Americans in London
It’s taken a while to get back into the boundaries of my life, it seems. It’s been a busy (and incredibly stressful) summer, fall, winter. A death in the family, emergency flights to Texas, a merger of two firms, midnight deadlines, ever-increasing workloads, adrenal system shut-downs, deep depressions. All of that easily explains the stillness (or inactivity) here — but I think the truth lies somewhere else, somewhere uncomfortable and quiet.
I love London intensely — it feels like home in a way I cannot explain. The tube rides across town, the late-night wander of “our” supermarket, the grey skies at dawn. Dark concrete and vivid green, perfectly warm and briskly cold — all at the same time. It’s a place I want to be, at all times — and that longing seems to magnify during times of stress. As my horoscope said a few weeks ago, “your mysticism is intensifying, changing into escapism and drift.” I laid in the darkened hotel room in Dallas, alone — dreaming of the Barbican, of the Heath, of anything-but-here. Trying to write about that trip, taken just a few months ago, made me deliriously sad. I wished intensely for time travel — backward or forward. “Just get me out of here,” I murmured, staring at the popcorn ceiling of my hotel room, the din of Dallas traffic muffled behind the purple velvet drapes. I'd browse the Waitrose website, mentally shopping for a dinner party we weren’t throwing in an apartment we don’t own in a city we don’t live in. I’d wander Google Street View, digitally walking past our favorite places — checking up on them, making sure something in this world was right, true, the same.
We were at a dinner a while ago, a giant yet very cozy holiday gathering — and the topic always shifted towards travel. Where we’re all going, where we’d all love to eat, what we’ve heard or where to avoid. It was intoxicating, frankly. I wanted to help everyone plan, to define the goals of their trips, to give them lists of places, things, dishes, souvenirs… It kick-started something in my brain, something I’d lost in the past few months.
I’m slowly coming back into everything, brighter and stronger — and now it’s time to dive back into the past, to document and delight in this magical trip we took. I now know that I can get it all down in words. Thank you for sticking around.
I woke up, overjoyed, at 08:30 — I didn’t feel exactly better, but at least I didn’t feel worse. As a precaution, I still had my now-customary dose of two Waitrose vitamin-b tablets before rushing out the door.
It had rained earlier in the morning and as such, everything was damp — the clipped foliage of the plane hedges next to the hotel entrance slowly dripped onto the darkened pavement. We walked over puddles in the street on the way to Queensway station, now our normal morning routine. It felt as though it was going to be this way forever — that every morning, from now on until the end of time, we would walk down Bayswater to the tube, past the Chinese take-away and the hookah bar, and the posh coffee shop.
We descended into our familiar station and boarded the 09:20 to Liverpool — Central line. It was a tight fit, full of commuters heading to the centre of the City. Across the carriage from us was an Indian woman with a shopping trolley. She was wearing a brightly colored jacket, with a black background and vivid embroidery. Typography, set in white Arial, was nestled in banks of neon foliage. “ATYPICAL MARKETING,” they screamed. “NETWORK.” “TRANSPORTATION.”
We had a reservation for breakfast at Albion at 10:00 — yes, the same Albion. It’s too irresistible. Avocado toast, poached eggs, coffee, cheese & Marmite scroll.
We sat next to a group of Japanese people — and the main character (should it have been in a movie) was impossibly familiar to me. Was he a famous fashion designer? Architect? I furiously Googled any name I could remember but couldn’t place him
After breakfast (and a defeated internal discussion about the possibility of a second cheese & Marmite scroll), we ventured out into the rain towards Chancery Lane. The drizzle tip-tapped on our matching black raincoats as we walked. Bustling offices, market halls closing up for the day, an ancient moss-covered cemetery — the rain coated everything in a dull sheen and guaranteed that we were nearly alone along our journey.
Chancery Lane to Oxford Circus — not usually our favorite destination, as it feels sometimes like wandering around a giant shopping mall. We had arrived a little early, so we ducked into the massive newly-renovated Apple store on Oxford Street. It was jarring — a little slice of corporate Californiana on a grey drizzly English afternoon. We marveled at the CNC-milled limestone walls, test-drove the new leather seating — and then back out into the heaving street.
Just around the corner was our destination — Sketch, for afternoon tea: round 2.
Sketch is the brainchild of noted British visual artist David Shrigley, and his touch is apparent on everything — high drama and quirk upon quirk at every opportunity. The lobby is nearly pitch-black, lit with neon. A pseudo-vending machine displays lumpy porcelain tea sets, embellished with such phrases as “FORGET ABOUT IT” and “DUST.” We checked in, and the hostess ushered us behind a heavy curtain into the main room.
You’ve probably seen it — Sketch is easily one of the most Instagrammed places on the planet. It was entirely engineered that way, as the impressive queue for a free table proved. We sat down and marveled at just how over-the-top everything was. Herringbone marble floors in twelve colors, metallic brass on every surface, pink velvet and pink walls and pink light bulbs. Smooth electronica oozed out of massive ceiling-mounted speakers. As we settled into our India Mahdavi-designed pink velvet chairs, we started to notice that not a single person wasn’t taking a photo — there was a group of girls cajoling a friend into sitting atop a banquette, in front of Shrigley’s paintings. There was a Swedish Insta-model prancing around in a beret and a metallic silver fanny pack, posing in the middle of the room for her Insta-husband with a $2,000 camera. She arranged the tea sandwiches just so, placing them in perfect rows before holding a tea cup to her lips and pausing — her husband took the cue and snapped a series of photos in rapid succession. She set her tea cup down without drinking, and sighed. They left soon after, not a single thing eaten. That Swedish model? 115k followers. The girl on top of the banquette? 55k. The bald Russian twink who waved at our iPhone camera every time we took a photo? Just over a thousand — but he didn’t have the necessary assets, let’s say. (We looked up the geotag on Instagram while waiting for our first pots of tea to arrive.)
The menus are scientific diagrams, if scientific diagrams existed in Alice’s Wonderland — exploded axonometric drawings of tea sandwiches and engravings of animals wearing hats and monocles. I ordered the jasmine silver needle, Mark chose the Darjeeling second flush and we sat back to watch the show.
Sitting next to us were two American women, roughly our age. They’d ordered the champagne tea and were bemoaning the cost. “The pound seems higher than it was a few days ago...” They continued to chat and we couldn’t help over-hearing that one of them had arrived to tea from her hotel — the third she’d stayed in on this trip. “The standards here are slipping, it’s really unfortunate. I mean, I tried the Ham Yard last night and first thing this morning, I called my travel department and made them rebook me at the Four Seasons.” We stared at each other in shock over this last statement — the Ham Yard is easily one of the very best hotels in London, with an average nightly rate of $600 per room.
“The service was just so abysmal — my plastic travel container for my facial moisturizer broke, and I wanted tape to fix it. They wouldn’t give me tape! They sent the bellhop up with three different types and it just wouldn’t work — I couldn’t believe it...”
We found out that the pair were accountants for a gigantic consultancy firm in New York, and it became apparent that Hotel-Swapper’s compatriot was regretting the tea excursion. She kept taking very conveniently-timed sips of rose tea while HS bemoaned everything from the staff at the four hotels she’d stayed at to the Uber driver on the way over, and the flight she was dreading the next day.
“I just feel like I’ve been saddled with so much responsibility and it’s really making it difficult for me to work. I mean, I know I graduated just a year ago but I’m so over-qualified for my job... I think I’m going to take a month off and have that surgery I’ve been wanting. HR told me it wasn’t really acceptable considering I just started but they’ll just have to deal...”
At this point, a man in a pink tuxedo arrived at our table to present us with a dish that was supposed to look like a hard boiled egg and a set of toast points that somehow featured caviar. He tried to engage us in a sort of theatrical stage-conversation, but I couldn’t stop listening to the whiny American at the next table. Annoyed, he wandered off.
“Look, I know the champagne is included in the price but can you just discount the bill what you think the price of the champagne was? Then I’ll pay that price with my personal card — I’m not supposed to buy drinks on the company card... I mean, it’s not that difficult...”
I was silently begging for her to leave — she dredged up a lot of very uncomfortable feelings for me, feelings about being an American abroad. We have a fairly awful reputation, and we try desperately to avoid any association with that reputation when we travel. We try to practice local customs, we apologize profusely, we learn as much of the language as possible (at least a few useful phrases), we say “thank you” until we’re red in the face. It felt like our physical closeness to her was causing her slimy attitude to transfer onto us — the treacle of her whining exposing us as her brethren, complete with big white sneakers and American flag t-shirts.
She got up to leave amidst a flurry of complaints about the service, and Mark and I clicked our tea cups in solidarity. “Back to passing as Canadian,” I murmured.
In turn, we both wandered over to the restrooms — which are, quite honestly, the craziest restrooms I’ve ever seen. You walk up to a massive pod, hiding a very 70s upholstered bar within and edged with two curving staircases. The men’s route is washed in blue light, the women’s in the ever-present pink. Once you make your way up the stairs, you’re presented with a field of fiberglass eggs, each holding a toilet. The ceiling is reminiscent of stained glass, and there’s a soundtrack of chirping birds and forest noises. Once you’ve finished, you wash your hands at a very Victorian sink in the corner and meander back through the field of eggs and down the stairs to your table. A woman dressed as a maid from the 1920s periodically dusts the eggs and scowls at you when you pass her.
And then back to the show — endless streams of influencers (both actual and wannabe), theatrical food and dessert presentations including a laser-cut cake trolley and chewing-gum-shaped marshmallows, the man in pink dispensing caviar in abundance across the dining room.
The actual food? It was fine — nothing particularly outstanding. We kept tasting and pausing, ending with “This was better at Claridge’s” in unison.
Tea is such a uniquely British thing — something so culturally intrinsic that it becomes faux and alien once it crosses a channel or an ocean. Sketch was certainly an experience — and one we were glad we had partaken in — but it sort of felt like we were eating on the stage at a carnival. It was afternoon tea v.2.0 — and like the luddites who scream at every Apple software update, we wanted to go back. We wanted to return to the cozy antiquity of that dining room at Claridge’s — the silver older than everyone in the room, old ladies like hens in groups tutting away, and young men in crisp white jackets bringing tray after tray of Coronation chicken sandwiches as they had done since forever.
After paying and gathering our belongings, we ducked into the other room at Sketch — the Forest. Thick green shag covered the floor of the entry and neon trees bedecked the walls. It seemed a little quieter, a little less frenzied with social media stars. “If we come back, we’re coming to this room,” Mark said under his breath.
Then a quick shopping excursion around Oxford Street — Muji for a permanent marker, Weekday for more black skinny jeans, then Liberty for a wander.
Oxford Circus to Vauxhall, then a cold rainy trek back and forth across the Thames, Battersea to Chelsea and back again. The first stop was for a glance at the new US Embassy in Nine Elms — a vague political statement on our part, as our pseudo-president was refusing to visit it quite dramatically. In all honesty? Meh. An over-fortified glass cube on a moat with a fancy sail-shade on one side. Perhaps the rain was talking, but we barely stopped. The embassy is situated in a new development called “Embassy Gardens” — sprawling new brick residential buildings framed the new highly-secure embassy district. We popped into a Sainsbury’s Local at a newish Richard Rogers-designed housing development for bottled water (why, I know ask, in the rain?). Rather standard Rogers (+ Stirk Harbour Partners) stuff — celebrated connections and structure, lots of bright colors for some reason, oversized mechanical systems… We didn’t linger long.
A little further along, Nine Elms Lane becomes Battersea Park Road — the site of the eponymous Battersea Power Station. Built between 1929-1945 and decommissioned for good in 1983, Battersea Power Station is a former coal power plant that meandered through various redevelopment schemes until 2012, when Ernst & Young and a Malaysian consortium finally managed to secure the funding to begin what will ultimately be a 20+ year, £8-billion project — involving such famous talents as Bjarke Ingels, Frank Gehry, Rafael Viñoly, WilkinsonEyre, and Norman Foster. We happened upon it a touch early, however, so we just watched the cranes as we turned onto Chelsea Bridge — crossing the Thames into Chelsea.
Chelsea is intoxicating to me — rows and rows of very proper (and very posh) brick townhomes, with lush green parks wedged between. The rain had made the pavement shine jet black, perfectly reflecting the neatly arranged all-white windows above. We walked along Chelsea Embankment, right along the river, and popped in every few blocks to wander around. We peeked into courtyards, nonchalantly peered into curtain-less windows… It was dreamy. We mentally planned our little Chelsea bolthole — even something on a garden level would do, with a tiny stair and a perfect sunken patio resplendent with olive trees in wooden boxes…
We walked past the London Sketch Club — a private member’s club for artists, where without fail since 1957, it’s members gather on Friday nights (October to May) to draw, drink and have a sumptuous supper. What a totally lovely thing! I Googled “london sketch club membership” as we wandered back towards the river — and then across the Thames again, via the Albert Bridge.
We headed back across to see Foster + Partners sprawling headquarters — tucked right up against the river, in myriad glass boxes. It was almost dark at this point — so they shone like beacons against the pitch night. We walked against the glass of the model workshop, full of people at nearly 19:00. “This is basically one way my life could have turned out,” I said to Mark. “Doesn’t look like much fun,” he replied. The assembled group of young-looking interns gathered around an older man, seemingly taking direction for a new model. “Man, I don’t really miss that.” For a brief moment, I descended into a flashback of architecture school — endless nights turning into morning, super-glue-covered fingers, wafting breezes of Super 77 and spraypaint, cardboard paper cuts, clattering echoes of energy drink cans against concrete.
We made our way along the waterfront, past a new Foster-designed complex, onto Battersea Bridge — back again onto the Northern side of the Thames. It was pouring now, and we were drenched — and I’d never seen Mark happier. Back around the Power Station, I noticed him beaming and asked, “Why on earth are you smiling?” “I just love the rain,” he responded. Completely adorable. My heart melted a bit, and I held onto that thought as we left the bridge and made our way around the World’s End Estate — and finally, to a pit stop at the World’s End Market for a drink.
Mark had a whiskey-based concoction and I had a pint. We sat in the near-abandoned, yet incredibly cozy bar for a while — nursing our drinks and marveling at the quantity of water coming out of our clothes and gathering in puddles at our feet. We had a reservation coming up quite quickly, but not wanting to rush, we cancelled it and made another for a bit later. We gathered our things and made our way to the bus stop — a bit drier, a bit tipsier, a bit tired.
Bus to tube, tube to station, station to doorstep — then a quick freshen-up (including a very hot shower) and back out into the drizzle. Our new dinner destination was Sake no Hana, in St. James’s.
The interiors were done by Kengo Kuma — a favorite Japanese architect of ours, and they did not disappoint. It was moody and dim, with great expanses of cedar planks stacked and assembled, temple-like. We were excited to see it — but I was supremely excited for the food. Japanese food has become a salve whilst traveling, something comforting, cleansing, centering. Sometimes all I need is a bowl of miso soup and a mug of green tea — but this was much more than that.
White miso with nameko mushrooms, razor-thin sea bass sashimi with chili ponzu, chargrilled salmon on hoba leaf, red pepper tempura maki with avocado and tenkasu. The dishes came and went, and we ate and ate and ate — it was magic.
After descending the escalator into the dim lobby and retrieving our coats, we walked back to the Green Park station, retracing our previous path. We walked past the grand mansions facing the park, their windows aglow with warmth. We walked and held hands, just two sappy Americans in love — with each other and with a city, all at the same time.
US Embassy — 33 Nine Elms Lane — Vauxhall
London Sketch Club — 7 Dilke Street — Sloane Square