Thursday, December 27, 2007

Tuesday, 25 Dec - Heading Home

The journey back to Singapore wasn’t difficult at all. I was laden with goodies from London, but the entire public transport system in the city on Christmas Day had been shut down. Coming to the rescue, however, was the good chap GNK+1 in his trusty Vauxhall, providing me a lift straight from SSG and HM’s Shad Thames apartment to Heathrow Airport Terminal Three. HM was also nice enough to come along for the ride, and to send me off personally.

There I breezed through customs and the security checks, helped by the Fast Track process which I was entitled to, as I had managed earlier to upgrade myself onto a Business Class seat on the Singapore Airlines flight back home. Yeah!!! The Silver Kris lounge offered a nice respite before boarding, and when I stepped onto the upper desk of the 747, flying heaven awaited me. Visions of beauty slinking around in dark kebayas, offering me wine and more......I couldn't get enough of it all.

I awoke earlier that morning with the sound of the front door opening. It was good ol' BP, who had just flown in on a red eye flight from New York, where the lucky bugger is spending his second year of studies. He’s gonna be in London from Christmas till New Year’s Day, taking over the couch and living room that I had sorta called my own for the past week. It sure was good meeting up with him, even if for that half day, over breakfast and then over a turkey pasta lunch, rekindling memories of time in Goodenough College and of jaunts across Scandinavia just this past summer.

But now I’m back in Singapore, and back to the grind of work. Is there and can there be such a thing as instant nostalgia? I have nothing but the loveliest and warmest memories of this past week, and already, I’m thinking fondly back to my first day, not so long ago, when it was me who trundled into the Shad Thames apartment early in the morning, greeting a bleary eyed and sleep deprived HM…

I must have said it before, but I’ll say it again - this has been a most amazing week in London. I was glad I returned. I feel entirely comfortable and at ease in this city, but what has made it special were the many moments spent with close and dear friends, some of whom I may not see for some time yet. I’m very very grateful to the SSG and to the HM for letting me stay with them, for their time, for their company, for everything – especially their friendship.

And so, it’s time, again, to suspend Rampant in London, for I am now, once more, Subdued in Singapore. I know of no other city – apart from my hometown – which has managed to excite me so much, and which has offered me so much. When I was there, I didn’t feel as though I had been away. I felt I was home – a second home, as it were. I don’t know when I will be back. But back I will surely be, soon...

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Monday, 24 Dec - On Christmas Eve

After five frenetic days, I finally slowed things down on Monday, but just slightly. The fog had cleared on this Christmas Eve morning, as I started the day late, lingering around, partaking in some of the beef casserole which HM was preparing in advance for our big dinner later on.

We then went out after lunch for some grocery shopping, followed by a stop at the Starbucks next to Tower Bridge, where I had another cup of chai latte. It was a drink to which I was introduced only this past year in London, and copious amounts had passed through my system since. I recall saying to friends back home, as I was about to leave for this trip, that I’d be eagerly looking forward to another cup of chai latte.

“Don’t they serve chai lattes in Singapore too?” asked one of them.

“To be honest, I don’t really know,” I replied.

For it was only then that I realized that I never even looked out for this drink when visiting the local Starbucks joints, settling back instead for my usual double lattes or mocha frappuccino. The chai latte has become for me, curiously enough, an entirely London drink, best consumed with friends.

HM soon returned to the apartment to continue preparations for the dinner, while I headed to High Street Kensington to meet Russia, whose office was located nearby. We then took the Tube to Hyde Park, to the Winter Wonderland Christmas market. It looked lovely, with an ice rink, ferris wheel, and lots of happy people. The only thing missing was snow. Indeed, yesterday turned out to be one of the mildest day since I arrived in London.

I had wanted to try ice skating, but there were no tickets available. Russia and I then headed up the ferris wheel, getting a good view of the city. This ain’t no London Eye, but the experience was pleasant nonetheless. I was conscious that a scrumptious feast was awaiting me back home, but greedy pig that I am, I couldn’t resist sharing a few dishes with her – rum balls, a wurst, fried potatoes, and poffertjes, a type of delicious Dutch pancakes.

Doubling back to Shad Thames, I joined the many commuters returning home this Christmas Eve evening, and reached “home” just after eight pm, in time to join HM, SSG,GNK+1, his Other Half, plus another friend of SSG’s in a most lovely and filling Christmas dinner.

We pulled Christmas crackers, played yuletide music, carved the turkey, imbibed the wine, exchanged presents, and generally had a good time, although at one point I felt as if I was really about to burst. We ended by just slouching around the sofa watching Love Actually on DVD. I can, and have critiqued it on a sociological level. But this wasn’t time to play Scrooge. It’s a very touching film, and it made me think of certain other thoughts as well...

I know I’ve had a very good time this past week. I felt right from Day One that I didn’t wish to return to Singapore. But I know I have to. That is where my life is, right now. London represents so many things for me. It is a metaphor for feasting, for friendship, for fantasy. London will continue to be in my future. But London is also now part of my past. There are things awaiting me in Singapore, which I treasure greatly. I shall be back soon.

Sunday, 23 Dec - Serene and Spiritual

The days just keep getting better. And Sunday was truly lovely. It shall be one of those days which I shall remember forever, replete with activity and significance, even though it was shrouded, ironically, in a cloud of fog.

That’s right. We woke up to a blanket of thick, white fog covering the whole of London. Peering out of the window at HM and SSG’s, I couldn’t see even across the carpark to the buildings on the other side. And when HM and I emerged to head to the Tate Britain, it was a truly surreal and atmospheric sight which greeted us outside.

Tower Bridge, surely one of London’s most iconic structures, was cloaked in dense fog, and standing at one end of the bridge, we could even discern the shape of the Tower of London across the river. All these tourists on top of the bridge, cameras at the ready. Are they disappointed, or are they happy? London has a cliché for being cold, foggy and dreary, but such a day comes only very rarely.

We were at the Tate Britain for a special retrospective exhibition of the works of John Everett Millais, the great British Pre-Raphaelite artist. He’s the fellow behind such stunningly beautiful paintings as Ophelia and Mariana, with their fine, precise detail and lively colours. Incredibly, both works were executed in the early part of his career, and we were able to see the evolution of his style, including the many portrayals of ordinary couples living through extraordinary times.

Stepping out of the museum, HM and I took a bus to the Strand, where we had a quick lunch, before heading back to the Tower Hill station, and back home to link up with SSG. Our next destination? The Sunday carol service at St Paul’s Cathedral. It all seems pretty pedestrian, and I don’t know how best to describe the next couple of hours – how totally amazing it was – how best to convey what I saw, what I heard, what I experienced. But let’s try anyway….

So, I had come to London determined to do a few Christmasy things, like attending a pantomime performance, touring a Christmas market, and also going for a church carol service. HM and I were discussing things online before I arrived, and we settled on the St Paul’s service on Sunday. At the same time, I was planning to meet “Russia”, one of my dearest friends from UCL.

By a wonderful stroke of coincidence, we had arranged also to meet on Sunday, and she told be that she’d be working at St Paul’s that afternoon, where she had been temping for some time over the past few months. “I’ll be attending the carol service that afternoon, and can meet you afterwards,” I recall myself saying to her.

What I didn’t know was how wildly packed and popular the service was going to me. Russia gave me a call earlier in the day, and offered to secure us some seats inside the cathedral. And that was what the lovely girl really did! We arrived at St Paul’s, bypassed the long queue amassed outside, and went inside through the North Transept instead.

Inside, it was already almost full house, but Russia had “unofficially” secured three fantastic seats for us which a direct view of the Quire and Dome Sanctuary. I have no idea how she did it. Mere words cannot convey how absolutely grateful we were for her efforts, and what followed was a most enriching carol service.

The music was good, the setting was perfect, and the sermon sounded like a sociological thesis. But you really have to credit the weather as well. In churches back home, especially those which aren't air conditioned, you’d be sweating, surrounded by people clad in tee shirts. Here, even with thousands gathered inside the cathedral, everyone was close to shivering, lending a most Christmasy mood to the service. And when we exited, the wintry sun had already set, and St Paul’s was encased in the still present thick night fog, conveying a most Dickensian atmosphere.

SSG, HM and I emerged, feeling very appreciative and privileged, and went nearby for tea and minced pies at the imaginatively named tea, located in the shadows of the cathedral. Shortly after, Russia finished her shift and was able to join us for a brief moment. HM and SSG really took to her, and we all had a good chat, before I left with Russia for our planned dinner.

London at this hour was dark, cold and foggy, but I was feeling all nice and warm inside, happy to be with a close friend from the city. We crossed the Thames on the Millennium Footbridge, towards the Tate Modern, cutting through the fog, and then settled down at the Founders Arms pub along the riverside for a nice Sunday dinner.

It was lovely catching up with Russia. We had lots to talk about. She updated me on her life, and I updated her on mine. She told me she was considering making a trip to Singapore in March next year, which would be absolutely delightful. True friendship surely transcends space and time. But come on. It’s still good to meet as often as one can : )

After bidding goodbye to Russia, I took a train to Canada Water station in the Surrey Quays areas, and was then picked up by GNK+1 and HM. We headed back to his place, where his Other Half and SSG had already gathered. They’ve got a lovely apartment, set in an area of London which looks totally unlike the rest of the city. The developments there are very new, looking more like an American suburb than the ancient city that is London.

GNK+1 and his Other Half are proud owners of two guinea pigs, Bubble and Squeak, which I had great fun playing with. I remembered fondly my own two guinea pigs – may they rest in peace – from my days in the US, Millie and Caramel. Bubble and Squeak is actually the name of a British dish, but I had to not think of these two lovely sister animals as food. One was brown, and the other a lovely shade of grey, with a white crest tuff on top of her head.

We hung around till past midnight, talking cock, and even doing boh liao things like throwing a little toy rugby ball around the living room. Now I know who among my friends can catch, and who has absolute butter fingers. Heh. It was a truly great day, and already, I know I shall return home to look back fondly upon moment such as these.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Saturday, 22 Dec - Onwards to Oxford

I’ve already done so much these past few days, and yet there was more today to do! One place which I missed out on visiting when I was last in the UK was Oxford, city of dreaming spires. The town and the famous university that’s located there occupies such an important position in British history, and can be reached in less than two hours from London. And thanks to my dear friends here – HM, SSG, GNK+1 and his Other Half – I was able finally to visit Oxford today, being ferried on board SSG’s Hansum, her Audi A4, and guided by Jane, her calm and redoubtable GPS system.

We reached there in the late morning, shivering under a gloomy cloudy day, after having emerged from one of the most modern vehicle rest stop areas located just outside the city, where we had a heavy BK breakfast. Burgers and fries in the morning? I guess there’s always a first for everything. Also, strangely enough, I am a true rest area connoisseur, and I must say that after having come across so many dark and seedy facilities both in the UK and other countries, this one was truly, remarkably impressive.

We had time barely to walk for about a half hour around town, before leaving for the Oxford Retreat pub for lunch. Bangers and mash for me, washed down by a pint of Diet Coke, as usual, and then a cup of brewed coffee. At this point, I could already feel the stomach complaining, but I decided to overrule it.

OK lah. The afternoon was spent on some real culture and history. We toured the famous Christ Church College, walked past the striking Radcliffe Camera, the Sheldonian Theatre, and the evocative Bridge of Sighs. We ended the day by touring the famous Ashmolean Museum, home to treasures ranging from classical antiquities to 19th century European visual arts.

This was certainly one of the most welcoming institutions I’ve been to. Free admission, a well stocked gift shop, and a very liberal camera policy. I was able to capture some images of a few lovely French impressionist masterpieces, but alas, without the right software, I’m not able to down load them onto this laptop for now.

We returned to London amidst a slight drizzle and headed back to the Primrose Hill area again for dinner. This time round, welcoming us was Lemonia, a noisy Greek-themed restaurant, where I came close to eating until I burst, which is something best not done in polite company. I had the tavva dish, comprising lamb cubes accompanied by onion, gravy and rice. But the rest had ordered a mezze set, which came with cold starters, warm starters, and then servings of mains – available for everyone around the table to share.

I think there’s a physical limit to how much more I could take in, and while I sat there there, fused to the seat, impressed by the bottomless pit that is GNK+1’s Other Half (and I meant that in a most affectionate and endearing way), I decided to toss in the towel, and dream instead of lingering on the sofa at HM and SSG’s later on, with a glass of chilled wine in hand. I can’t get these experiences in Singapore. I really need to think about when I can next return to London.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Friday, 21 Dec - The Winter Solstice

My life in London had been characterized by lots of eating, drinking, feasting, swigging, munching, gobbling, gulping, and all round burping. And I was determined this time round to reprise my achievements of the year past. The mission still remains the same: to eat my way through this city, no matter how long it takes.

I had stayed up a bit too late last evening, finishing the bottle of Fettercairn. [Mmmmm….the wonders of whiskey...] Woke up in a great haste and rushed out to meet “Manchester”, a dear friend from UCL. We got together at Cubana near Waterloo station, where we had last met. The pollo crillo was totally yummy – grilled chicken, black bean rice and fried plantain, washed down with two glasses of diet coke and two cups of coffee. How did I manage to fit it all in?

But what was more fulfilling was the chance to meet up with one of my bestest friends from class. We managed to update each other on gossip, intrigue and intelligence. Images of the different people in our group started popping into my mind. It hardly feels as though I had been away from London for three months, or that I was only in town temporarily.

That’s been how it’s been. I don’t feel like a tourist in a new place. I feel as if I’ve returned home, to a place I feel entirely at east in, with places familiar and people dear to me. But right now, I have no idea when I shall next see her, and much as I continue to pester her to make a trip to Singapore, I know that the more likely scenario for our next meeting – whenever that might be – will see me coming back to London again.

But a separation of time and distance doesn’t mean that we cease being friends, and I know we will remain friends if we try hard enough. Later in the afternoon, after we had said goodbye, Manchester actually left me a very sweet text message, which certainly made this trip back to London all the more worthwhile.

From Waterloo, I took a Tube ride to Rotherhithe, where I linked up with HM and GNK+1. We then made a short drive to Greenwich, where I checked out what was purportedly a Christmas market, but I was distinctly unimpressed by the offerings I found. We moved instead to George of Greenwich, a simply most lovely coffee hangout, where the three of us lingered on a settee, with coffee and cake in front of us.

Outside, the sun on this winter solstice day was steadily setting, with the temperatures hovering only a few degrees above freezing, and a steady fog moving in. The throngs of passers by shuffling past, the lights of the cars whizzing by, while inside, we had a good time chatting and talking cock. This was what I had come to London for – an experience not to be had in Singapore. It was absolutely lovely.

We left and then drove half way across the city to pick up GNK+1’s other half, and then headed to the posh Primerose Hill area, home to the city celebrities and other assorted hanger ons. We found ourselves soon at the Engineer pub, where I feasted on a very well prepared roast duck breast with dauphinoise potatoes, sour cherry and port jus. Man, this wasn’t just some routine pub grub. These gastropubs now serve top-notched cuisine, which can better a lot of what mainstream restaurants dish out. The Lansdowne was another of their Primrose Hill favourites, but alas, I'll have to visit it some other time.

Now it’s time to look forward to the next few days. More food to eat, more friends to meet, more memories of London to revive. But for tonight, it's time for some good wine.

Thursday, 20 Dec - London Redux

Arrrrgh! I brought my trusted Canon digital SLR over to London, but for reasons too tedious to go into, I can’t download them onto this laptop I’m using. So there will be no images. Right now, words and words alone will be what I can use to describe this episode of London Redux.

Day Two has been a most enriching day, taking me to places old and places new. The sun was strong, but the day was cold. Really really cold. It started off with me heading up the London Eye with HM, getting a panoramic view of the city in bright but smoggy skies, after which I just had to return to Queenway – to my favourite dim sum restaurant at Royal China. There, I attacked the assorted har gaos, siew mais, cheong funs and dan tarts with great gusto, accompanied by cups upon cups of Chinese tea.

After a post-lunch latte nearby, we set forth across the city to the Barbican, checking out the Seduced exhibition, which proved more cerebral than what I had expected. The private lives of the ancient civilizations, and what members used to get up to. Heh. But nehmind lah.

Later on, I headed up to the Hackney area for the first time – to the Hackney Empire for a pantomime performance. It was a performance of Dick Whittington, complete with his famous cat. I had often heard of traditional Christmastime pantomimes, but never had the good fortune of watching one.

"Hiya Hackney!", the girl playing Dick would go, beaming to the audience.

"Hiya Dick!", we'd all respond, loudly and exuberantly.

What great fun. All the elements were there: the bawdy jokes, the risqué humour, the pantomime horse, the cross dressing, and the breaking of the fourth wall, with stage performers addressing audience members directly. The jokes were simply awful and corny, but much of the music was good, but alas, we had to leave before the show was over.

For we had a late dinner appointment to keep, which was transformed into a nice and simple meal of Vietnamese noodles at the Royal Margin, which I had visited before. I’m writing this now back at SSG’s place, a bottle of Fettercairn whiskey open before me, thinking that even though I have a few more days left in this city, I should really plan my next trip to London soon.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Wednesday, 19 Dec - The Return of Rampant

Yes, I know I said in my previous posting that this blog would be shut down, following my return to Singapore after the wonderful year away in London. But guess what? I’m now back in the city! Rampant has returned to London, not for a year, alas, but for a good week of holidays leading up to Christmas. And what better reason could there be for this temporary return to blogging?

The past couple of months had been characterized by lots of work, amidst lots of fond memories of the previous twelve months away from Singapore. Something which I missed in particular was the chance to hang out with my London gang, but we had a semblance of that earlier in December, when SSG, GNK, DH and I headed up to Malacca to link up with Swinger on our great Malacca Makan Mission, where the objective was to Eat Until Burst, and then to Eat Some More.

Coming into London on an overnight flight, I thought warmly of times gone by, and felt a sense of a homecoming as I walked through Heathrow. It was a nondescript flight, with the inevitable screaming baby, and I left the aircraft feeling exhausted but excited. The airport’s as crappy as ever, but it was a place I’ve become familiar with.

I’ve also become well acquainted with the good old London Tube, and it was up to its usual good old self, breaking down when I was at Acton Town on the Piccadilly Line, less than a half hour into the 75 minute ride into town. We all shuffled out, whereupon I made by way across the platform for the District Line to Tower Hill.

This time round, I’ll be spending my evenings not at Goodenough College, but with SSG and HM at their lovely apartment south of the Thames, a short hop and a stroll away from the iconic Tower Bridge. It feels great to be back, as it was here where I spent my second last evening in London before leaving for Singapore in September, and into which I had helped the SSG move.

I knocked on their door only just after the late winter sun had risen, with both ladies still snoring away in bed. OK, I made that last bit up, but I did feel kinda bad arriving so early. But the entire day lay ahead. Sleep would have to come later.

After a nice breakfast of scones and cake, the three of us chatted merrily for a while before a very reluctant SSG left for work. HM and I then jaunted off to the nearby Starbucks for a cup of steaming chai latte. It’s been a very cold winter in London so far, with daytime temperatures at only about 5 degrees. But that’s not gonna stop me from venturing around. We sauntered off to the nearby Hays Galleria, past a German-style Christmas market, before repairing home for a nice homemade pasta and chicken lunch.

Later in the afternoon, Bus 188 then took me and HM back to our old haunt at the Russell Square area, where I proceed to visit the local Waterstones, pop into my old university gift shop for some hot UCL gear, and then a nostalgic journey back to the Brunswick, with the inviting Waitrose and other outlets. Dinner was at the Hare and Tortoise…BackPain’s Janet wasn’t there anymore, but I had gone there for the Penang Prawn Mee lah.

Spent the evening watching Spamalot at the Palace Theatre along Shaftesbury Avenue. What rollicking good fun. I think I’ve never come across any musical with a less coherent plot than this one. All the Monty Pythonesque elements of the surreal were there, including the giant foot – something lost on anyone who’s not familiar with this classic act. I can’t say I came away with any memorable tune stuck in my head, but what I do know is that I had a thoroughly enjoyable time. It was campy and corny, but I never claimed to be atas in taste.

This return visit to London has been absolutely lovely. I feel a curious mix of sentiments. There’s the comfortable contentment of returning to somewhere I’m familiar with. At the same time, there’s a decided sense of excitement at being, once again, with close friends in a most remarkable city, where I spent some of my happiest days. I’ve lined up a packed schedule of stuff to do, places to visit, people to meet, and things to eat. Yes, Rampant is back in London : )