But aren't we lucky here in London that we have such choice all in one city!

Little Nutbrown Hare said...

Sweet and Spicy sounds like my kind of place. I was at the Greek place (name just slipped my mind) after Tate that day. I go to HK Diner for the roast meat. Have to try the squid next time!