NE London

I don’t know London very well. Not the authentic city, at least. I’ve been to the Tate Modern and the National Gallery. I’ve stood next to Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower and that sort of thing. And of course the great opera house near the Harbour Bridge. Of course that! But I’m not familiar with places in the city where people actually live, and I wanted to find out what they’re like. So yesterday, having my whole afternoon free, I chose a quaint London neighborhood to stroll through.

Albert Street is in the center of the city’s northeast quadrant. It is a long, haphazardly configured row of small shops and eateries. Avenues stretching away from this main drag are lined with homes. These houses are unremarkable, and so I didn’t spend much time away from the commercial spine of this district. Trees line the sidewalk along Albert Street, each one growing up and out of a small unpaved square embroidered with bright red brick. It’s so impressive, the care taken by the area residents with little details like this. Somebody must have spent entire days deciding on, locating, and learning how to set these bricks. You’d never find anything like that in the United States of America. We’re all too pragmatic.

But anyway. The most lovely store window I saw that day was that of a shop called Soleil (‘sun’ for those who live near Albert Street and speak the native language). An orange-petalled yellow-hearted flower made of papier-mâché took up nearly the entire window. Radiating away from it were crinkly orange streamers. It sounds simple, but really it was the most elegant and unpretentious window display I think I have ever seen. I was across the street, so I didn’t go into Soleil. But I must imagine that they sell weathered gold candlesticks and small rustic furniture pieces, and just generally everything that a home full of white linens – probably like those in the adjoining neighborhood – would need.

Taking in rich surroundings provokes the appetite. “Though the eyes eat, the stomach may not be fed,” I think the saying goes. The first place I considered was in a multi-level building that looked like an Escher creation with three intersecting levels. His childhood home being not far from here, it is conceivable, though nobody told me this, that the architect of this building was inspired in design by the 18th-century artist’s work. The exterior was covered by brown shake, and the upper level of the boxy building had a balcony that added to the overall structure’s complexity. A man stood alone on the balcony in a short-sleeve floral shirt and straw fedora. He looked out into the distance, over the other buildings, seeming to contemplate the rolling hills and forested land just a mile of so off. “BRE-AK-FAST” was scrawled in chalk across three contiguous blackboards hung from the overhang. As charming and full of repose as this place seemed, I didn’t have a taste for breakfast and so kept walking.

I’m thankful I didn’t stop! I would have missed out on the splendid Bone 7. This is a true locals bar. The walls are orange and blue, and the tables of simple Scandinavian design. People in fashionable attire line the bar, some waiting to order a drink while others chat with drinks already in their hands. All are dressed in that at-ease yet young professional manner required for positions in philanthropy, or advancing responsible business practices across borders and oceans. The tavern’s owners must be true lovers of their picturesque little town in the valley, since the aperitif menu includes a cocktail called The Stockholm. Which reminds me! I passed a man on the street wearing a blue sweatshirt with white lettering that read ‘Stockholm’. It’s not only the bar’s owners who love their city, it seems.

I sat at one of the two-tone tables inside, but through a doorframe I could see a fenced area out back. Bamboo reeds shot up parallel to the fence-line, shading two rows of wood benches. Exposed beams supported a translucent roof. A giant patinated Christmas ornament-looking sculpture hung off the segment of fence that I could see. The metalwork housed a light, the beams from which shone determinedly through round gaps in the bottom hemisphere. I could smell the no-nonsense ocean between slats in the fence, and I envisioned the clay red cliffs standing parallel with the shoreline that lay just beyond.

I had a catfish sandwich, fries, and an Old German, after which I spent the rest of my afternoon walking it off up and down Albert Street. The sky opened up and rained down on me for most of the afternoon. But isn’t that to be expected in the heart of dreary old London?

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