Thanks to Tony, the only entrant in our photo competition to find the best view from a public lavatory, and therefore the winner!
It’s the view from the men’s public conveniences in Assisi, apparently. Beh, they’re a primitive lot in Umbria, so don’t have glass. In Emilia Romagna we have windows in our toilets. Peckham too.
Still, no glass means no graffiti, at least. Bravo Tony!
E poi, an update on the final days of our ‘nothing to do with learning Italian’ holiday. I’m writing this from a bed in Peckham (it’s really QUIET here, not at all how I remember London!) We’re due to fly back to Bologna this evening, and be back at the school tomorrow.
So, Sunday you already heard about. Monday I started the day writing the previous article (the view from the toilet window, etc.) before rising from my borrowed bed and catching a red London bus (top deck, for the view) across south-east London, to Greenwich (Brits pronounce it Grenich, not Green Witch), where I used to live as a young man, in the late eighties.
Greenwich is touristy, with its market, views of the river, historic sailing ship, naval college, and royal park, but a little off the beaten track, so not on every London visitor’s list. I used to like it because it doesn’t feel so much like being in a big city, and because it’s small enough to walk around.
We strolled along the river path a little, past the Cutty Sark, then to the Oxfam bookshop, to fill up what little space was left in our trolleys for the trip home with English-language second hand books, which are hard to find where we live.
By which point it was almost lunchtime, so we walked through the historic market, with its appetizing displays of Asian street food.
We’re not eating here, I told my wife and daughter, until you have at least LOOKED THROUGH THE WINDOW of Greenwich’s most famous eatery. Then, if you don’t like what’s on offer, we can come back for a stir fry, or a dal, or whatever.
Some background. Over a multi-decade career as a teacher of English as a foreign language, nearly thirty years of that abroad in various places, I’ve heard, over and over again, that English food is terrible, and often had not much defence to offer.
There are cornish pasties, of course, and dear to my heart they are, too. But besides fish and chips, which everyone has heard of but which may have been invented by an Italian and a Belgian, there’s not much in the way of ‘visible’ English cooking. Not in the same way that you can stroll around an Italian city and see Italian culinary delights everywhere.
I’ve always had to explain to students that there ARE English culinary traditions (also Scottish, Welsh and Irish), but that they might be hard to find outside the home. Pubs might offer a roast dinner on a Sunday, or fish and chips, or steak and chips, or sausage and chips, but non-chip-based dining options are likely to be something ‘foreign’ – Chinese, Indian, or Italian by long tradition. Dishes from around the world are much more available than anything that can be called ‘traditional English’ cooking.
Back in Greenwhich, out of the market and around the corner, stands Goodards ‘pie and mash’ shop, which I’d eaten in once before, in 1988, and remembered as being that rarest of beasts, a traditional English food vendor.
What they sell are pies of different types (like pasties, but cheaper, and not so good), served with scoops of mashed potato, covered in brown ‘gravy’ or bright-green ‘liquor’ (probably some sort of parsley sauce…) It’s cheap, cheerful, and rather filling, and is served with a mug of tea.
The pies were originally made from eels, apparently, but now the standard is beef (vegan/vegetarian options exist.) Eels come as an extra, if you want them. Never having been adventurous enough, this time I thought I would be, so had pie, mash and eels.
I’d assumed that eels would be slimy, wiggly things, like worms. In fact they were what might have been chopped up lumps of fried fish, complete with silvery skin and, as the server warned me, a section of spine in the middle of each piece. Slosh a lot vinegar and pepper on, she advised, so I did, and they were good!
Pie, mash, eels and tea, seated at a table, in the warm, with a toilet, in the center of a major tourist destination, for well under a tenner. That’s really not bad. The editor of EasyItalianNews.com (see below) had the pie, mash, and tea, but then also an apple crumble, half-buried under a moutain of lumpy yellow custard. She loves desserts but, predictably, she was defeated by that one.
Leaving Goddards, we walked up through Greenwich Park to the observatory at the top, from where there is a marvellous view of London. It’s probably the best, but be warned, the path is steep at the end. Be further warned – the famous Prime Meridian line (be photographed standing with one foot in the eastern hemisphere and one in the western) is inside the rather expensive museum. We didn’t bother. The view, at least, is free.
We walked on through the park and out the back way, on to Blackheath, a ‘heath’ in a city, so named because it was where plague victims were buried, apparently. Crossing Blackheath to Blackheath Village, we bought yet more second hand books from charity shops, then took the ‘Overground’ train back home, to chill a little before the evening’s excitement.
My daughter had decided to drag me back to the West End, London’s theater district, for an evening in a comedy club, of all things. I do the jokes around here, I told her. Even if no one laughs…
I have to say, I wasn’t enthusiastic, preferring what she describes as ‘old man pubs’, for a quiet pint and a chat, maybe some pork scratchings as a special treat. A long bus ride, then descending into a black-painted basement, pulsing with rap music and crowded with noisy young people, would not normally be high on my list of things to do on a Monday evening.
But still, they had beer, and my daughter and the editor were into it, so I drank up and kept quiet. Also, on non-peak days, the well-known Top Secret Comedy Club has an admission price of just £1, the idea being, as the host explained, that anyone can enjoy ‘The Authentic Stand Up Experience’, ‘not just the rich’. Donations would be asked for instead, at the end of the show, we were told. I quietly resolved not to bother, so felt better.
But no, we had fun. The editor laughed out loud on several occasions, and wiped tears from her eyes. Good job she hadn’t put on mascara, she said.
The stand ups themselves were a mixed bunch, and mostly funny, sometimes very. My favourite was Jack Hester. If you don’t mind a lot of cuss words, you can watch him online, here. At the end of the show, I happily threw a £20 note in the owner’s bucket. The red bus back home was faster late in the evening, and from the top deck we admired the lights on the skyscrapers.
So that was Monday. Tuesday it poured, which was dispiriting. Lacking better ideas, we took the ‘overland’ train to London Bridge, to see Borough Market. I’d never been, but we’d heard it was a good place to find lunch, with hundreds of street food vendors.
That part was true, though it was also a good place to find groups of Spanish teenagers, large American families posing for photos in the middle of the sidewalk, and so on. I’m not a crowd person. I’m a grouchy, peace and quiet person, at least I was until the comedy club.
But they had pies! I enjoyed this one (check it out, man, innit – as they say in south east London.) Delicious crust, packed with meat and gravy, and only five pounds! Wow. The editor paid double that for a pad Thai, I’ve no idea why. There was an apple crumble stall too, which she ignored.
But no cheap tea anywhere, and it was raining still, so after a rushed meal, and needing to pee, we exited the market, which by this point was heaving with tourists, into the relative tranquility of Borough itself. Think skypscrapers overhead (the famous Shard), multiple train lines one level up from the street, and a typical British High Street at ground level, complete with red buses and puddles.
Ducking down an alley, we found the Old King’s Head, a proper ‘old man pub’ at last! The landlady was yelling abuse at a delivery driver, but agreed that the pub was open and that she could serve us beer.
We were the only customers at first, though people gradually drifted in as it got closer to regular lunchtime. They were all men, the younger ones clad in high-visibility jackets, the older ones with sticks. I had an ale. From Sussex, I think.
In the afternoon we didn’t do a lot, because of the rain. We walked some, we bought more second hand books from charity shops, we marvelled at the real estate prices (over a million pounds for a small family home!), and we waited for my daughter to get back from law school on her bicycle.
Her plan for the evening was to eat at a Vietnamese place in Peckham Rye, about which she’d heard good things. She wanted me to have a change from fish and chips, pasties, and pies.
Banh Banh is ‘five siblings cooking vietnamese food in south east london’, according to their website. I had no idea what to order, so let myself be guided by the friendly server, who suggested the ‘clay pot’ special (choice of pork, chicken, or prawns as the main ingredient), rice as a side, and a Portuguese white wine to mop it up.
It didn’t sound very inspiring, and wasn’t cheap by pie standards, but I was going with the flow, so didn’t grumble. But actually, it was really, really good! Large chunks of meat, cooked, as advertised, in a clay pot, in black, sweet/sour/very spicy sauce, into which, having burned my mouth and embarrassed myself trying to eat the pork with chopsticks, I tipped the rice. And finished every morsel. The wine, too.
Così. Today we’re heading for London’s Chinatown, a final lunch with my daughter, then towards Heathrow airport for a few hours catching up with emails and the evening flight home, to Italy. All things being well, tomorrow it’ll be back to pasta and pizza, pizza and pasta, holidays done with, for a while.
Watch this space for details, or, if you’d rather not hear about the promotions, stop reading my articles until Wednesday April 12th.
Or unsubscribe – there’s a link in the footer of every ‘bulk’ email sent out, including this one.
Scroll down, click the link, follow the instructions.
Yesterday I read/listened to Tuesday’s bulletin of ‘easy’ Italian news, then had a bit of a moan to the editor, who I have the good fortune to be married to, though that can make things awkward when there’s something I’m not happy with.
EasyItalianNews.com is funded by donations, as I often mention. Each couple of months they appeal for support, which they are supposed to have been doing this week, starting last Thursday and ending tomorrow.
You can donate at any time, and people do, but not in large numbers. So every eight weeks or so we push. This time the campaign is carefully scheduled so as to end before other promotions in which we’re involved in begin (see the P.S. above), and so as to fill EIN’s coffers before payroll day, at the beginning of April.
I was happy with the two bulletins I read/listened to (Saturday’s and Tuesday’s – I’d gotten behind), but totally not satisfied with the ‘please donate’ texts. The editor had just copied and pasted the same thing, Thursday, Saturday and Tuesday.
“That’s no good!”, I yelled, “That way, you’re just teaching them to ignore the message.”
“People who value what you do need to know that we rely on donations to pay the team, that we have to pay them every bloody month, and that without cash, I’m going to have to shell out myself!”
“And it’s no good just telling them once. You have FOURTEEN THOUSAND people reading and listening, and maybe a few hundred donors, one of whom recently sent us £0.82… Make a bit of an effort, will you?”
Then I had to apologise, so as not to ruin the penultimate day of our holiday.
But I was right, and couldn’t stop thinking about it, so had another go, as married people do.
“No one likes asking for money, but it’s what makes the world go around! If you want to keep doing this, try a little harder. No, try a lot harder!”