England

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Wong Kei, in Chinatown, used to have the rudest waiters in London. Not anymore. Photos by David Lansing.

Just before heading for London I got an e-mail from a reader who is from London but now lives in China. He wrote, “Next time you’re in London be sure to visit Chinatown for two reasons. Firstly, the energy of the place will give you an idea of Canton and secondly eat roast duck noodle soup at the legendary Wonkey Chinese restaurant. It’s a legend of a place that is famous for supercilious very rude waiters. It’s a hoot. They even sell t-shirts bearing the words “upstairs/downstairs” because that is pretty much how they greet you on entry.”

So, with nothing better to do today, I took the Tube to Leicester Square and started walking up and down the back streets of Chinatown. I don’t know what I was thinking. Do you know how many restaurants there are in Chinatown? At least ten thousand. Okay, maybe not that many, but a hell of a lot.

I had no address, no landmarks, nothing. Just “the legendary Wonkey Chinese restaurant,” which, I discovered after asking every produce vendor in the neighborhood is not so legendary because no one had ever heard of it. But you know, it was nice out and as Mike Smith, the reader who sent me the e-mail, said, there was a certain energy to Chinatown that was fun to see, even if it looked like I was going to miss out on the supercilious rude waiters.

And then, just as I came to the end of Wardour, the last street in Chinatown, there it was. Only it wasn’t “Wonkey” it was Wong Kei. Not that that would have made any difference in my search. Even though it was five minutes until noon, there was a big sign blocking the doorway proclaiming that the restaurant was closed. Since a waiter was standing just outside the door smoking a cigarette (I figured it had to be a waiter since he was wearing a black UPSTAIRS/DOWNSTAIRS t-shirt), I asked him how come the restaurant was closed.

Roasted duck noodle soup.

“Not time,” he said, blowing a ring of smoke my way.

Evidently Wong Kei doesn’t open until noon; not five minutes to noon or even one minute to noon, but noon.

Anyway, I have to say I was very disappointed in the service. Not only did they give me a very nice table on the ground floor facing the street, but the waiter was also very attentive and quick. When I ordered a Tsingtao, it was on the table in less than 30 seconds. When I asked the waiter what was good, he actually hunched over the menu and gave me his opinion about three or four dishes. The aromatic duck with pancakes was very good he said.

“That sounds like crap,” I said, trying to make him cranky. It didn’t work; he nodded in agreement. Finally, with a big smile, he offered to have the chef cook up something special for me.

What the hell? Where were the supercilious rude waiters Mike Smith had promised me?

As it was, I ended up getting the roast duck noodle soup, as Mike Smith had suggested, and it was delicious and enough food for two people, and then my waiter brought out a special Singapore seafood noodle dish that was to die for.

“You like?” my waiter asked, grinning at me as I slurped it up. I shrugged with indifference.

I’ve since learned that Wong Kei went through a renovation a few years back and some people say the service just hasn’t been the same. There’s talk on various restaurant bulletin boards of happy waiters and efficient service. They say that you can even get up from the table and go to the bathroom and when you get back, your food will still be there. Something that never would have happened four or five years ago. It’s a shame. It seems that even in London’s Chinatown, you just can’t get lousy help these days.

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Doing nothing in the park

Photo by David Lansing.

Like I told you, it’s been unusually hot and humid in London this summer. Yesterday as I was walking through Hyde Park, not far from the Princess Diana memorial, I spotted any number of young people splashing about in the torpid waters of the lake despite very British signs not five feet away proclaiming that there was to be absolutely no swimming.

This afternoon while looking for a cool place to spend an hour or so I came across this little paved square tucked in the corner of one of my favorite small London parks, the Victoria Embankment Gardens. Seeing all these hot, sweaty Brits draped over blue- or red-striped sling chairs, well, it gave me a laugh. I mean, there’s nothing really funny about it. They’re just ordinary people taking a breather in a canvas sling chair in the park. Except they don’t put the chairs in the section of the garden where there are flowers and fountains and trees. They put them in a square, secluded from prying eyes with a six-foot-tall hedge, on very hot pavers.

And what were the people doing in these sling chairs? Nothing. Oh, maybe one or two were glancing at one of the tabloids or sending text messages to their friends, but that was about it. For the most part, it was just a couple here, a couple there, sitting on the chairs inches above radiantly hot paving stones, dozing off.

I don’t know why but, really, it gave me a laugh. And when I got over my mirth, I found an empty chair and sat myself down. It was quite pleasant.

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Modern nonsense at the Tate

The Warhol gallery at the Tate Modern. Photos by David Lansing.

After stalling for a couple of days, I finally made it to the Tate Modern today. Every time I go, I swear it’s the last time. Because it always leaves me feeling depressed. I’ll look at something, like a pile of sticks with some red cloth draped over it or a framed printing that says I AM A MAN, and it not only seems pretentious to call it art but I get this impression of some nervous narcissist out there who is just totally full of themselves in a very unhealthy way. It’s like all the Baby Boomer kids who grew up being told that they were “special” and “gifted” and being given trophies for coming in last place in soccer because “everyone’s a winner” and now they’re making art—or what they think is art—and they want us to look at their very indulgent nonsense and say, “Oh, my, isn’t that wonderful.”

Yes, fine, you're a man, but are you art?

Except it’s not. It’s shit.

When Damien Hirst puts a tiger shark in 224 gallons of formaldehyde and someone buys it for $8 million, that doesn’t make him an artist or the dead shark a piece of art. It makes Mr. Hirst a very good salesman and it makes Charles Saatchi, who bought the first pickled shark, a fool. Until he sells it to some other fool for ten times the amount and then, okay, he’s an even better con man that Damien Hirst.

But then again, what the hell do I know. A lot of people felt the same thing about Andy Warhol when he was doing his soup cans and “Eight Elvises” back in the ‘60s. And I have to say, the only gallery at the Tate that made me smile and want to hang around for awhile was the room filled literally floor to ceiling with Warhols. To see a group of little British school kids sitting on the floor in front of a giant dollar sign drawing cow heads like the ones all around them? Priceless.

Will someone feel that way in forty years about a calf with 18-carat gold horns floating in a tank of formaldehyde? Hmmmmm…..

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The fountains in front of Somerset House. Photo by David Lansing.

It’s been hot here in London. Hyde Park is dry and brown and nobody sits on the benches that aren’t shaded. In the Underground they play announcements warning people of dehydration and heat stroke. And everyone seems to know exactly when it last rained (two months ago? Three months?).

I was going to go to the Tate Modern this morning but it was just too damn hot. Instead, I took the Tube to Embankment, walked across the Golden Jubilee Bridge, and strolled along The Queen’s Walk, one of my favorite haunts along the Thames. You buy an ice cream and listen to a busker or watch the punks skateboard in the shadows of the National Theatre and just sort of watch the world go by. A perfect place for a flâneur.

After I decided I wasn’t going to the Tate after all, I crossed back over the river and wandered aimlessly up Riverside Walk, ducking into cool alleys and getting lost in the various warrens off The Strand until I stumbled into the courtyard of King’s College.

I’ve been to London a hundred times and never knew this place existed—a cobblestone quad with fifty or more dancing fountains shooting up into the sky, sometimes just a few feet off the ground and other times into a fire hose. What a great spot for kids to cool off. And there were lots of them here, all being carefully watched over by their mums who sat at black metal tables eating ice cream or munching sandwiches.

I struck up a conversation with one mum whose little tyke sat astride one of the fountains in such a way that it looked as if we were taking an arching 10-foot long pee. He couldn’t have been more than two or three years old—but certainly looked like he knew exactly what he was doing (and was immensely enjoying doing it).

His mother glanced my way, smiled, and said, “Well, yes, boys….” As if that’s all that needed to be said. And I suppose it was.

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Returning to London

What does she mean, "Mind the gap"? Photo by David Lansing.

I never know what I think of London. Do I like it? Hmmm….Yeah, sure, it’s okay, I guess, although a whiff of sadness always hangs over the city for me. Those black taxis and “Mind the gap” announcements (is she talking to me? She must be talking to me. She knows) on the tube always take me back to my first visit here, ages ago, when I arrived as some sort of post-collegiate Huck Finn, running away from home and drifting along the Thames with no clue as to where I was headed.

Here’s the compressed story: After graduating from college, I broke off an engagement and decided I was not going to law school, as I’d originally planned. Instead, I sold off everything I owned, including a very nice ivory 1962 Porsche 356 Cabriolet (which, if in good condition, would easily go for $75,000 or more these days, though I think I got less than $3,000 for mine) and got on a charter flight for London with the intention of…well, I had no intentions.

I sat next to a very nice middle-aged German woman, named Krista, and, in answer to all of her questions—Why are you going to London? How long will you be there? Where are you staying—gave her the same reply: I don’t know.

I didn’t know. Like I said, I was just running away. Here’s something I remember: Because our charter flight had been delayed by almost 24 hours by mechanical problems, the flight attendants rolled out the beverage carts into the aisle and announced that it was an open bar. And since the cart was in the row where Krista and I were sitting, we had to do little more than reach over every time we wanted another gin and tonic. So we got slowly plastered.

“Does your mother know where you are?” Krista asked at one point, her maternal radar starting to kick in.

“Of course,” I lied. That fact is, no one knew where I was. Not a single soul.

By the time we landed in London, Krista had decided that I was to come stay with her, for at least a day, in her flat in Knightsbridge. Well, why not? As I said, I had no plan. Other than to eventually make my way to Paris where I would…what? God only knows.

So I stayed at Krista’s flat, sleeping in the basement with its slightly moldy smell, and I learned how to make espresso for her with a stovetop macchinetta and drove her in the afternoons to her clinic appointments for the breast cancer treatment she was undergoing (she would joke about whether she was more likely to die from cancer or my horrid driving) and spent most of my time in London just walking.

I don’t ever recall going to a restaurant or a play or even a museum. I just walked. And sat. To the Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park to listen to the communists or to Trafalgar Square to watch the pigeons flit about the stoic lions. I did not go to Westminster Abbey or the Tower of London or even Buckingham Palace. Why not? Because those were tourist sites and I was not a tourist.

What was I? Or who was I?

That was the question. I was, I guess, just a man walking about London.

I ended up staying at Krista’s for over a month. Until she was admitted to the hospital from which she never left. After which I moved on to Paris.

So. Do I like London? Why would I not?

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